In 2011, President Barack Obama announced ‘Pivot to Asia,’ his new strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. It was also coined as ‘Act of Strategic Rebalancing’ which emphasizes that the US is going to stay in the Asia Pacific and it’s going to re-infuse new ideas into its security and economic presence in the region. The US appeared to contest the growing influence of China by revitalizing its partnerships with its old allies in the region and also reach out to other like-minded countries for their support for US-led initiatives.
After a decade of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the policy shift in form of “Pivot to Asia” signalled a new direction for US foreign policy in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, existing public debates and analyses have so far tended to oversimplify key aspects of the policy. First, they have focused almost exclusively on the military dimension of the rebalance. Second, the US rebalance toward Asia has often been depicted, in a rather reductive manner, as a US “grand strategy” of military containment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Washington, it is argued, is tightening its alliances and enhancing its military capabilities across the Asia Pacific in order to contain the rise of China, its most likely future military near-peer competitor.
In the subsequent years, the US tried to reinvigorate its alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia, and tried to reach out to countries like India to have a larger and effective grouping to support US positions in regional politics. Even in the economic arena, an ambitious project in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was given more importance. As mentioned earlier, the US’ ‘pivot to Asia’ was less a strategic balancing and more a counter-measure to China’s growing political and military might, and a last attempt to maintain the US position as the prime mover in the Asia-Pacific. However, it might be said that the US’ re-entry has not been impressive because of the lack of intensity as well as many internal rifts between the US allies such as mistrust between Japan and South Korea, lack of consensus among other countries of the Asia-Pacific such as India and ASEAN countries on the US move, and more than anything else, decline in US capacity. It has led to the ‘pivot’ being less appealing in subsequent years. Till now, TPP was not able to make any clear headway — it seems it will take more time to realise the TPP on the ground. It may be contrasted with the Chinese project of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has been successfully launched with wide participation by the countries of the region, including South Korea.
To counter China within the military realm, the US Department of Defense released, in January 2012, its new Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” intended to reshape the Pentagon’s priorities and capabilities in an era of budgetary constraints and after a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It unambiguously stated that “while the US military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity re-balance toward the Asia Pacific region” (emphasis in the original). That same month, the Pentagon also released the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) that establishes the guiding precepts and capabilities necessary to overcome anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) threats. The administration has also sought to strengthen and update existing formal military alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand, while diversifying and deepening its diplomatic and security cooperation with partners such as Indonesia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam. Washington announced, among other initiatives, the re-posturing of the US Navy from the existing 50/50 split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to a 60/40 split between those two oceans by 2020, the transfer of several elements of US forces based in Okinawa to Guam, the upgrading of its missile defence posture, the deployment of marines to Darwin in Australia (as part of what is meant to become a 2,500-strong rotational force), the deployment of littoral combat ships to Singapore, and signed an enhanced defence cooperation agreement with the Philippines. These steps aim to redistribute and disperse American forces across the Asia Pacific, making US defence posture in the region more agile, flexible, and financially sustainable.
There is another unsaid but equally, if not more, significant ‘pivot to Asia’, which has been gradually but very decisively taking more space in the political and economic landscape of the Asia-Pacific: China’s ‘pivot to Asia’. China’s growing influence in the region is undisputable, especially in the economic sphere. China has emerged as the Asia-Pacific hub, being the number one trading partner of almost all the countries. With the successful launch of the AIIB and ‘One-Belt, One-Road (OBOR)’ initiative, China has almost become a pivot of the entire region in the economic sphere. In security affairs also, undeterred by US moves, China has become more assertive and has been making its intent and design more open. It has deliberately discarded its old policy of ‘hide your capabilities’ and asserted its foreign policy goals. It has made it clear that it would not accept any code of conduct for the South China Sea and in 2013 declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. China probably wants to make its claim for the ‘pivot’ known and open at this point of time, though it might not be eager to execute them immediately.
Japan, under the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has also its own ‘pivot to Asia’ intent. An important shift in Japan’s approach in recent years has been an aggressive policy to erode its peaceful constitution and unlock all the restrictions on Japan’s military role in regional politics. By citing China’s growing assertiveness and the need for an Asia-Pacific response, Japan has been able to convince the US that a changed Japanese posture is a much-needed stance. Japan is aware that the neighbouring countries would not be happy with this attempt to become a ‘pivot’ to Asia and has thus been trying to reach out other, distant countries in Asia, including India, to garner support.
In the past one and a half years, more specifically after the Ukraine Crisis, Russia has also been trying to engage more with Asia. At this point in time, Russia has neither capacity nor intent to become a regional pivot in the security sphere, though it has been trying to be a player, at least, in East Asia via its cooperation and connections with North Korea. Moscow has signed a nuclear agreement with India and has been strengthening its relationship with China. Russia’s renewed interests in Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam are also reported to be part of its agenda to build a Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’. Russia is more interested in the economic landscape of the region, and in April 2014, Moscow announced a special economic zone in Vladivostok to reach out to Asia-Pacific countries.
Few other ‘pivots’ such as ASEAN’s as a collective entity, which tries to offer an ASEAN way in regional politics, as well as India’s growing regional interests, could also be cited as important variables that are going to shape the future of the region. However, they are nascent and less influential at this point of time.
Amidst all the ‘pivots to Asia’, the region has become an arena of contest between the various players of ‘pivot politics’. A multiplicity of ‘pivots’ means that there is no one who has substantial influence over the regional security and economic dynamics, leading to complex scenarios. It has resulted in less predictability and more instability in the region. The interplay of these ‘pivots’ — their contest as well as alliances — is going to shape the future of regional political and economics and must be keenly observed.
United States is redirecting its foreign policy attention, priorities, and resources — in the post–Iraq & Afghanistan wars period — toward the world’s most strategically sensitive and economically dynamic region. In the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.” China’s strategic and economic clout certainly is a central concern for US policymakers as the American pivot to the Asia Pacific is driven by a much broader and complex set of political, strategic and economic objectives.
The overarching ambition of the US re-balance is to preserve American supremacy in world politics while avoiding a major power tussle with the PRC. In order to do so, Washington does not seek to contain China — as this strategy is deemed to be hopeless and ineffective. The re-balance seeks to sustain US pre-eminence by re-adjustment in the complex “web of linkages” between the diplomatic, military and economic components of American presence in the Asia Pacific since the end of WWII.
Courtesy: IndraStra Global