With the U.S. presidential election fast approaching, it’s worth asking how successful one of the biggest Obama administration foreign policy drives has been. It’s a mixed bag.
The end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq and Libya, and declining U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan and Europe, have given the United States an opportunity to pay greater attention to the Asia-Pacific. This so-called “pivot” or “rebalancing” has been much discussed. But setting aside the hype, what has it actually meant for U.S. policy in the region, especially outside the security realm? The past few months have offered some good indicators – and a chance to offer an early judgment of the successes or otherwise.
To give the U.S. strategy true substance, officials have sought to impart new energy into the five existing formal U.S. bilateral defense alliances in Asia, namely those with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. These efforts have generally yielded positive results, with new security initiatives announced with all these countries. Progress has been greatest in the case of Australia and the Philippines, and perhaps least evident in the case of Thailand. Ties between Washington and Seoul, meanwhile, are arguably the best they’ve been in decades thanks to a new free trade agreement and U.S.-South Korean solidarity regarding North Korea, although the upcoming parliamentary elections could return a less friendly government to power.
The relationship with Japan has rebounded from earlier tensions over U.S. bases and Tokyo’s striving to pursue a more balanced policy between Washington and Beijing. These two large democratic countries have a relationship built on deep bilateral economic and security ties as well as shared democratic values. And, however welcome, the new access agreements to the modest military facilities in the Philippines, Singapore, and Australia can’t compare in terms of military value with the large and permanent U.S. bases in Japan.
At the same time, though, a “broad-based” U.S. defense presence in the Asia-Pacific region means diversifying both the location and type of U.S. military deployments in the region. U.S. officials have declared their goal of making the U.S. force posture in Asia more “geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable.” This has led U.S. officials to seek out new forms of access, such as short-term rotations and exercises with Association of Southeast Asian Nation states, as well as with India.
Partly due to foreign military basing constraints in Japan and South Korea, the administration wants to expand defense cooperation with other Asian partners beyond those having a formal defense alliance with the United States. The focus of this effort has been in Southeast Asia, which complements the large-fixed U.S. bases in northeast Asia and also provides for superior access to the vital shipping lanes that pass through Southeast Asia. Current efforts focus on Singapore (preparations proceed for basing U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ships at Changi Pier), Indonesia (new arms sales and joint training and education opportunities), and Vietnam (expanding engagement to encompass port visits, joint exercises, and defense dialogues). U.S. forces here can also rapidly move either northward to reinforce the South Korean and Japanese deployments or to the west to support Indian Ocean contingencies.
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