As the world’s only superpower, Washington’s security strategy has a global impact. The Obama administration’s “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific has profound implications for the future security and stability of the region.
In recent months, the United States has cited the aggravated North Korean threat to ramp up its military presence in northeast Asia, complicating the already tense security picture on the Korean Peninsula. These latest moves are reminiscent of NATO expansion pushed by Washington for over two decades.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO leaders gathered in London to discuss the relevance of the organization now that the Warsaw Pact no longer existed. Washington was determined to keep NATO. It proposed that it be transformed from a purely military apparatus to a military/security framework with the launch of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. Since then, Washington has sought to “remold” the armed forces and national defenses of East European countries and spearheaded their inclusion in the European Union as well as NATO.
In the meantime, the United States secured the deployment of its missile defense system on European soil. In 2014, when US military presence moved blatantly close to the Russian border, President Putin took Crimea – and the world – by surprise in an attempt to halt NATO’s eastward expansion. This action soured Moscow’s relations with a number of European countries, which joined Washington in imposing sanctions and crippling the Russian economy.
Today, the United States is playing a strikingly similar game on the Korean Peninsula. Its forward military deployment paints the contour of an “Asian NATO” and serves as a stark reminder to the world who is “the most powerful nation on earth”. Instead of calming tensions in northeast Asia, Washington is raising the stakes and, conveniently, dealing a body blow to the shared interests and blossoming strategic partnership between Beijing and Seoul.
The Asia-Pacific rebalance recognizes the pivotal role of the region in Washington’s strategic calculus. When Barack Obama became president in early 2009, he inherited the disastrous outcome of George W. Bush’s global overreach as a result of “the war on terror”. America’s economic woes since 2008 prompted Obama to shift his diplomatic priorities, namely focusing on economic recovery at home and exiting the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific was on its way to become the political, military and diplomatic center of gravity in the 21st century world. No major power could afford to overlook the region. So it came as little surprise that Washington, bent on preserving its global leadership, would want to make early “investments” and gain strategic initiative in China’s periphery.
In 2010, three economic developments alarmed the United States: China overtook Japan as the second-largest economy only behind the United States; China also surpassed the United States as the world’s largest manufacturing power and power generating nation. This helped to tilt the balance in the thinking of the White House.
After hesitating between “pivot” or “return” to Asia, the Obama administration finally settled on the term “rebalance”. The central objective of this strategy is to maintain US predominance and military presence in the Asia-Pacific until at least 2020, preferably 2025. Other objectives include counterbalancing China; holding back India, Korea and Japan; and retaining its hold on regional affairs and development.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been an active force behind European integration and it has helped to strengthen NATO. Across Europe, Washington succeeded in building an “umbrella” that keeps its allies dependent on itself in both economic and security spheres. A similar alliance structure was also put in place in the Asia-Pacific.
Meantime, China’s economic miracle created a new paradigm in Asia, with many countries eager to emulate the Chinese success. The region in general saw balanced economic development, enabling some countries to lessen its economic dependence on the United States. As a countermeasure, Washington sharpened the “containment” aspect of its policy toward China. The implementation of the rebalance roiled the otherwise balanced and desirable situation of peaceful development in the Asia-Pacific region.
On April 6, 2015, the new US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter gave a speech at McCain Institute, Arizona State University, in which he pronounced a new phase of the Asia-Pacific rebalance, supported by three pillars: deploying sophisticated new weapons; reinforcing regional partnerships and alliances; and advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This marked another “great leap forward” in the implementation of the rebalance strategy.
On April 10, 2016, Carter made another visit to the region, stopping in New Delhi and Manila. He set the tone for the trip with a speech in New York. In it, he stated the United States’ strong commitment to the rebalance strategy and spelled out major, additional investments the administration was going to make, including a growing troop presence and increases in the defense budget.
The Asia-Pacific is the meeting place of several major powers: There are opportunities as well as tensions. The rebalance is designed to enlarge Washington’s military, political, diplomatic and economic leverage as well as its alliance system in the region. Unfortunately, it ignores the legitimate desire of most countries for peace and development and upsets the natural balance in the region. If Washington insists on playing the role of “regional balancer” under the misguided Cold War mentality, it would achieve nothing but create imbalance and walk right into the “hegemon’s trap” despite repeated historical lessons.