Features | Politics | East Asia

Grading the U.S. Rebalance

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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But there has been more to the Obama administration’s efforts than reworking its military options – the U.S. has also embraced multilateral institutions as essential supplements to longstanding U.S. bilateral alignments in the region. The Obama administration has focused its partnership outreach on ASEAN, both collectively and with key ASEAN members such as the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, and most recently Burma. They have sought to integrate these two tracks by, for example, encouraging Indonesia to assume a greater role in the G-20, which is emerging as the Obama administration’s multilateral institution of choice for managing the global economy, replacing the G-8, which now focuses on security issues.

The administration came into office believing that the multinational economic architecture was strong – with APEC, ASEAN Plus 3, the Trans Pacific Partnership, and the ASEAN Free Trade Area and others already in play – so it has focused on making progress in developing multilateral political-security institutions. The White House has, for example, embraced the East Asian Summit (EAS) to serve as a high-level security conclave where leaders could adopt agreements on regional nonproliferation, disaster relief, and maritime security issues.

Of course, no discussion of U.S. policy in the region would be complete without mention of China, and it’s clear that ASEAN countries want to avoid being in a position where they have to choose between China and United States. In pursuing the rebalancing toward Asia, U.S. diplomats must strive to avoid giving ASEAN countries the impression that Washington sees them only as pawns in a U.S. grand strategy designed to contain China. It’s imperative for the United States to develop extensive cultural, social, political and economic ties with the ASEAN states along with closer security relations when they are comfortable with them.

Ultimately, the Obama administration anticipates that China’s continued rise is likely, but it’s trying to channel this ascent in mutually beneficial directions by inducing Beijing to accept U.S.-backed regional security and economic goals and procedures. U.S. officials describe their objective as to “reinforce the system of rules, responsibilities, and norms that underlie regional peace, stability, and prosperity.” Administration representatives have accordingly laid down a series of military and diplomatic markers affirming U.S. support for the peaceful resolution of disputes, open and free commerce, a just international order that emphasizes rights and responsibilities for all, and unrestricted access to the global commons of sea, air, space, and cyberspace; and resolving disputes without coercion or the use of force. Panetta reaffirmed many of these principles in his speeches during his Asian tour.

The administration’s economic vision for East Asia, meanwhile, contrasts (and in practice competes) with that of China, which is the main trading partner for almost all other Asian states. Beijing has promoted its “ASEAN Plus Three” (China, Japan, South Korea) framework. It offers an easily implemented multilateral trade partnership based on a lowest common denominator formula in which countries remove only some trade barriers, resulting in rapid if narrow gains. U.S. officials, aware that the Chinese framework would further marginalize the United States in the region, argue that the Trans Pacific Partnership would yield superior economic gains. The TPP requires a greater degree of commitment among its members regarding binding rules and standards, but offers the potential for much deeper gains through progress on mutual investment, property rights, competition policies, e-commerce rules, green growth, labor rights, and government procurement as well as trade barriers.

The administration also needs to decide whether to push to include Canada, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea in the TPP. Although the TPP is symbolic of renewed U.S. economic leadership in East Asia, its global impact will remain small unless some other economic powerhouses besides the United States join.

So what happens in cases when U.S. interests clash with China, economic or otherwise? Certainly, the Obama administration has modified how it addresses Chinese concerns regarding its decisions. During Barack Obama’s first two years in office, the administration strived to avoid offending Beijing by not, for example, meeting with the Dalai Lama or selling the Taiwanese all the arms they wanted. But the Chinese still protested U.S. policies, in some cases elevating their demands in the face of the softer U.S. policies, and confronted the United States over its naval presence in the South China Sea. Now the administration’s strategy is to do whatever is in the United States’ best interest regardless of what Chinese leaders think, and presume that the Chinese will still cooperate whenever it’s in their net interest. The Obama administration also takes care to tell the Chinese in advance what it plans to do. Not only does this avoid embarrassing public surprises in the relationship, but publicly declaring plans in advance makes it difficult for the United States to proceed in an alternative direction regardless of the Chinese reaction.

The wild card in U.S-China relations, though, has been domestic politics. Although eschewing “China threat” or “New Cold War” rhetoric, the Obama administration isn’t averse to making a public show of confronting China over its currency policies, regional bullying, ties with Tehran, or other controversial policies in order to diffuse potential Republican criticism that Obama has been soft on Beijing. The problem is that this anti-Chinese rhetoric has caused Beijing and other Asian locals to increase opposition to U.S. regional policies seen as directed at China.

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Domestic politics also are impeding U.S. efforts to improve relations with India. A bipartisan U.S approach to India had emerged, with most U.S. strategists favoring stronger security ties with New Delhi. The Indian-American lobby is very influential in Congress and has helped strengthen bilateral U.S-Indian relations. But the main barrier now is on the Indian side. Although many Indians want to cultivate ties with the United States to help balance China, Indians are still struggling with their domestic problems – including economic inequality, corruption, political infighting, and the transition to a new generation of leaders – which has made it difficult for India to assume the more elevated global role sought by Americans. There have been many high-level bilateral exchanges, but no breakthroughs. India-U.S. ties are also strained over U.S. pressure on India to reduce its economic ties with Iran and create more favorable conditions for U.S. investors, including in India’s controversial nuclear energy sector.

Still, there has been more to U.S. policy in recent months than Asia’s big two. For one, the Obama administration has made considerable progress in encouraging reforms in Burma, although these are now under threat due to renewed ethnic violence in that country. In addition, critics have berated the administration for its limited efforts to promote human rights and democracy in other countries despite potential for “Asian Spring.” Human rights issues are hobbling administration efforts to bolster the defense ties with Vietnam, Burma, and Indonesia. Thailand could soon present a similar problem if its democratic transition remains troubled.

And there’s one final piece in the Asia region jigsaw to consider. It’s noteworthy the Obama administration has yet to determine how to integrate Russia into its Asian reset. Russia doesn’t fit nicely into any of Clinton’s categories – it’s neither a U.S. ally, nor an emerging power, nor a major player in regional institutions, nor a major economic or security partner of the United States, and has serious democracy and human rights problems. But Russia could contribute in many ways to managing China’s growing power as well as addressing regional energy and nonproliferation problems.

More fundamentally than all these considerations, though, it’s unclear whether the U.S. Congress will provide adequate funding to support these Asian initiatives, and the focus on sustaining U.S. military power in the region threatens to leave the State Department and the other non-military U.S. government agencies vulnerable to cutbacks.

As a result, these budgetary preoccupations are having the unhelpful effect of focusing U.S. analysts’ attention on the process of the Asian pivot rather on its results. With U.S. policy in the region very much a work in progress, this is unwelcome indeed.