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.