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America's Pivot to Asia: A Report Card
Image Credit: All Photos - Flickr (The White House)

America's Pivot to Asia: A Report Card

 
 

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?

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Primary Objectives

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?

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."

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

2. Deepening Partnerships With Emerging powers

The U.S. has done important work reaching out to Burma and Vietnam, but in the Asia-Pacific “emerging powers” primarily means India and Indonesia.

Both countries are traditionally non-aligned, and were never about to rush into the American embrace. “The starting point for most Asian countries, including India and Indonesia, is that they would prefer to be without security partners,” observes Huxley.

Yet progress is being made with both countries. With India, talks continue on moving forward with the breakthrough civil nuclear deal of 2005; last year former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promised India access to the best American weapon systems, with New Delhi having already procured $8 billion worth of U.S. equipment; and deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is heading up a new India defense trade initiative. As for Indonesia, President Obama’s November 2010 speech in Jakarta set the tone for improved relations as embodied in the new US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership. Indonesia is generally supportive of the U.S. pivot, insofar as it helps maintain the regional balance.

Yet India not Indonesia still incline towards strategic aloofness when it comes to U.S. co-operation. They are partners, but definitely not allies. Washington has half-convinced them, but some smart diplomacy will be needed to make further gains. “The danger for the U.S. is in trying too hard,” suggests Huxley, who suspects that excessive attention could have an adverse effect on instinctively non-aligned countries.

Policy Area Progress Rating: 6/10

3. Building a Stable and Constructive Relationship With China

This is the square peg that won’t quite fit into round holes of Washington’s Asia policy: the Obama administration wants the pivot to encompass better relations with China, and yet the pivot is the one policy that annoys China more than any other. In its newly released Defence White Paper, Beijing again criticised the U.S. rebalancing, which it said was making the situation in the region “tenser.”

Nonetheless, China has now had time to evaluate the U.S. policy, and to see that its military elements are not all that far-reaching. RAND’s Harold reckons that China is gradually coming to accept that the pivot is not all about containing China’s rise. “Yes, the U.S. trying to shape the environment, but that’s not containment,” he says. “Having policies that are different from China’s is not containment.” The U.S. has generally avoided angering China by intervening in its territorial disputes, and high-level visits like that of General Dempsey and John Kerry will increase trust. Inviting China to the RIMPAC exercises in 2014, as well an Australian push for trilateral exercises involving China and the U.S., will also be beneficial.

Points of friction will inevitably remain, such as cyber issues and currency values. But the elephant in the pivot-room is that China and the U.S. are still competitors in too many areas. The American vision of an Asia-Pacific is one that China simply does not share. China is not interested in championing the region’s democratic institutions, for example. It feels excluded from U.S. programs, and instinctively leans towards competing with U.S.-led initiatives rather than joining them. “My impression is that PACOM in particular is making a great effort to develop cordial relations with the PLA,” argues Huxley, “but then it comes back again to that one contradiction: PACOM’s force structure is being enhanced, U.S. forces are rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific – and the question has to be balancing against what?”

So while the U.S. can certainly forge a better working relationship with China, the very nature of the pivot may preclude the constructive relationship which Washington seeks.

Policy Area Progress Rating: 5/10

4. Empowering Regional Institutions

The Obama administration takes the view that strong institutions will underpin the desired stable regional order, and ASEAN and the East Asia Summit (EAS) are the two regional bodies that it is investing in.

In this area, the U.S. has done most things right. It has sent an ambassador to ASEAN, and has promised high-level representation at regional summits, not least regular presidential attendance of the EAS. “It’s empowerment through showing up,” says Harold. Huxley adds that perceptions of U.S. neglect of Asian institutions pre-Obama have been overstated: the Secretary of Defense has attended the Shangri-La Dialogue every year since 2003, and support for ASEAN and the EAS has been long-standing.

China has also paid close attention to these regional bodies, but its divide-and-rule tactics have created conflict within ASEAN, not empowered it. This casts U.S. participation is a favourable light. But at the same time, America's ability to empower the Asia-Pacific weak institutional structure will always be very limited. “It’s widely recognized that ASEAN is going to succeed or fail as a result of its own efforts,” suggests Huxley. “There’s little that outsiders can do, except to take it seriously.”

Policy Area Progress Rating: 9/10

5. Building Regional Economic Architecture

U.S. investment in Asia has already been on the increase, according to Joseph Yun’s testimony, growing from $22.5bn in 2009 to $41.4bn in 2011. Now, the U.S. is betting heavily on the TPP – which does not involve China – to supercharge its regional economic presence.

Japan’s recent decision to negotiate entry into the TPP could be the making of the project. Yet the TPP exposes another serious pivot contradiction, namely that it runs counter to Donilon’s #3 objective: improving relations with China. “The TPP is seen by China and as anti-China initiative,” says Huxley. There certainly seems little prospect of China joining, even though other countries which have signed up – notably Vietnam – have the kind of illiberal economies which, like China’s, might be thought to preclude TPP membership.

The problem for the U.S. is that, even with Japan’s participation, China already heavily dominates Asia-Pacific trade. “The net economic effect of the TPP is negligible,” argues Zhang. “The pivot has achieved very little in reality – it is losing momentum … [and] a key reason is that every one [of the relevant Asian countries] has China as its largest trading partner.” The TPP will survive, Zhang expects, but “alternatives such as the RCEP [Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which the U.S. is not currently party to] will offer incentives for other countries, as China will be included.”

However, Harold is more upbeat about the TPP. “The big benefit of the TPP is that it is essentially a U.S.-Japan free trade agreement,” he says. The RCEP will co-exist alongside the TPP, he predicts, but “[the proposed] China-Japan-Korea FTA is the real rival to the TPP,” since this would create a China-centric economic bloc that excludes the U.S. while embracing two of its key partners in the region.

Japanese support for the TPP has breathed new life into the U.S.’s economic pivot. But Washington still needs to attract new TPP partners in an environment containing some tempting China-sponsored alternatives. Indonesia, for example, is one potentially key partner that appears to view membership of the TPP and the RCEP as an either/or. In the end, whatever the TPP’s virtues, it is hard to escape the conclusion that any economic engagement that skirts around the region’s – and soon the world’s – main economic power is somehow missing the point.

Policy Area Progress Rating: 6/10

Overall Score: 34/50. The pivot is a smart policy which is more nuanced than most people realize, and the U.S. government is achieving some of its key objectives. But its China blind spot could be its undoing.

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