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Foreign Policy

Is the US Rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific Sustainable?

Oct 16 , 2012

In 2010, President Obama seemed to have his own doctrine, dubbed the Obama Doctrine.  The thrust of this doctrine clearly lies in his obsession with the Asia-Pacific. He announced that his administration was intending to return to the Asia-Pacific, pivot or rebalancing away from the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, and other parts of world towards East Asia.  President Obama envisaged that the 21st Century will be the Pacific Century, and he pledged to be the first American “Pacific President”.

The Obama doctrine largely suggested a new US strategy to strengthen its long-term role in the Asia-Pacific almost in all dimensions: security, political, diplomatic, and economic.  But of all these efforts, the most striking is the US military rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific.

According to a US strategist, the military aspect of the US strategic rebalancing is to include two interconnected efforts: geographical rebalancing and capability rebalancing.Agreements are being made with countries like Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam to host the maximum US presence allowable without aggravating local sensitivities about basing.    

With regard to capability rebalancing, the US is trying to rebalance its investments in military technologies and force structure to best address Asia-Pacific military realities.  This essentially calls for a shifting from its current counterinsurgency focus on land in Afghanistan to seaborne crisis response in the Pacific.  To this end, the US is said to deploy 60% of its naval assets in the Asia-Pacific.  Efforts will also be made to create a set of new military capabilities in the nuclear, conventional (air and sea power), missile defense, and cyberspace fields.  Meanwhile, the Pentagon has produced the so-called Air-Sea Battle combat concept as a new operational doctrine in its preparation to fight a war with a regional power specifically like China.

The purpose of this strategic balancing is clearly to reestablish US dominance in the Asia-Pacific.  To achieve this goal, Washington seems to need a target, which is China, to justify the legitimacy of its increased involvement in East Asia.  “Watch out for China” has become a catch phrase, a central them of the US new strategy.  Thus, the process of the implementation of this new strategy in the past two years has been noticeably linked up with the US’frenzied efforts to demonize China, sowing discords between China and its neighbors, inflaming China’s territorial and maritime disputes with these countries, and encouraging the disputant countries to take a unified and more defiant stance against China.  All this seems meant to issue a signal to the region that the US is here to stay as an eventual security guarantor, and is ready to support any country that may happen to be “bullied”by China.  

Rebalancing seems to help strengthen the US position in the Asia-Pacific.  The reality, however, has given full testimony to the adverse ramifications of the US' new strategy.  The rising tensions have now become a hallmark in the otherwise peaceful and stable situation in Each Asia.  Territorial and maritime disputes have flared up beyond the control of the national governments.  Regional multilateral cooperation, which used to witness dynamics development, has experienced serious setbacks.  The region has also seen a spiraling arms race, which may force many states to scramble for more sophisticated weapons and equipment, and to be prepared to fight each other although all of them are fully aware that any military conflicts between them would only bring disastrous lose-lose results. 

All these tensions may just be what Washington wants.    In Obama's case, only when the Asian-Pacific is plagued by persistent political tensions, lingering historical grievances, rising territorial disputes, and strong strategic suspicion and mistrust among East Asian states, would Washington find chances to get in.

In the long run however, there may be several uncertainties concerning the fate of the new US strategy.            

First, rebalancing is expensive. At a time when the US is determined to dramatically cut back its military budget, and reduce its worldwide security commitments, the actual commitment Washington could really afford to the Asia-Pacific is anybody's guess despite its reassurance that the Asia-Pacific remains the only region where the US would increase rather than decrease its military investment.  The US cannot neglect its interests in the other parts of the world. For all the continuing supremacy in strength, the US’fatal vulnerability is the fact that its capability is now falling far short of its ambition.

Second, stirring up tensions, and inflaming territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific is playing with fire.  Recent developments have already shown that Washington seems to be aware that it might have overplayed the game.  By instigating countries like Japan and the Philippines to take more provocative stances towards China, precipitating their territorial disputes to the brink of a military conflict, the US seems to be running a risk of being dragged into an armed conflict or even a war in the region it never wants.  On the part of its East Asian allies and partners, some are disappointed that Washington talks big, but fails to act to back up their confrontation with China.  More have come to realize that relying on China economically while depending on the US for security cannot be a sustainable option, and that getting too close to the US would not be conducive to their best interests.  They fear that strengthening military and security ties with Washington may also come at the expense of their much-cherished independence as a US ally, and the leverage of maneuvering among major powers in their policy.  There are already signs that despite the bellicose rhetoric of several disputant countries in the maritime disputes with China, they have recently also offered reconciliatory gestures, expressing a wish to work together with China to seek a cooperative approach to the disputes.  At the end of the day, Washington may find out that its efforts to knock together a de-factor containing-China coalition may just be a dream that can never be fulfilled. 

Third, the US rebalancing has left unanswered a critical question; that is, what kind of role China should play in the US calculated security structure in the Asia-Pacific in the future.  For all the seeming necessity of containing China, the US is also keenly aware that China has become an indispensible partner to its own economic prosperity and sustained security.  This schizoid, ambivalent mindset towards China on the part of Washington may continue to make its China policy inconsistent, unstable, and irrational.  As a consequence, the US rebalancing would most probably remain an incoherent and confused strategy. 

Last but not least, rebalancing built on the military muscle will eventually prove the wrong recipe for the US desire to maintain its leadership in the Asia-Pacific.  Issues abound in this region.  Most of them are of economic and political nature.  What really matters to them is the economic health, the dynamics of economic cooperation, and to that end, a peaceful and stable environment. 

To conclude, the US rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific can hardly be taken as a positive development, but may just be a passing episode of an ongoing process of the power restructuring in the region.  China should be concerned but not alarmed over its ramifications in the short term.  China should certainly take due steps to respond to the adverse consequences of the new US strategy, but not overreact.  The thrust of China's policy should continue to count on the positive aspects of the situation in the region, including, among others, a common wish of all the regional states to work together to maintain the economy momentum, and peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.  For all the tensions and frictions among the East Asian states today, the common ground between them remains, which is so powerful that no outside power could fundamentally split.

MG. Pan Zhenqiang is currently senior adviser to the China Reform Forum, a think-tank in Beijing.  He is the former director of the Institute of Strategic Studies, National Defense University, PLA, China.  The paper is an adapted version of a presentation at the J-Global Forum 2012 at Seoul, on September 10, 2012

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