Features | Diplomacy | Security | East Asia

Rebalancing the Maritime Pivot to Asia

Rumors of the pivot’s death are exaggerated. A flexible strategy could give the U.S. a sustained presence.

By Abhijit Singh for

When it appeared, prior to the recent deal with Russia, that the U.S. might be preparing for military strikes against Syria, a chorus of voices emerged to prophesize that this latest Middle Eastern entanglement would have dire implications for the U.S. maritime pivot to Asia. Speculation was rife that Washington may have indeed already begun the process of re-drawing its commitment to East Asia.

Yet, chronic skeptics eager to write the pivot’s obituary may be premature. The rebalancing may be at a crossroads, but there appears to be some innovative thinking at work to realign the fundamentals of the strategy to help  Washington achieve its broader objectives.

A New Rebalancing Strategy

The redrawing of U.S. pivot plans appears designed to help the U.S. maneuver into a favorable position in East Asia, without compromising on its efforts to meet any challenges that might arise in the Middle East. From an operational perspective, the new maritime initiatives look to be a part of a tactical counter-balancing strategy, wherein an increased maritime presence in the Mediterranean is accompanied by a temporary reduction of the pivot-related operational tempo in parts of the Eastern Pacific, where the U.S. Navy seems in a rather conciliatory mood vis-à-vis the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N).

Recent developments suggest a new maritime bonhomie is blossoming between the U.S. and China. In a rare if not unprecedented development on September 6, three PLA-N ships visited Hawaii for operational exercises with the U.S. Navy. The three Chinese naval ships – Qingdao, a Luhu-class destroyer; Linyi, a Jiangkai-class frigate; and Hongzehu, a Fuqing-class fleet oiler – carried out coordinated exercises with the American guided missile cruiser, USS Lake Erie, off the Hawaii coast, signaling a growing amenability for operational interaction between the two navies.

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To add to the joint-operational endeavors, Wu Shengli, Commander-in-Chief of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy, was invited to visit the U.S. Significantly, this was only three weeks after China's new Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan toured both the Pacific Command in Hawaii and the Northern Command in Colorado. In discussions with his American counterpart, Chuck Hagel, Chang is supposed to have discussed several endeavors that the United States and China will undertake to strengthen their maritime relationship.

These interactions are not one-off events. Rather, they are of a piece with an evolving pattern of close maritime engagement between China and the U.S. Just several weeks ago, a U.S. naval ship carried out anti-piracy drills with units of the PLA-N in the Gulf of Aden. Reportedly, the USS Mason, a guided missile cruiser, teamed up with PLA-N destroyer Harbin and Chinese auxiliary replenishment oiler Weishanhu to conduct a series of evolutions of an operational nature, including combined visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) operations, live-fire drills and cross-deck landings.

While the U.S. Navy portrays the recent engagements with the PLA-N as a move towards improving strategic “trust and transparency,” aimed at avoiding any miscalculation in the Pacific, the Chinese Navy – despite a general wariness about the U.S. rebalance – has been enthusiastic in embracing the theme. Not only is the PLA-N willing to cooperate in the maritime domain, it has also indicated its keenness to attend the U.S. Navy-sponsored RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) exercises in 2014 at Hawaii. Indeed, the geniality on display between the USN and PLA-N has surprised maritime analysts who, until a few months ago, were evaluating scenarios with the two navies in an “eyeball-to-eyeball” confrontation in the Pacific.

A Tailored Accommodation

What’s visible from a distance, however, may only be half the story. Look closer, and the outlines of a new strategic template seem to be emerging. The U.S. and China appear to have come to an unstated agreement that in dealing with each other in the maritime domain, they will follow a principle of tailored “strategic accommodation” – a qualified form of cooperation that holds good only in areas where the two nations do not have conflicting strategic interests, and where it would augur well for both to combine resources and assets. The increased operational convergence between the USN and PLA-N in the Eastern Pacific and Indian Ocean appears to follow that tacit understanding. It recalls an interesting point James Holmes made recently, wherein he noted how big maritime powers sometimes chose to cooperate in areas that aren’t mutually contested. The new emerging U.S.-China maritime cooperation seems to follow that doctrine of "no peace beyond the line" – the most notable example of which, as Holmes points out, was the famed European maritime rivalry during the renaissance period.

