After a few months of maintaining a low profile in its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, the Obama administration appears to be revitalizing this initiative. Susan Rice, who is reported to have been preoccupied by the Middle East, Africa and non-traditional issues, is now getting ready to make her debut on the issue of the Asia-Pacific, six months since she took office. In her speech at Georgetown University, she laid out the next stage of the US rebalance, reemphasized US resolve to strengthen its presence in the Asia-Pacific, reassured its regional allies and partners of the continued US obligation in the region, and also reasserted US leadership in Asia. This is at a time when China’s power is growing and the new Xi Jinping leadership has put forward China’s new policy in the area, aiming at boosting ties with its surrounding countries with a new initiative in connectivity and a new silk road across land and sea.
Past and Present: “Rebalance of Rebalance” Since Obama’s Second Term
Barack Obama, who has identified himself as an Asia-Pacific president, has long held high the banner of a US focus on the region. Hillary Clinton declared that the US was “back to Asia” at the beginning of the Obama administration during her first visit to the ASEAN countries in 2009. Following that, the “pivot to Asia” formally came into being in the second half of 2011, when Obama told the Australian Parliament that the US “is here to stay as a pacific power.” Finally, there was a change to a more moderate and less offensive “rebalance” strategy starting from the beginning of 2012. This administration has thus made a shift of its strategic focus towards Asia as its hallmark policy. Yet, after Obama began his second term, the rebalance has undergone new changes, which have been labeled by observers as a “rebalance of its rebalance.”
First, after the new administration took office it launched a transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) with Europe , with the purpose of reversing the sense of neglect caused by the US rebalance. Second, Secretary Kerry’s devotion to the cause of the Middle East has again shifted US concern towards the region. Although mostly driven by Syria, Egypt, Iran and the thorny Israel-Palestine deadlock, it’s clear that this administration has again re-identified its core stakes as the Middle East, which remains very important to world politics, even at a time when the US has become increasingly oil-free. Third, given the shared desire between the US and China to establish “a new model of major power relations,” the US has felt it counterproductive to concentrate solely on the military pillar of the rebalance, which is not only detrimental to its relationship with China, but also stokes worries in the wider region. Australian and Korean allies, and partners such as Singapore and Indonesia, are not happy about being forced to choose between the two giants. Therefore, the Obama administration’s second term has elevated the economic pillar as high as military. Apart from this, it has also emphasized human rights and the democratizing aspect of the rebalance, among which non-traditional security issues such as climate change, air pollution, and water conservation have also been prioritized. The US has thus tried to reduce the sensitivity caused by hard issues such as military and security, while adding in more of a soft and low politics agenda. Lastly, the US has indeed placed its cooperative relationship with China as an integral part of the rebalance strategy. Joseph Nye and Brzezinski have both urged the US government to embrace China into the TPP. Moreover, the improved mil-to-mil relationship with China’s planned involvement in the navy, such as the 2014 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), has also made the “China pillar” of this rebalance more convincing and acceptable.
What’s new in Rebalance 2.0
All the aforementioned trends, which have set the tone of Obama’s rebalance policy in his second term, can actually be found in Donilon’s address on Asia Pacific at the Asia Society this March. But compared with Rice’s speech “America’s Future in Asia”, Donilon emphasizes both continuity and new developments. While sticking to the three goals of security, prosperity and freedom that have long been pursued as fundamental to the US national interest, Rice’s speech breaks it down into four areas: enhancing security, expanding prosperity, fostering democratic values, and advancing human dignity. Rice splits the concept of human rights into security and prosperity, and thus shows her overemphasis on this issue. Furthermore, it also clarifies US policy on some of the most sensitive and urgent issues in the region, such as the endorsement of Japan’s establishment of a National Security Council, cooperation with Australia in areas such as missile defense and space, and increased maritime security participation with Thailand and the Philippines . While indirectly acknowledging that North Korea already has its own nuclear arsenal, Rice undoubtedly is signaling a consistent US policy that the door is open to North Korea if it takes a concrete and irreversible step towards denuclearization. Otherwise, sanctions, isolation and “strategic patience” for isolation will be maintained as policy.
Rice’s speech also presents a new angle on China. Although she devotes two paragraphs to the topic, one can also find the “China shadow” in a number of other paragraphs. Rice uses the word “operationalize” to describe the development of a new model of major power relations; listing North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan as well as mil-to-mil relations as the main areas of realizing this new relationship. This furthers the desire of the United States to shape the agenda toward its needs and priorities. To this extent, cooperation is coupled with “responsibility”, while how to interpret it is totally under the US priority. Apart from this, norms and regulations are almost everywhere when it comes to issues like cyber security and maritime disputes, especially the South and East China Sea issues. Rice’s speech also welcomes China to join the TPP, yet the precondition is to “live up to its high-standards.” Obama’s China policy is clearly to regulate and shape the direction of China’s rise through both high-level engagement as well as a combination of tough and soft checks.
However, China still sees the shift as a more moderate version of a rebalancing policy, that an increasingly self-confident country can absorb, shape and even embrace. For with its growing strength and peaceful diplomatic philosophy evolving, China is now confident enough that it can influence other major powers towards its own direction.
Yang Wenjing is Chief of American Foreign Policy at the Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.