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U.S. steps up policy for Asia-Pacific rebalancing

This is the 11th and last in a series of articles on the growing rivalry between the U.S. and China and its implications for the two Koreas and East Asia. -- Ed.

The U.S. is stepping up its strategic engagement in the Asia-Pacific as an increasingly assertive China poses a challenge to the regional order and unnerves its allies and partners relying on its security assistance.

Under its “rebalancing” policy toward the emerging center of power, Washington has been strengthening regional defense alliances, its military presence and multilateral institutions on security and economic matters.

“In recent years, China has taken an aggressive stance over its maritime disputes with Japan and others. Its noticeably enhanced missile capability has also alarmed the U.S.,” said Nam Chang-hee, security expert at Inha University.
A South Korean officer briefs U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey on points of interest at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas on Nov. 11, 2012. (U.S. Department of Defense)
A South Korean officer briefs U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey on points of interest at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas on Nov. 11, 2012. (U.S. Department of Defense)
“Due to the possibility that China could undermine the ‘global commons’ such as the freedom of navigation and commerce with its anti-access strategy, the U.S. is rebalancing its military and diplomatic resources toward this region, following a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

China apparently feels vexed and boxed with its geostrategically vital neighbors including Myanmar being courted by the U.S. Its state media have denounced Washington’s policy for disturbing Beijing’s ties with neighboring states and posing direct or indirect security challenges.

Washington has repeated that its policy is not aimed at hemming in China.

The rebalancing also appears intended to target what Western analysts call China’s “string of pearls” strategy, which could help the Asian power gain a strong maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, an area covering crucial sea lines of communication en route to the mainland.

China has sought to construct commercial ports in critical countries lining the ocean such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Some argue that as China rises as a formidable sea power, the trade-oriented ports could be turned into naval bases that could challenge maritime security for China’s potential adversaries such as the U.S. and India.

Despite Washington’s confidence in the policy, it faces an array of challenges such as budgetary constraints, Middle East conundrums and uncontrollably spreading terrorism across Africa, which could impede its policy efforts in the economically vibrant Asia-Pacific region.

Rebalancing toward Asia-Pacific

Media and pundits have described Washington’s new Asia policy as a “pivot.” But the U.S. government uses the term “rebalancing,” stressing it has never left Asia. The word “pivot” could strike a sour note with China. It could also unnerve the Middle East and Europe by signaling America’s decreased attention to the regions.

Under the Asia-oriented policy, the U.S. has been strengthening its treaty alliances with South Korea, Japan, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, and partnerships with India, Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar and others. The policy comes amid growing concerns that the U.S. financial challenges could weaken its security commitment in the region.

“The U.S. is a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked with Asia’s economic, security and political order. America’s success in the 21st century is tied to the success of Asia,” Obama’s national security advisor Tom Donilon said in his speech in November.

As it faces massive budget cuts to tackle its fiscal deficit, Washington has strived to capitalize on diplomatic forums such as the East Asia Summit and sought to share its security burden with regional partners.

Japan is the strongest supporter in the region of America’s rebalancing while itself striving to adapt to the region’s changing security landscape.

“The U.S. wants Japan to play a constructive role as a regional security provider. But it could not play the role under constraints such as the pacifist constitution and domestic anti-war sentiment,” said Nam of Inha University.

“But Washington apparently cautions against Japan’s rightward shift. It appears to feel somewhat concerned about Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister who is too conservative, as it should also have to think about South Korea-Japan relations.”

Japan has felt the growing need to counter China’s rise amid the long-festering dispute over the chain of islands in the East China Sea, which are called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

Tension between Tokyo and Beijing has sharply increased in recent years with Japan having nationalized the islands and China sending warships and even combat aircraft to patrol what it sees as its maritime territory.

In tune with the U.S. policy, Japan agreed to step up bilateral missile defense cooperation last year. The allies also finalized the deal to relocate some 9,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam and other locations, so as to enhance the marines’ strategic flexibility and reduce the geographical vulnerability stemming from their being concentrated on the Japanese island.

Washington and Tokyo are also reportedly seeking to revise their defense guideline to increase the role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces with an aim to bolster regional and global military cooperation in preventing disasters, combating piracy, securing maritime trade routes, and promoting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

America’s rebalancing has put South Korea in a diplomatically difficult position as Seoul wants to maintain good relations both with Washington and Beijing. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and wields great influence over North Korea.

Observers say that as the allies prepare for the transfer of wartime operational control slated for December 2015, the U.S. may seek to reshape the long-standing alliance in a way that could help keep China in check.

