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US and Asia-Pacific: Will Obama Rebalance Further?

Shreya Upadhyay
Research Intern, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
20 March 2014

 

How is China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region responding to the US rebalancing act? Will this affect the original scope and objectives of the US policy? Will the US rebalance its own strategies towards the region further?

China’s Military and Political Strategy: Resisting the Rebalance

Beijing views Washington’s diplomatic moves as coming toe to toe with China. The US rebalance is viewed as an attempt to stunt China’s rise and tantamount to a new Cold War in the Asia-Pacific. An increased US military engagement and alliances in the region has provided China with an excuse to ramp up its own weapons systems. Beijing has increased its military spending by 12 per cent to $131 billion in 2014. China now seeks to develop more high-tech weapons and beef up coastal and air defences the East and South China Seas and as well as in the western-Pacific and Indian Oceans.

On the diplomatic front, China considers the US involvement in maritime issues of Southeast Asia as direct provocation. As Washington pushes forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China is enhancing its ties with the ASEAN, and is establishing a mechanism of regional economic cooperation to counter Washington’s manoeuvres.

Southeast Asia and India: Straddling the Fence

Almost every other regional power in Northeast, Southeast, and South Asia maintains two stances towards the US’ rebalancing act. Many have drawn from the classic balance-of-power thinking and “rebalanced” their own positions closer to the non-threatening great power. They welcome stronger US commitment to the region, and yet are keen to avoid taking sides openly.

States like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and India are trying to straddle the fence. Australia and New Zealand too have welcomed the rebalance policy, but neither wants to upset China, and especially not their economic ties.

The nations in the region are attempting to develop contingency plans to preserve their interests in the face of new challenges posed by China’s rise, and simultaneously seek a mutually beneficial relationship with the country. They also see closer relations with the US as a hedge against China.

Japan and South Korea: Welcoming the Rebalance

China’s muscle-flexing in the region has led to countries once sceptical of the US military presence such as Vietnam or the Philippines to welcome American forces. Singapore has outdone several regional US allies to embrace close strategic cooperation with what it appreciates as a “stabilising influence” in the region. However, Japan and South Korea have been the most vocal vis-à-vis greater US security presence in the region.

It is not a coincidence that both are embroiled in territorial and security disputes with China over maritime and territorial claims. However, the ongoing friction between the two over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands in the Sea of Japan has frustrated US efforts to forge a coherent security policy in Northeast Asia. Rising nationalistic sentiment in both countries too threatens to corrode the rebalancing goals.

Rebalancing Further: New Moves by the US

There are lingering doubts regarding the long-term US commitment to rebalance. Internally, the US finds itself severely restricted by fiscal troubles. Analysts wonder if the US plan is comprehensive and coherent or if it has been hurriedly planned and implemented thereby running the risk of political and logical dissonances.

Thus, when US President Barack Obama cancelled his visit to Malaysia, the Philippines, and the APEC, EAS and US-ASEAN summits due to the government shutdown last year, doubts vis-à-vis Washington's commitment to the region rose. The Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, in his speech, expressed the general regional sentiment, stating that “Obviously we prefer a US government which is working to one which is not, and we prefer a US president who is able to travel and fulfil his international duties to one who is preoccupied with his domestic preoccupations.”

This has created a pressure for Washington to reiterate the Pivot's status as a long term national strategy. Obama's rescheduling of the visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines to April 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry's recent stop over in Indonesia, China, and South Korea, and the inauguration of the US-ASEAN Defence Forum point that the US interest in the region is not ephemeral.

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review has also reaffirmed the “rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region” as a priority. There have been plans regarding modernisation of surface ships, aircraft and submarines to meet 21st century needs. The Department of Defense has stressed on its use of the US territory of Guam in the west-Pacific Ocean as an alternative strategic hub. With Congressional approval of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014, funding has also been granted for the Asia program.

At present, the US in the process of shifting military capacities—especially naval and air capabilities involving surface ships, aircraft carriers, intelligence and surveillance capabilities and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the Asia-Pacific.

While critics have argued that large military bases are declining along with the number of military personnel deployed, what needs to be looked at is that the global infrastructure of small overseas bases is multiplying rapidly. The Pentagon is developing flexible Forward Operating Sites and Cooperative Security Locations nicknamed “lily pads” in the Asia-Pacific as well as in the rest of the world. These small bases have a limited number of military specialists, minimal amenities, weaponry and supplies. These would allow Pentagon to respond quickly to developments taking place in different parts of the world.

© Copyright 2014, Southeast Asia Research Programme by IPCS

 

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