Asian security issues were prominent at this year’s annual security conference of the U.S. Army War College that I attended. U.S. experts considered sustaining U.S. engagement in East Asia especially important due to the rising power of China, North Korea’s threatening behavior, and the potential for further nuclear weapons proliferation in the region.
But the terms “Asian Pivot” and “back to Asia” were no longer in fashion, with the speakers emphasizing that the United States had never left Asia. Instead, they stressed the elements of continuity in the current administration’s strategy with those of its predecessor. The fact is that even before the recent announcement of the Pentagon’s new Asian orientation, the United States was quietly strengthening its forces in the region. For example, despite the ongoing commitments in the Middle East and Afghanistan, half of the U.S. Air Force’s top-of-the-line F-22 fighters are deployed in the Asia-Pacific region.
So what is the preferred description now, and what do we know about the likely direction of U.S. policy? The term now being used is “re-balancing,” which encompasses two separate processes – the U.S. military is rebalancing its global assets from other regions to Asia, as well as rebalancing within the Asia-Pacific region, reducing the concentration of forces from northeast Asia to a more widely distributed focus throughout the entire region.
As was evident from the diverse political backgrounds of the various speakers, a bipartisan consensus now exists among U.S. leaders regarding the key elements of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. These included recognition of the region’s growing importance in the world, the need to maintain a U.S. military presence in Asia, and the importance of avoiding a military clash with China through a combination of deterrence and defense measures.
Speakers praised the Obama administration for rectifying some early flaws in its policy toward China, and believed that the initial effort to avoid offending China only encouraged Beijing to elevate its demands. Now the administration sells arms to Taiwan and takes other steps Beijing dislikes because it expects that the Chinese will still cooperate with the United States whenever it’s in their interests. The Obama administration also takes care to tell Beijing in advance what we will do. Not only does this avoid embarrassing public surprises in the relationship, but our publicly declaring our plans in advance makes it difficult for us not to proceed that way regardless of Beijing’s reaction.
The lack of Chinese political and security transparency does, however, complicate issues by deepening uncertainties regarding China’s goals and means. Above all, it remains unclear how committed Chinese leaders are to maintaining freedom of access to the global commons. They appear to have a 17th century view of national sovereignty in a 21st century world, where leaders accept they must sacrifice some of their national freedom of action for the greater common good of international peace and prosperity.
The Obama administration has taken pains to stress that its new Asian strategy results from a variety of developments, especially the winding down of U.S. combat operations in the Middle East and the growing importance of Asia for the world economy and, consequently, U.S. economic wellbeing, and isn’t driven by the growth of China’s economic potential and military power. The speakers dismissed such observations as polite pretense since everyone knows the U.S. rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region is about China.