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US and Asia-Pacific: Pivot, Rebalance and What Next?

D Suba Chandran
Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
13 March 2014

The American strategy towards the Asia Pacific is facing serious challenges. What started as a new “pivot” to Asia and later shifted to a “rebalance” now needs serious re-adjustment. Not because the American strategy is problematic, but more because of what is happening in multiple regions in Asia, starting from Syria in the Middle East to Japan in the East Asia. Therein lies the challenge to a hegemon in decline, and multiple actors who are not afraid to confront the sole super power. Perhaps, the US faces a bigger challenge than what it faced during the Cold War.

The rising China, no more peaceful, as could be seen from its recent strategies in East Asia, undoubtedly poses the biggest challenge to American rebalancing strategy towards Asia. China has clearly chosen its battleground to challenge the US might, where the latter feels the weakest – the South China Sea and East Asia. Despite all the bravado of the US and its allies like Japan, the recent pronouncements and actions in South China Sea, especially the proclamation of the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), has clearly been a successful strategy by China to undermine the American influence in the region.

The US feels helpless and is faced with fewer options in South China Sea and East Asia. Though the US may want to be proactive and aggressive in addressing Chinese designs in the region, it has few options in the ground (or in the sea) to address the challenges posed by Beijing. On its part, China is carefully choosing its zone of conflict, based on its own strengths. More importantly, China is also carefully calibrating its options – attempting to show how ineffective the US power is, and how helpless those countries would remain if they expect Washington to come to their support.

More than the Chinese grand designs to upset the American plans, what really challenges the American options is the role and strategies played by its own allies, especially Japan. Under Abe’s leadership, Tokyo is on a collision course – not only vis-à-vis China, but also vis-à-vis South Korea, which is another valuable US ally in the region. Japan, under Abe, has been extremely offensive – pushing the threshold, for whatever reasons only known to its leadership led by Abe. The biggest challenge for the US in East Asia does not come from China, but from an aggressive Japan.

Unlike the previous decades, where Japan played the part of a perfect ally to the US by yielding to Washington’s larger strategies in the region and elsewhere, Tokyo today has a mind of its own. The hard reality for the US is to manage an increasingly aggressive Japan, which is on a decline (economically) and a rising China (both economically and militarily). Japan with an ageing population and declining economy is certainly not good news; it is only a matter of time before Japan further falls economically – beyond any redemption in terms of its inner strengths to bounce back.

China will increase the economic lead vis-à-vis Japan and more importantly in terms of its ability to invest and increase its presence all over the world – covering Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

The second major challenge to the American rebalance strategy come from Southeast Asia. Though, politically, the region would look forward to the American rebalancing strategy, their economy is linked closely to China. Except for Vietnam and the Philippines, none of the other countries in Southeast Asia individually, or the ASEAN as an economic unit is likely to fall beyond the American rebalancing strategy. Southeast Asia and ASEAN will be extremely cautious and choose their own independent path in the growing cold war between the US and China. Though politically, the ASEAN and its member countries may be more willing to toe the American line (except perhaps for Cambodia); economically the region and ASEAN would be extremely wary of choosing sides.

Even Myanmar, which has been opening up in the recent years, too radically to anyone’s standard, will be cautious of choosing sides. Though the regime have made few unpopular decisions against the Chinese interests, Myanmar, given the border issues and ethnic conflicts within, would not go too far to antagonize China. So far, the leadership in Myanmar has been extremely careful in their calibrated strategies vis-à-vis China. They are unlikely to totally upset Beijing; it would be suicidal for the regime.

South Asia will pose multiple challenges to the US. India, with whom the US signed a strategic partnership agreement and nuclear deal, is unlikely to become an ally. India will remain rhetorically sound, irritating the Americans and would prefer to maintain its strategic autonomy; it would never become an ally of the US. Though Washington would want to have India in its orbit, New Delhi would pursue its own course, even if challenged by China overtly along the Sino-Indian border, or covertly through Pakistan.

Pakistan, which considers its relationship with China as higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, and now sweeter than honey would remain more committed to Beijing, though in actual terms receive more funds and aid from the US. Pakistan will continue to dupe the US, and Washington despite all its efforts to pressurize Islamabad would fine clueless in dealing with Pakistan.

Afghanistan and Iran would remain two serious concerns from the US. In fact, the entire region west of India would remain volatile for any American calculations in the Western Asia. Regarding Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Crimea, the US would face more questions than any answers to its rebalancing strategy. Elections in Afghanistan and the BSA are two crucial factors today, and the stability of Afghanistan in the near future would remain the primary challenge for the US calculations in the region. Should China be allowed to invest more in the region, especially in Afghanistan, both politically and economically, would be another crucial question facing the US.

With the ongoing crisis in Crimea, Russia has already entered into future American calculations. What options does President Barack Obama have now? As the Chinese would say, perhaps both Obama and the US live in an interesting time. Perhaps, it is more a curse, than a wish.

Will Obama and the US manage?

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir

 

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