Mutual understanding seldom comes easily to Sino-U.S. relations. And so General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was visiting China recently, deserves credit for explaining the United States “pivot” to Asia in terms that his audience, well used to policy slogans, might hope to understand. Dempsey described the American approach to Asia as one of ‘three mores’ – more interest, more engagement, and more quality assets – to his Chinese interlocutors, who appeared to react with an encouraging equanimity. China still doesn’t like the pivot, but it may be starting to understand it – and even learn to live with it.
Just days earlier, one of those quality assets – the first-in-class littoral combat ship (LCS) USS Freedom – had arrived in Singapore. With the number of U.S. Marines deployed to Northern Australia still only nominal, Freedom’s arrival — despite recent problems — was arguably the most important military milestone in the pivot so far.
Yet the Obama administration’s strategic shift to Asia has, contrary to popular perceptions, never been a primarily military undertaking. To be sure, it has a military dimension, but if anything it is subordinate to the increased political and economic engagement that the White House envisages. So, 18 months into its rebalancing act, how is the U.S. faring?
The pivot is not well understood, not least in Asia itself. China suspects that the only real purpose of the pivot is its own containment, though Washington denies this. In Southeast Asia, some countries think a greater U.S. commitment will boost stability; others see it as a risk to stability.
The U.S. itself has contributed to the confusion by repeatedly reframing the strategy, which was originally a “pivot” and then evolved into a “rebalancing”, a “shift”, and now also a “Pacific Dream.” It has also failed to counter media portrayals of the pivot as an essentially military endeavour, partly because the pivot’s military plank is the only one that has included well-articulated goals.
So what are the pivot’s main goals? In March, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon restated in detail what America is trying to achieve in Asia. The U.S. government desires a “stable security environment and a regional order rooted in economic openness, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for universal rights and freedoms”, Donilon said, and it is seeking to achieve that end through action in five specific areas:
- Strengthening alliances
- Deepening partnerships with emerging powers.
- Building a stable, productive and constructive relationship with China.
- Empowering regional institutions.
- Helping to build a regional economic architecture.
The same objectives were discussed at the end of April by Joseph Yun, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in testimony to a Senate committee which mainly covered the security dimension of the rebalancing policy. The U.S. “commitment to the Asia-Pacific region is [being] demonstrated in a number of ways,” Yun said, including “intensive engagement at every level.” But how much progress is the U.S. making in those five principal areas which Donilon identified?