Rebalancing within Asia-Pacific

The U.S. is rebalancing not only toward the region but also within it. Washington has sought a more balanced distribution of its military resources, which had long been concentrated on Northeast Asia.

With South Korea and Japan remaining its staunch allies, Washington is refocusing its foreign policy on Southeast Asian countries, some of which are called “swing players,” balancing the interests of the U.S. and China without taking the side of either in order to maximize their own national interests.

Southeast Asian states are of great strategic importance as they stretch across the Indian and Pacific Oceans where the world’s most crucial trading and energy supply routes pass including the vulnerable and congested Strait of Malacca.

Many of the countries harbor some sense of enmity toward China due to the escalating territorial rows in the energy-rich South China Sea. Many including the Philippines and Vietnam have sought America’s help in backing them over the escalating spats.

From Washington’s perspective, China’s aggressive behavior in the maritime disputes could disrupt the regional “rule-based” order, which the U.S. has fostered since the end of World War II.

Striving to use the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations as a crucial tool to maintain regional stability and security, the U.S. has stressed the freedom of navigation and argued that the maritime disputes be resolved peacefully, not coercively, with an oblique reference to China.

“The U.S. is apparently seeking to prevent China from becoming too strong both militarily and economically so that it can continue to maintain regional primacy,” said a security expert who declined to be named, citing his organization’s policy.

“The U.S. may fear that if it fails to counter the rise of China, it may have to be withdrawn from the region. So, it appears intent on developing ways to weaken China’s power projection capabilities.”

The U.S. and the Philippines agreed last year on the limited redeployment of U.S. troops to a naval base in Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base.

The Philippines evicted U.S. troops at the naval base in 1992 after Filipino lawmakers rejected a new defense treaty amid deepening anti-American sentiment. The air base was also abandoned in 1991 following a volcanic eruption.

In recent years, the U.S. has stationed special operations troops in the southern part of the country to help train local troops carrying out a campaign against Muslim extremist groups sympathetic to Al-Qaeda.

Manila has been in an intense dispute with Beijing over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Thus it has sought stepped-up security protection from the U.S. To defuse tension, China reportedly made a proposal earlier this month to jointly develop untapped oil and natural gas reserves in the disputed area.

Vietnam, which had also shunned the U.S. troop presence, has sought to build military ties amid its own territorial dispute with China over the Spratly and Paracel islands. Hanoi has been seen gradually allowing the U.S. to use its naval bases as calling ports.

Singapore has also agreed on the rotational deployment of four U.S. littoral combat ships for shallow-water operations. In the city state, the U.S. navy runs a small logistical support facility.

Thailand also signed a joint vision statement with the U.S. last year to strengthen their military cooperation in maintaining regional maritime security, humanitarian relief and other areas of mutual concern. Their military ties date back to the Vietnam War when the U.S. used its territory to launch air strikes.

Australia has showed off its robust alliance with the U.S. by agreeing to the rotational deployment of up to 2,500 U.S. marines to its northern city of Darwin. Washington has also sought to gain greater naval access to the country’s naval base in the western city of Perth.

But in line with their deepening economic interdependence with China, some of these countries including Australia feel that they should not damage the relationship with Beijing too significantly.

Other than gaining greater military access to the region, Washington has also sought to forge the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal for a free-trade bloc linking the Pacific-rim states. This move is based on its belief that economic interdependence would lead to greater trust among states, and regional stability and prosperity.

Given the high level of market opening envisioned by the treaty, China has virtually been excluded from the bloc. China apparently believes it is another move to hamper its rise as a global power. The TPP includes Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico and Canada. Japan is also considering it, but political opposition has clouded the prospect of its entry into the deal.

Concepts against anti-access strategy

Capitalizing on its economic wealth, China has steadfastly upgraded its military capability including its increasingly sophisticated missile technology. Particularly, it has focused on enhancing “asymmetric” capabilities for air, sea and land operations that can offset America’s military superiority.

The byproduct of the capabilities is what the U.S. calls the “anti-access/area-denial” strategy designed to prevent any adversary from entering its military operational area or restrict the enemy’s freedom of action within the area.

Since setting up a related office in November 2011, the Pentagon has been fleshing out its “AirSea Battle” concept to conduct integrated aerial and naval operations across all domains including cyberspace to neutralize anti-access capabilities.

Apparently not to fall behind amid an increasing focus on air and naval operations, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps released their “Gaining and Maintaining Access Concept” in March last year to jointly contribute to overcoming anti-access challenges.

