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Do Not Exaggerate the Ukraine Crisis’ Impact on the US Pivot to Asia

Apr 16 , 2014

With the Ukraine crisis continuing to ferment, its international strategic impacts are gradually presenting themselves. Many wonder to what extent the crisis will influence the United States’ “pivoting” to the Asia-Pacific. This question calls for cool-headed observation and precise assessment. 

The Ukraine crisis has undeniably distracted the United States strategically. On the surface, it is composed and continues high-profile involvement in the Asia-Pacific. Yet it is actually restless at heart. The United States has become deeply involved in the Ukraine crisis, engaging in a sustained rivalry with Russia. On one hand, the US stubbornly confronts Russia, imposing pressures through sanctions. Furthermore, it has assisted Ukraine’s interim government, has enhanced military support for East European allies, as well as strengthened NATO’s collective defense; it has terminated NATO cooperation with Russia; and has helped the EU reduce reliance on Russian energy supplies. On the other hand, it has bargained continuously with Russia. The heads of state of the two countries have talked repeatedly on the phone, and their foreign ministers have met frequently, trying to strike a deal. The US is obviously worried about the evolution of the Ukraine crisis. 

Even so, it is important to see that the US is striving to simultaneously take care of the Asia-Pacific, Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Among them, the Middle East is “depreciating” because the US is approaching “energy independence.” Eastern Europe has been “appreciating” in the short-term due to the overnight worsening of the Ukraine crisis. And finally, as for the Asia-Pacific, it remains the US’ “priority of priorities,” whose strategic values keep “appreciating.” The following three points are proof. 

Firstly, the US continues to strengthen military deployment in the Asia-Pacific. The Wall Street Journal recently published a story titled “US Marines Rebuilding Capacity in Asia-Pacific,” disclosing that, with tensions in East Asia escalating in the sea, the US Marine Corps is reinforcing its presence in the region by upgrading its amphibious capabilities, which have been weakened owing to the Iraq and Afghan wars. Although the Pentagon is cutting expenditures, US Marine Corps is still enhancing deployment in the Asia-Pacific. It already has 19,000 troops stationed in the area, and the number will reach a “peak” of 22,000 by 2017. And it has been coordinating closely with the Philippines and Japan in order to formulate a so-called deterrence. 

Secondly, even at the crucial moment in the Ukraine crisis, senior US military and political leaders continued to pay frequent visits to the Asia-Pacific, placing considerable emphasis on military diplomacy and taking advantage of its conspicuous superiority in the security area. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has begun his fourth Asia-Pacific trip in early April. Starting with the first “US-ASEAN Defense Forum” in Hawaii, where defense ministers of all 10 ASEAN nations were present, he highlighted “humanitarian assistance and disaster response.” The Los Angeles Times reported that Hagel insisted there would be no wavering in the strategy of “pivoting” to the Asia-Pacific. Hagel went to Hawaii for the meeting, even while Russia was deploying heavy military presence on Ukraine’s eastern borders, because the US continues to take the Asia-Pacific as its foremost concern in foreign policies. Responding to some people’s proposal that the Ukraine crisis means the US should postpone its “pivoting” to Asia, or to shift its strategic emphasis back towards Europe, Hagel said that simply wouldn’t happen. He stressed that the US would support its NATO allies in conflicts with Russia, yet it has no intention to increase military presence in Europe. The reason is very simple – in a larger context and in the long term – the Asia-Pacific is the most important area of interests for the United States. 

Furthermore, President Obama will make a high-profile trip to four Asia-Pacific countries (Japan, Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia), where he will further emphasize the “strategic adherence” to “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific. 

Thirdly, the US has more forcefully intervene in marine disputes in East Asia, continuing to side with its allies. On the South China Sea issues, it connives at Philippine provocations, including the latter’s logistical supplies for the stranded naval vessel and occupation of the Ren’ai Reef of China’s Nansha Islands. While instigating the Philippines to stage the farce of proposing “international arbitration,” it has persistently been bad-mouthing China’s rightful responses to safeguard its territorial integrity. On the Diaoyu Islands dispute in the East China Sea, it has obviously been loosening the grip on the dangerous potential of an increasingly rightist Japan. It turned a blind eye to Shinzo Abe’s rightist stunts, hastened the pace of revising the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation and enhances US-Japan joint operations. 

It is necessary to notice that the international strategic impacts of the Ukraine crisis are mainly on big-power relations, including changes in “principal contradictions,” but not on geopolitics. Specifically, the Ukraine crisis has resulted in the relative escalation of the contradictions between Russia and major western powers. US-Russia contradictions have sharpened and become prominent, while the contradictions between China and major western powers have relatively eased. Furthermore, Sino-US contradictions have more or less loosened, appearing less prominent. 

The crisis’ impacts on the US “pivoting” to the Asia-Pacific, however, are nothing more than a strategic “distraction,” which would hardly contain or even postpone its “rebalancing” at this point. There has been no sign of abate in the US’ “pivoting” to the region. Only that the approach will be adjusted, becoming more speculative through taking advantage of contradictions in the area. The US will place more emphasis on using its Asia-Pacific allies, particularly the Abe administration of Japan and Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines, the two major trouble-makers, to provoke troubles and create confusion. It will take advantage of the maritime disputes between China and Japan, as well as China and the Philippines, profit from such disputes and thus “contain China with its neighbors.” 

Of course, the Ukraine crisis is still unfolding. The extent of its impacts on US “return” to the Asia-Pacific hinges on the outcomes of the ongoing contest between Russia and Ukraine. Therefore further observation is necessary. However, one thing is for sure, this crisis does not suffice to reverse the US strategy of “rebalancing” to the Asia-pacific. The “eastward shift” of the center of gravity is a preset guideline of the Obama administration, and has been reflected in the latest “Quadrennial Defense Review.” 

Chen Xiangyang is the deputy director of Institute of World Political Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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