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US and Asia-Pacific: Rebalance Under Threat?

Vivek Mishra
Research Intern, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
20 March 2014

The limitations of the US involvement in the Asian security construct have been manifesting themselves often recently – particularly since the 2001 EP-3 incident – and with increasing frequency with the rise in China’s maritime assertiveness in the region. Over the past six months alone, there have been a few confrontations between the US and China that reflect the limitations to Washington’s strategic hedging against Beijing in the Asia-Pacific.

There have been at least three incidents that indicate the limitations. In 2012, the US displayed evident reluctance to go out of its way to side with the Philippines when China took the Scarborough Shoal, in spite of there being a bilateral defence understanding between the two. In 2013, when China unilaterally imposed an Air Defence Identification Zone over large parts of the East China Sea, that angered Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, the US’ response was limited to flying two unarmed, unescorted B-52 bombers over the Chinese-demarcated Zone. Washington did not make any attempt to pressurise Beijing to take back the decision. Six days later, China’s Hainan province issued new regulations on fishing in the South China Sea. These regulations came into force in January 2014.

In December 2013, USS Cowpens (CG-63), a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser, was nudged and forced out of its way by the People’s Liberation Army Navy although it claimed to have been in ‘international waters’. Washington’s response was limited to a statement issued by the U.S. Pacific Fleet which stated, “This incident underscores the need to ensure the highest standards of professional seamanship, including communications between vessels, to mitigate the risk of an unintended incident or mishap.”

On all these geostrategic developments, Washington has exercised restraint. Both the White House and the Pentagon have thought it to be wise not to confront China. Implicit in this decision is the fact that any possibility of strategic confrontation between China and the US is undercut by their neoliberal concerns. In other words, a free execution of “Rebalancing” has thus been constrained by the US’ economic dependence on China. There are other constraints as well. A recuperating US economy finds it difficult to remain committed in military-strategic assets in the Asia-Pacific due to resource constraints. Part of the blame also lies in the failure to implement the “Rebalancing” properly. This assertion gets a justification in a US Department of Defense-commissioned assessment which pointed out that the strategy behind its force planning has not been “adequately articulated.”

Even as the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review reaffirms Washington’s commitment to the US pivot to Asia, the Pivot is failing to live up to its promise. Clearly, the chinks in the armour of the US’ capability for a military-strategic force projection in the Asia-Pacific have been made visible by Chinese assertiveness.

Early Signs

The recoil in the Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia policy became evident within two years of the declaration of the policy. Among the first instances was the talk of the US’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific being replaced with the policy of a ’rebalancing’. For example, in the annual security conference of the US Army War College in 2012, references to an ‘Asian Pivot’ were deliberately eschewed in favour of the term, ‘rebalancing.’ Gradually, with recalibrations in its erstwhile pivot policy, rebalancing became the preferred term.

Careful observations will reveal that there has either been a further dilution in the rebalancing policy of the US or that it never really took off in the intended sense. This dilution traces itself to the first term of US President Barack Obama. In 2008, while still campaigning, Obama spoke tough on China. But he softened his stance on the country after he assumed office. His first term saw conciliatory steps towards accommodating Chinese concerns to deal with issues such as the currency dispute, climate change, North Korea, and Iran. On all these issues, China did not reciprocate as desired by the US.

In his second term, Obama’s Asia policy remains clogged with problems arising particularly out of Beijing’s maritime assertiveness. China’s further military modernisation and its show of strength have become the bane for American security policy in the Asia-Pacific. China, at least in the past six months, has reacted in a way that confirms that it is circumspect in so far as “Rebalancing” is concerned, and is keeping its powder dry. The Chinese assertive reactions stem from the understanding that rebalancing seeks to throw China off its strategic balance in the region. China’s wariness also lies in the US’ repositioning of its troops in the Philippines and Australia – apart from strengthening its security and military alliances in the region.

Chinese assertiveness has forced the ‘Rebalancing” to undergo significant changes. A conclusive assessment for American “Rebalancing” will reveal that a head on collision with China has received a thumbs down from mandarins in Washington. For now, it appears that the best way to sustain the momentum of an already waning “Rebalancing” strategy is the realisation that the US cannot take this policy forward by itself.

The US will have to work with a concert of democracies in Asia to create an effective strategic bulwark against a growing hegemon like China. But are the others ready?

© Copyright 2014, Southeast Asia Research Programme by IPCS

 

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