The “Joint Operational Access Concept,” which the U.S. military introduced in January 2012, is a comprehensive concept encompassing both the AirSea Battle and GMAC concepts. It also envisions a flexible integration of space and cyberspace operations into the traditional air-sea-land battle space.

‘String of pearls’

For China, securing an unimpeded, stable supply of energy and resources is of paramount importance to continue economic growth and thus strengthen public support for the political leadership.

It has sought to develop safer, shorter and more cost-effective maritime and overland trade routes by strengthening relations with Indian Ocean states including Pakistan and Myanmar through economic assistance and other support programs.

The West has eyed the moves with suspicion, arguing that its creation of the so-called “string of pearls” would be a prelude to building a series of naval bases that could undermine the freedom of navigation and challenge the U.S. for regional preponderance.

The vital nodes in China’s grand geopolitical strategy include Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, and Sittawe and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar.

China argues that these sites are for commercial ports that would help reduce its heavy dependence on the risky maritime chokepoints such as the Strait of Malacca, controlled by the U.S. and its partners. More than 80 percent of its oil imports pass through the strait.

“As the U.S.’ strong naval power is projected in the South China Sea and over other major shipping lanes around the world, China feels much pressure. Thus, it seeks to develop pipelines passing through Myanmar and Central Asian states, and Arctic shipping routes,” said Ahn Se-hyun, international relations professor at the University of Seoul.

“Rivalry over energy appears more intense than the Cold War-era contest. As China relies mostly on overseas energy resources, it would deal a serious blow to its economy, should energy prices go up due to shipping problems.”

China could send its warships to its overseas ports under the name of energy security, Ahn added.

One of the most crucial “pearls” for China is Myanmar, which could give China direct access to the Indian Ocean and help it build an overland route to transport oil from the Middle East and Africa to its southwestern province of Yunnan.

Aware of its geopolitical value, Washington has recently sought to mend ties with Myanmar. In November, President Obama made a historic visit to the Southeast Asian state, which the West has rewarded for its progress toward reform and democracy with the lifting of long-standing economic sanctions.

Jang Jun-young, senior research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said that Myanmar is unlikely to take the side of any great power to maintain its geostrategic flexibility.

“Myanmar had been leaning toward China, but it has recently moved toward the center of the pendulum as its relationship with the U.S. has improved. But historically, Myanmar, surrounded by big powers such as China and India, has not employed any foreign policy relying on any one big power,” he said.

Another pearl for China is Pakistan. China has reportedly taken control of a commercial port in Gwadar, which is close to another chokepoint of the Hormuz Strait and the Pakistan-Indian border.

The deep-water port can serve as a shipping hub for oil and gas from the Middle East and Central Asia. China has sought to develop it to build a strategic shipping route, free from U.S. influence, to China’s western province of Xinjiang.

Amid the speculation over China’s naval ambitions, some argue that the “pearls” cannot be used as military facilities given that they could be easy targets for U.S. air strikes during wartime.

Restrictions on rebalancing

A host of domestic and international challenges have complicated Washington’s rebalancing efforts. At home, its budgetary difficulties have pushed the Pentagon to reorganize its security priorities. Interest groups that have deep trade relations with China have also been a hurdle for Washington.

Abroad, political instability in the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear ambition, frayed relations with Pakistan and spreading terrorism in Africa have also hampered the Asia-oriented policy.

For the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign, Pakistan is a crucial partner as it provides crucial intelligence on terrorism, facilities for drone attacks targeting terrorists, and a shipping route for military supplies for its troops operating in nearby Afghanistan. Pakistan’s help in stabilizing Afghanistan is also important for Washington to withdraw its soldiers by the end of 2014.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to troops during a visit to Regional Command South in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Dec. 13, 2012. U.S. (Department of Defense)
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to troops during a visit to Regional Command South in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Dec. 13, 2012. U.S. (Department of Defense)
But the relationship seriously deteriorated following America’s incursion into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011. The two have also been at odds over some of the U.S. drone strikes which Pakistan called an encroachment on its sovereignty.

Adding insult to injury, terrorism that could threaten the U.S. security appears to be quickly spreading across Africa from Afghanistan. Without proper state control over them, local militant groups in Somalia, Mali, Yemen and others are believed to be coordinating with Al-Qaida.

Mail, once hailed as Africa’s model of democracy, has been a new stronghold for Al-Qaida. Its northern region, which is about the size of France, is thought to have fallen under the control of a group of militants supposedly associated with Al-Qaida. Experts say the global terror organization capitalizes on local conflicts to expand its footholds across Africa.

By Song Sang-ho (