Since 2010, the Obama administration has significantly accelerated its pace of “return to Asia”. So far, although the two U.S. political parties remain stagnant on many issues, they seem to reach a consensus on the U.S. Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, which not only strengthens the will of the Obama administration to implement the strategy, but also provides an important political foundation for the concrete policies. The prospects of the strategy, however, depend on the political will of the U.S. government as well as several other constraining factors.
One is the U.S. financial state. A country’s financial situation is related to its economic situation. Currently, the U.S. fiscal position is not yet optimistic, with the clear manifestation of the recent government shutdown. To reverse the tight financial situation, the Obama administration has been taking steps, for example, to slash military spending. While this can alleviate the U.S. high budget deficits, it also has negative impacts on the U.S. abilities to act freely in the world. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Department of Defense needs to reduce the spending of over $1 trillion in the next decade, which seriously affects the ability and effectiveness of the U.S. military to dispose the international crisis. “These cuts are too fast, too much, too abrupt, and too irresponsible,” he criticized on the forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on November 5. Moreover, due to the bad economic situation, the approval rates on the Obama administration’s foreign policy has also been reduced, which inevitably affects the social basis for the Obama administration to further implement the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy. On December 3, the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations jointly released a poll, which showed that 56 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s foreign policy; 52% of them believe that the United States should focus on their own affairs first. In addition, 53% of respondents said that the United States as a global leader’s influence declined over the past decade, which was the first time for nearly 40 years.
The second is the security situation in other parts of the world. Essentially, the rebalancing strategy is to reconfigure the U.S. power, which is the stock adjustment, rather than incremental adjustment. That is, if the security situation deteriorates in other regions of the world, the U.S. has no choice but to cut the force originally used to strengthen the power in Asia. From this perspective, the rebalancing strategy is highly dependent on external factors. For instance, the geopolitical unrest in the Middle East triggered by the “Arab Spring” has largely been constraining the United States to advance the rebalancing process.
Thirdly, the attitude of Asian countries constrains the Obama administration’s policies. The rebalancing strategy has brought double psychological reactions for the Asian countries: on the one hand, they welcome U.S. engagement in Asian affairs and take it as an important external force to balance China’s rise. Of course, this is mainly from the security consideration. But, on the other hand, the Asian countries also need to maintain and develop good relations with China, which is not only due to sharing the dividends of China’s rapid economic development, but also the geostrategic consideration. After all, China itself is an Asian country. Therefore, most Asian countries are extremely reluctant to choose sides between the two giants. Balanced diplomacy or equidistant diplomacy is their preferred and optimal choice. As a result, it is not easy for the United States to achieve its strategic goals by strengthening relationships with the countries in the region.
Last but not least, the state of China’s development impacts the U.S. rebalancing strategy because it has clear intentions to counter China, regardless whether the U.S. admits or not. The process of China’s development also becomes one of the most important variables influencing America’s Asia-Pacific strategy. Fundamentally speaking, the purpose of the rebalancing strategy is to achieve the greatest U.S. national interests in Asia, which determines the United States must properly handle the relationship with China when promoting the strategy. Consequently, it also determines that the United States must take China’s strategic concerns into account in the course of the implementation of its Asia-Pacific strategy, and must well grasp the degree between strategic prevention and strategic engagement. Otherwise, there is no guarantee that the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy will not become another “Waterloo” in the United States’ diplomatic history.
Chen Jimin, Ph.D, is an Assistant Research Fellow for the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at the Party School of Central Committee of C.P.C.