On May 28, President Barack Obama delivered a commencement speech at the graduation ceremony of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. This has traditionally been the preferred venue for U.S. national leaders seeking to acknowledge their foreign and security policy accomplishments and articulate their visions for the role of the United States in future international affairs. This year was no exception.
However, while Obama highlighted his work toward the conclusion of the U.S. military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and reminded Americans that the United States is still the indispensable leader in international affairs, his vision for future U.S. foreign and security policy fell short of expectations. Perhaps the most noticeable omission was that of the President’s keystone foreign policy undertaking: the U.S. strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific. Was this just sloppy speech writing, or was it a subtle indication that all is not well with the strategic rebalance?
We argue the latter. Although many may find this assertion alarming, there are valid reasons to argue that the strategic rebalance has been stumbling since its launch, has produced questionable results along the way, and is in serious need of modification. Indeed, signs of change are evident in the President’s second term. The turn of events clearly started with the ascension of Secretary of State John Kerry. Although Kerry supports the rebalance, his focus has been in Europe and the Middle East. With the change of leadership in Washington in 2016, there is a good chance that the strategic rebalance will undergo some rebalance of its own.
Doomed from the Start?
There have always been several reasons to question the strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific. First, it began with the Obama administration’s sound bite-heavy campaign toward the Asia-Pacific region shortly after the president took office in 2009. “The United States is back to Asia” was the rallying cry. But really the United States had never left the region. It is true that during the previous administration the U.S. got itself into two heavy military engagements, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific was not in any way ignored or abandoned. The claim that the United States at one time left Asia and did not come back until 2009 is not supported by the historical facts.
Second, by all measures, the strategic rebalance is (and should be) about China. However, the president and his administration have steadfastly denied this. China is not the only state to ridicule the U.S. denial. The entire region intuitively recognizes that the rebalance is about China. To quote Shakespeare, the administration “doth protest too much.”
One of the largest barriers to effective U.S. diplomatic engagement with China is the deep-seated mistrust that exists between the two countries. By repeatedly denying that the focus of the strategic shift was China, despite the country’s clearly outsized influence in the region, members of the Obama administration have only added to the trust deficit. Chinese leaders had just two options for interpreting these statements. They could have either naively assumed that the United States would execute a costly foreign policy initiative in the region without choosing to put special focus on the region’s most influential member, or they could have more logically assumed that the United States was making plans to impede China that it desired to hide. By refusing to acknowledge that China’s rising prominence was what made the region more deserving of U.S. attention, the administration appeared hostile and deceitful despite its peaceful promulgations. This rhetorical mistake closed many doors to peaceful negotiation and has contributed to the region’s growing polarization.
Third, the strategic rebalance was launched at a time when the United States was suffering from a severe economic crisis and economic resources for such an undertaking were under severe constraint. The lingering fallout from the 2008 financial crises ensured that the country had neither the money to completely finance the shift, nor the time for its leaders to focus on international rather than domestic issues. While leaders at the State Department and in the military tried to make progress in the Asia-Pacific, crises at home proved to be too tumultuous to allow for a successful launch of such a far-reaching and expensive foreign policy.
The Right Thing Not Done Right?
To assert that the strategic shift’s execution was problematic is not to say that the country’s focus on the Asia-Pacific region itself is misguided. As the global focus of economic and political power moves ever closer to Asian states, a corresponding refocus of United States foreign policy efforts is certainly necessary. The future stability and development of the Asia-Pacific region relies upon the leadership and engagement of the United States military, economy, and diplomatic assets.
The rebalance was supposed to incorporate the entirety of the country’s foreign policy apparatus. In practice, however, it was predominantly focused on expanding U.S. regional military capabilities.
Moreover, the tools of foreign policy should have been focused primarily on China, the state in the region that wields the most political and economic influence and that has the greatest potential to shape the future of the international system. Yet shortly into the execution of the strategic rebalance, that focus was instead devolved to the less consequential regional actors.
Coming from vastly different ideological backgrounds and with disagreements on some of each other’s core interests, representatives from China and the United States found diplomatic dialogue difficult at the beginning of the strategic rebalance. Instead of trying to bridge that gap, however, the administration chose to abandon the route of direct engagement and instead elected to tap its network of regional allies to influence China’s actions. By so doing, the U.S. hoped to indirectly influence the actions of China through the creation of a balance of power. This strategy, which predictably elevated the role of military assets over those of economic and diplomatic engagement, took control of events in the region out of Washington’s hands and put it in the hands of the regional allies and partners. This move unwisely allows, as Ted Galen Carpenter puts it, “the allied tail to wag the American dog.” It is a major misstep in the superpower’s foreign policy conduct.
Another shortfall in the strategic rebalance is the administration’s work on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have greatly expanded beneficial trade relations between the United States and Asia. The “incidental” exclusion of China and the failed inclusion of Japan have made this undertaking very difficult. These are the second and third largest economies in the world. If they are not in this partnership, the TPP is impossible.
Finally, the strategic rebalance is inadvertently bringing the United States and China to a premature showdown. The U.S. is now directly challenging China on the East and South China Seas. For example, the U.S. does not accept China’s imposition of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea; the United States also demands that China clarify its position on the so-called nine-dash line in the South China Sea. With the recent China-Vietnam confrontation in the South China Sea, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel put China on notice that “the United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged.”
A Second Chance?
Given the importance of the rise of China, the U.S. has no choice but to pay close and vigilant attention to this region. This will need to be maintained despite shifting political pressures at home and abroad to divert attention elsewhere. While other regions do require Washington’s attention, the long-term development of events in the Asia-Pacific will be what defines the world of the next century.
The strategic rebalance needs a new lease of life in order to give the United States a productive role in the “Pacific Century.” How can the U.S. do better the second time? First and foremost, it needs to follow American culture and be frank and straightforward about the focus of the rebalance: it is about China. It is the nature of international politics that great power relations need to take priorities. The focus should be on China and its rising economic and military power. Difficulty is no excuse for not trying to communicate directly with counterparts in Beijing.
Second, the U.S. must get China to share a vision for the future of international relations. China has put forward a “new model on great power relations” that hopes to avoid the normally hostile development of rising powers. The future will still hold difficulties for the U.S.-China relationship, but this new model advocates cooperation on mutual issues over zero-sum competition between the two countries. When great powers have a vision and agree to work together, the whole world reaps the economic and security benefits. If, however, the U.S. continues to follow the current path of adversity with China, the nations in the Asia-Pacific region and the world will have to pick sides.
At this point, China is still open to U.S. persuasion. All avenues of diplomatic cooperation have not yet closed. The time to act to meaningfully reform U.S. policy to the Asia-Pacific is now. For the good of the country and for the world, the maladies of the strategic rebalance need to be healed.
The clock is ticking on this issue and foreign policymakers need to place the success of the strategic rebalance at the top of their list of priorities. At the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Shanghai, China in May, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the creation of an Asian security framework. This Chinese initiative is perceived to be a challenge to the U.S. strategic rebalance. While China has many hurdles to overcome in turning the call into action, the U.S. cannot dismiss the challenge and let the strategic rebalance continue to flounder.
David Lai, Ph.D. is a Research Professor of Asian Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. Cameron Stevens is a student at the Schreyer Honors College of Pennsylvania State University, and an intern at the Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.