America's Pivot to Asia: A Report Card  (Page 2 of 6)

1. Strengthening Alliances

Donilon specifically mentioned five countries – Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand – in his list of U.S. allies. This is the area in which the least work needed to be done, with the U.S.’s main Asia-Pacific alliances already in fairly good shape. “These alliances are all based on existing treaties,” observes Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia. "So it’s more about tone than [changing] the actual structure of the alliance."

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The rise of China has made these allies – with the exception of Thailand, whose stance is more ambiguous – instinctively seek greater shelter beneath the U.S. security umbrella. Hence the marked increase in defence co-operation with Australia and the Philippines especially. The pivot has relatively little relevance for South Korea, since its co-operation with the U.S. is in any case guaranteed by the extreme security threat posed by the North.

The Japan relationship has been strengthened the most. Not that it had become weak: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be trying to portray himself as the saviour of the U.S.-Japan relationship, but with the exception of Yukio Hatoyama’s brief and shaky permiership relations have been steady. Nonetheless, April saw progress in two important areas: a new Consolidation Plan for U.S. forces in Okinawa; and Japan’s entry into Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. There has also been the decision to deploy an early-warning X-band radar to Japan to boost its missile defence system; Tokyo’s procurement of the F-35, and continuing expressions of confidence in the aircraft; and resolution of the controversial MV-22 Osprey issue. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also voiced opposition to any action that would undermine Japan’s administrative control of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, much to China’s annoyance. U.S. Secertary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently made a similiar statement.

The U.S. has been criticised – not least by Beijing – for giving its partners the false expectation that it might back them in their territorial disputes with China. “This signal by the U.S. [of its desire to strengthen alliances] may embolden some U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines to pursue more hard-line positions for their territorial disputes with China,” argues Zhang Baohui, an associate professor at Lingnan University. “They may think that the U.S. will lend them unconditional support. This perception may lead to unintended consequences.”

But Scott Harold, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, says “there is no evidence of any boldness on the part of Japan or the Philippines being based on the misperception of the U.S. backing them in any circumstances.” Manila has decided to challenge China, but it is doing so peacefully, nor rashly, at an UNCLOS tribunal. And while Abe and his government have made some regrettably hawkish moves in recent days, there are no grounds for attributing them to U.S. policy.

Policy Area Progress Rating: 8/10

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