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Foreign Policy

The U.S. Rebalancing Strategy Goes Nowhere

May 11 , 2015
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School

On April 7th to 10th, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, paid a visit to Japan and South Korea, the two major strategic allies in Asia. This was the debut Asia visit paid by this new head of the Defense Department. The day before the trip, he delivered a speech at the McCain Institute, Arizona State University, and gave a broad view on the U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy. He pointed out that the Asia-Pacific was “the defining region for our nation’s future,” stressed the links between economic and national security in the region, called on sincere bipartisan cooperation, and vowed to advance the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy to a new phase.

The Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy is a major decision and practice as well as an important political legacy for the Obama’s administration. Shortly after taking office in 2009, the Obama administration dished out a high-profile concept of “return to Asia” or “pivot to Asia” to herald the coming adjustments in the Asia-Pacific strategy. President Obama even called himself “America’s first Pacific president.” In November 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote an article in Foreign Policy, which proposed “forward deployed diplomacy,” hoping to use smart power in diplomacy to achieve the goal of “American Pacific Century.” Seven months later, then Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta made a speech entitled, “The U.S. Rebalance Towards the Asia-Pacific,” at the 11th Asia Security Summit in Singapore, which clearly outlined the rebalancing strategy for the first time, with particular emphasis on the U.S. military policy initiatives. Specifically, by 2020 the Navy would re-posture its forces from roughly 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans.

However, due to the reorganization of Obama’s security team and the fiscal constraints, the sustainability of the rebalancing strategy in Obama’s second term was in doubt. In March 2013, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, made remarks at the Asia Society, stressing that the U.S. would continue to promote the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, explaining its main pillars and policy instruments. He said that the rebalancing strategy “is an effort that harnesses all elements of U.S. power—military, political, trade and investment, development, and our values.” As noted, the United States does use a variety of policy tools to advance its rebalancing strategy. Besides the means of military and diplomacy, the United States is committed to consolidating the alliance system and building new partnerships in the Asia-Pacific; in the economy perspective, the United States vigorously promotes multilateral FTA negotiations in the region, as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is the most compelling one. Additionally, the United States pays more attention to the common values shared by the U.S. and other countries in the region. In other words, the United States emphasizes the combined functions of the interests in security, economy and values.

It is worth noting that these policy instruments in practice are constantly in adjustment and calibration. Take U.S. alliances in Asia, for example. In the views of the United States, the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK alliance are the bedrock for the U.S. to exert influence in the Asia-Pacific. However, due to the complexity and variability of the security challenges, the United States is also considering building a multilateral security alliance in the region, such as the trilateral security cooperation among the U.S., Japan and Australia or the United States, Japan and South Korea. In February 2015, Obama’s second National Security Strategy report was released, which clearly stated that, “We will continue to modernize these essential bilateral alliances while enhancing the security ties among our allies.” In fact, the United States has begun to advance this process, such as the trilateral cooperation among the U.S., Japan and Australia to strengthen maritime security in Southeast Asia and explore defense technology cooperation. On April 16th to 17th, they held a vice-ministerial level security meeting to enhance trilateral defense cooperation and reached consensus on the information-sharing arrangement.

In the new phase of the rebalancing strategy, Mr. Carter stressed in his speech that the U.S. would highlight the importance of the military deployment and military capacity building in the region, accelerate the TPP negotiations, and make the most use of the U.S.’s unrivaled network of allies and partners, which could multiply the U.S. strength and influence in the Asia-Pacific. It is no new measures for the U.S. to promote the strategy, but it will have complicated impacts on the security and prosperity in the region.

Firstly, it arouses the suspicion on the U.S. strategic intentions. The Asia-Pacific region as a whole is in a state of prosperity and stability. Although there are some disputes between some countries in the region, they are basically under control. Looking around the world, only the Asia-Pacific region remains relatively stable while maintaining strong economic growth. Under such circumstances, what purpose the U.S. increases military deployment in Asia is the first and foremost question the U.S. should give a reasonable and compelling explanation.

Secondly, it may add tension in the region. The United States claims that its Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy is to maintain the stability, security and development for the region. In terms of the practical impacts, however, the consequence is the opposite. Since the implementation of the strategy, the relatively calm situation in the western Pacific has begun to get restless. Under the background of the U.S. rebalancing strategy, some countries have had a tendency and made steps to break the status quo. Thus, the rebalancing strategy is the balance of the US national strategy, but caused the imbalance in the region.

In military terms, the U.S. alliance in the region makes the security architecture even more imbalanced and vulnerable. In the occasion of Carter’s visit to South Korea, North Korea launched two missiles as “a welcoming message.” In the economic field, the United States has been promoting the TPP negotiations to make economic framework in the region more divided and exclusive. The free trade system within the area has been gradually developed. The countries in the region have shown great enthusiasm and made joint efforts to promote regional economic cooperation. Since the implementation of the rebalancing strategy, the region’s political hot spots have been continuing to ferment, which has interrupted the economic integration, such as China, Japan and South Korea FTA negotiations in stagnation.

Fundamentally, the new phase of the U.S. Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy is the product of the combination of the U.S. hegemony mentality, the rising anxiety caused by the relative decline of strength, and zero-sum game thinking. With this mindset, the U.S. Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy will neither bring well-being to the region, nor help to achieve its own interests in the long term.

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