Evaluating the ‘Rebalance to Asia’: Interview With J. Stapleton Roy

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Evaluating the ‘Rebalance to Asia’: Interview With J. Stapleton Roy

A look back at the major developments in U.S. Asia policy under President Obama.

Evaluating the ‘Rebalance to Asia’: Interview With J. Stapleton Roy
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

With the U.S. presidential election looming, now is a timely moment to look back at the Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia” (originally known as the “pivot”). What successes has the policy had, and what challenges continue to face U.S. Asia policy? And how should the next U.S. president – whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – reframe Washington’s approach to this critical region?

To answer these questions, The Diplomat and Dunjiao (formerly Consensus Net) conducted a joint interview with Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy, Distinguished Scholar and Founding Director Emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Prior to joining the Wilson Center, Roy served for 45 years in the U.S. State Department, including as ambassador to Singapore, China, and Indonesia. A Chinese-language version of this interview will be available from Dunjiao.

What do you think has been the most important change in the U.S. approach to Asia since Obama took office in January 2009?

The Obama administration made a number of important changes to the U.S. approach to Asia soon after taking office. First, it began to attach more importance to Southeast Asia. This was reflected in the inclusion of Indonesia in Secretary of State Clinton’s first trip to Asia in February 2009.

Second, the new Obama administration decided the United States should participate in the annual East Asia Summits that had been instituted in December 2005. The prerequisite for joining the East Asia Summit was adherence to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Secretary Clinton announced that the United States intended to adhere to the Treaty during her visit to Jakarta in February 2009, and President Obama attended the East Asia Summit for the first time in 2011.

The third significant new Asian initiative of the Obama administration was the launching of the Pivot to Asia strategy in 2012, which was later called the Rebalancing Strategy. The rebalance was a sensible approach intended to demonstrate that the United States has the will and the resources to remain fully engaged in East Asia at a time when China is rising rapidly. U.S. budgetary pressures were beginning to crimp the U.S. ability to preserve its global dominance. Given the reality of China’s burgeoning economic and military power, East Asia was the one region of the world where U.S. credibility would be damaged if the United States were to begin scaling back its presence.

The next few years demonstrated, however, that the assumptions underlying the rebalance – that is, that we would reduce our security role in the Middle East and that threats in Europe would remain minor – did not pan out. The United States remains bogged down in the Middle East, and the NATO confrontation with Russia over Ukraine has made Europe less secure, is diverting scarce resources to shore up NATO preparedness, and has produced a dangerous game of high-stakes bluffing on Russia’s borders. U.S. failure adequately to fund the non-military components of the rebalance has created the impression that the rebalance is primarily a military response to China’s rise.

The fourth important change was the priority attached to negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which represented the vital trade component of the rebalance. China’s neighbors do not wish to be dominated either militarily or economically by Beijing, and the TPP symbolized the US commitment to retaining robust trade relations with the countries of East Asia.

The rebalance is designed to cement U.S. presence and influence in Asia. An important corollary of that is making sure China behaves “responsibly” and does not seek to dominate the region. Some argue, however, that the rebalance has had the opposite effect, stoking China to take more assertive action (for example, building islands in the South China Sea). To the extent that it is a deterrent, do you think the rebalance has been successful?

There is no question that China is suspicious of U.S. motives in launching the rebalancing strategy. Most Chinese believe that the purpose of the rebalance is to contain China’s rise and limit the expansion of China’s economic and political influence in the region.

The facts show otherwise. U.S. trade in goods and services with China in 2015 totaled over $650 billion, hardly the feature of a containment policy (U.S. trade with China is over 100 times greater than the peak of U.S. trade with the Soviet Union during the Cold War). China’s more assertive behavior emerged before the U.S. rebalancing strategy was announced. It is primarily a result of the blow to Western prestige, economic strength, and financial prowess delivered by the 2008 global financial crisis; China’s faster-than-anticipated closing of the gap with the United States in terms of the size of their respective GDPs; and the rapid modernization of China’s naval, air, and missile forces.

By increasing confidence in East Asia that the United States will remain fully engaged in the region, the rebalance has contributed to an environment that has made it possible for China to continue to rise peacefully without unduly alarming its neighbors.

What approach do you think the United States will take toward China’s “Belt and Road” initiative? Does the Belt and Road pose challenges for the rebalance?

The Obama administration has not viewed China’s One Belt, One Road initiative as inherently contrary to U.S. interests. In fact, then-Secretary of State Clinton had herself proposed a “new silk road” program for Central Asia during a visit to India in 2011, the difference being that China has backed its initiative with billions of dollars in potential funding for infrastructure projects. Problems of governance in Central Asian countries may pose impediments to the rapid development of such projects, but over time, the One Belt, One Road initiative has the potential to be transformative in its impact on transportation, communications, and energy links between China and the regions to its south and west.

Washington badly mishandled its initially skeptical response to China’s launching of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank – an important component of the One Belt, One Road initiative – only to find itself isolated when major European allies and most Asian countries rushed to join the bank. It compounded the problem by denying the obvious, which is that it had pressured its allies not to join the bank.

Despite this misstep, Washington may yet see merit in having U.S. companies participate in One Belt, One Road projects. This Chinese initiative is not incompatible with the purposes of the U.S. rebalance, which is not to suppress China’s rise  but to preserve an equilibrium in East Asia that fosters prosperity and stability.

Given that North Korea just conducted its fifth nuclear test, how would you evaluate the Obama administration’s North Korea policy?

Successive U.S. administrations have failed in their efforts to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula should remain the medium to longer term U.S. strategic objective, but the immediate focus of U.S. policy should be on halting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. Sanctions alone cannot accomplish this objective, although they need to be an element in the U.S. approach.

The new U.S. administration that will take office next January will need urgently to address its policy toward North Korea. The United States does not have a free hand on the Korean peninsula. China does not view actions that destabilize North Korea as in its interest because of the unpredictable potential outcomes. No amount of pressure will alter that view. To have any hope of success, U.S. measures must be supported by the South Korean government and coordinated with China. The law of unintended consequences is highly relevant to actions on the Korean peninsula. Washington would be wise to consider a bold Nixon-style initiative that addresses North Korea’s security concerns directly, in exchange for an indefinite halt to the North’s nuclear and missile programs.  If rejected by Pyongyang, the United States would then be better positioned to consider sterner measures.

What is the likelihood of the Trans-Pacific Partnership being ratified in the U.S. before Obama steps down? If it fails to pass through the U.S. Congress, what does that mean for Obama’s Asia-Pacific legacy?

Prospects for ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are dim. Nevertheless, the likely impact on East Asian attitudes of U.S. failure to ratify the treaty is dire enough to warrant a full-court press in the Senate after the presidential elections. U.S. friends and allies in the region have gone out on a limb to join the TPP, incurring significant domestic risks in the process. U.S. failure to ratify TPP will further confirm China’s position as the dominant economic power in East Asia and be read as a sign of U.S. decline and withdrawal from a key aspect of its international role.

What changes do you think the next U.S. president will make to the Obama administration’s rebalance policy?

The challenge for any new U.S. administration in East Asia will be to restore and retain the confidence of our friends and allies there that we intend to remain deeply engaged in the region politically, economically, and militarily, and that we will play our hand in a manner that contributes to peace and stability. U.S. failure to meet this challenge will foster changes in the region that will be contrary to U.S. interests and to our position in the world. How the policy is described is less important than its substantive content. My expectation is that the essence of the rebalance strategy will underpin the next administration’s policy approach to the region.