The more significant part of the new emerging dynamic in East Asia is the implicit acknowledgement of zones where the U.S. and China will not cooperate. These are the contested spaces of the western and Eastern Pacific – core areas of strategic interests and influence for both China and U.S. allies. In keeping with the new plan, the U.S. Navy is ramping up its presence in the Western Pacific. While Washington has been increasing its security, economic and diplomatic collaboration with Southeast Asia, the thrust of its efforts appears aimed at improving maritime relationships in the region. 

The most interesting aspect of the reworked strategy is the rebalance within Asia. The U.S. Navy’s first order of business is to draw resources and materiel into its primary area of interest, the Western Pacific. The idea, apparently, is to undertake a redistribution of assets within the Asia-Pacific, both by stationing more American ships and troops, and by mobilizing greater regional support in terms of resource commitments and basing arrangements.

The plan to rope Southeast Asian nations into sustaining U.S.-led maritime security endeavors in the region is led by substantial offers of greater financial support. In a visit to Kuala Lumpur recently, Chuck Hagel, the U.S. defense secretary proposed a potential 50 percent increase in Pentagon funding to support foreign militaries and training in Southeast Asia. The offer of greater military expertise and weapons sales to ASEAN countries is a material incentive for regional countries to share a greater burden in regional maritime security efforts.

New Basing Facilities

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More important for the success of the pivot are basing arrangements for U.S. troops and naval assets. After reaffirming its commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines, Washington has been deep in discussion with Manila for long-term military bases in the country, apparently pushing for a 20-year basing agreement. The Philippines already has plans to relocate major air force and navy camps to Subic Bay – a former U.S. naval base – to gain faster access to the contested waters of the South China Sea. While Manila is still said to be considering the legal implications of granting the U.S. access to Subic Bay, it is already being spoken of as a done deal.

What brightens the prospects of the American proposal is the nature of access being sought. Wise from the difficult experience of running long-term bases in South Korea and Japan, the U.S. is looking for access only on a “semi-permanent” rotational basis (rather than a full-fledged military base) – an arrangement imminently more acceptable to the Philippines.

Meanwhile, Japan has been contributing wholeheartedly towards reviving the pivot’s sagging fortunes. In a visit to Manila last month, Prime Minster Shinzo Abe offered ten Coast Guard ships to Philippines – a move seemingly intended at countering Chinese aggressive posturing in the region. Japan has been active in coordinating its position on "territorial issues and ocean policies" with other regional countries too, including Vietnam and Thailand, where the Japanese Defense Minister is presently on a five-day tour, discussing cooperation on maritime security.

The long-term U.S. plan is to get ASEAN nations to collectively apply pressure on China to sign up to a code-of-conduct in the South China Sea, although Beijing has so far held out. If the pivot is to succeed, Washington realizes it will need a sustained U.S. military maritime presence in Southeast Asia. The new refurbished rebalancing strategy is aimed at doing just that, and making sure American security assurances against growing Chinese power are not diluted. But the U.S. will need to be careful not to openly bait China, whose cooperation may prove crucial in resolving future crises that may emerge in the Middle East or elsewhere.

The pivot was always in danger of being buffeted by the vagaries of an unstable international order. So it is perhaps just as well that it is being finessed to achieve pragmatic and practical ends. Flexibility being the hallmark of supple diplomacy, the new pivot may ultimately turn out to be more of a political and diplomatic balancing act than a strictly military maneuver.

Abhijit Singh is a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and looks at Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean. He is co-author of the book Indian Ocean Challenges – A Quest for Cooperative Solutions. He can be reached at [email protected]