The United States is returning to the Asia-Pacific region.
Last November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote of “America’s Pacific Century” in Foreign Policy, and Washington announced the basing of Marines in Australia. Shortly thereafter, President Obama began reversing years of perceived American disengagement by participating in the East Asia Summit (EAS) for the first time and spearheading the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade framework through the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Washington is providing military aid to Indonesia, likely stationing littoral combat ships in Singapore, and looking to increase its presence in the Philippines and Thailand, in addition to boosting existing relationships with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Elsewhere, The United States has begun reconnecting with its historical foe Vietnam while also supporting continued reform in Myanmar. This flurry of retrenchment has tangibly demonstrated Washington’s recommitment, but it also carries a number of implications for the region.
Implications for the Asia-Pacific
To start, this is not a significant strategic paradigm shift. Washington has always had an interest in the Pacific, not least because of the ever-rising volume of maritime trade and a number of longstanding allies. Those allies and their neighbours have flourished in a security environment historically underwritten by the United States. Washington has, however, been distracted for the better part of a decade in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. The consequence of this distraction has been a shift in Asia-Pacific regional dynamics.
China has taken advantage of Washington’s post-9/11 focus. Over the last few years, Beijing has combined its rapid economic ascent with increasingly aggressive “gunboat” diplomacy in disputes, raising tensions in the region. China’s neighbours see a dangerous correlation between China’s rapid but opaque military modernization and its ham-fisted territorial claims. In addition to the Taiwan issue, Japan and South Korea continue to spar with Chinese claims over East Asian islands, while several ASEAN states are being bullied by Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea. The lack of an effective strategic counterweight to China’s aggression meant Beijing got its way more often than not.
The American “return,” then, could not be better timed. Although the region’s major powers – Japan, South Korea, and Australia – have sufficient clout to protect their domestic interests, they do not, even together, have sufficient power to provide regional security. Southeast Asia does not have any collective power, and remains heavily reliant on the United States as the guarantor of stability. Given the rising tensions and its position as the predominant military power in the area, Washington is signaling reassurances that it will remain involved in the region.
The signal is doubly significant given the intense budgetary crisis in the United States. Its Asian allies worry that the Pentagon’s need to balance its books will impact the military provision of regional stability. To assuage those fears, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has reassured the region that “the Pacific remains a priority for the US.” Maintaining forward-deployed American forces overseas remains a good idea. Withdrawing these tangible commitments now would put the US at a severe political and strategic disadvantage, the diplomatic and military fallout from which it may never recover.
Continued American security dominance also buys time for the region to progress in other domains. Governments can focus their resources on addressing domestic issues without the costly obligation of also contending with an unstable neighbourhood. This is particularly the case for ASEAN states as they go through socio-political upheaval over better governance and economic opportunity, in addition to longstanding internal religious or ethnic strife.
At the same time, Southeast Asia is home to several significant emerging markets and investment opportunities. Without US coverage, these states would inevitably come under Chinese economic influence, for better or for worse. The region also contains the busiest maritime commerce lanes in the world and is a vital throughway for the US Navy, making Washington’s return all the more important.
The unspoken implication, of course, is that the United States is there to stay. The Asia-Pacific is the center of the global economy and world trade, and Washington has a long list of friends and allies in the area. That these friends and allies are increasingly nervous about China will keep the US engaged in the region for the foreseeable future.
Implications for China
China will undoubtedly see these moves as further attempts to contain its economic growth and rise as a regional power, but Beijing should not read too deeply. While they certainly illustrate Washington’s desire to re-engage the region, it would be a hawkish exaggeration to read it as containment. A mere 2,500 Marines in northern Australia will not have any significant impact on the balance of power. Littoral combat ships, although modern and purportedly stealthy, are not carrier strike groups. Handfuls of fighter jets and pockets of new military equipment do not fundamentally change the already-lopsided military calculus in Southeast Asia.
Washington’s refocus does signal, however, an end to the relative free reign Beijing has had in its backyard in the post-9/11 era. To date, China has preferred to engage its neighbours bilaterally so it can bring its superior political and economic weight to bear, sometimes resorting to overtly aggressive pressure outside of normal diplomatic parameters. Whether it is Beijing’s version of realpolitik or merely the product of immature statecraft, China’s recent foreign policy record has antagonized its neighbours and drawn significant suspicion and scorn. Washington’s re-engagement is thus meant to strengthen resolve and lessen Beijing’s ability to run roughshod over the region.
This is not to say that the end goal is to isolate China. The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that it stands ready to diplomatically engage with Beijing. The objective is to coerce China into abiding by established international rules. For all its bluster, Beijing knows that greater engagement and a diplomatic solution to territorial disputes are China’s best options for continued economic growth and regional stability. Despite its rapid modernization and expansion, the PLA remains militarily incapable of projecting significant power beyond China’s coasts. Nor is the region ready for Chinese leadership – both because Beijing has yet to demonstrate any semblance of it, and because the region continues to default to the US for security assurance given Washington’s relatively transparent agenda.
But China’s position will not remain static. For now, stability will come through good relations with the United States. If Beijing is seen to be on better terms with Washington, its neighbours will be more inclined towards fruitful relations as well. China currently does not want conflict, largely because it does not have much to gain through escalation. The region is already suspicious of China’s opaque intentions. Any further aggression would encourage Asia-wide anti-Chinese sentiment. Given time or sufficient reason, however, and that calculus will change.
Despite its economic power and authoritarian regime, China remains a deeply insecure nation. In this perspective, Washington’s latest moves can be interpreted as the positioning of weiqi pieces to encircle the Chinese mainland. Beijing is also keenly aware that Washington’s insistence on engagement by established international rules is reminiscent of China’s historical experience with ‘other people’s rules’ – the unequal treaties imposed by European powers and Japan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This ‘century of darkness’ remains a traumatic scar on China’s cultural psyche. In large part, Chinese foreign policy and its perception of the international system stem from the desire to avoid similar future situations.
This is perhaps the greatest danger. Despite the burgeoning economic relationship, Beijing and Washington have misconceived but deeply held perceptions about the other. China sees the American-led championing of Western socio-cultural ideals as an existential threat to domestic stability. Indeed, Beijing remains wary of the impact and compatibility of such ideas with the pace and direction of Chinese socio-economic development.
On the other hand, Washington fundamentally opposes Beijing’s one-party authoritarian regime, a perception that underpins its wider conception that China is a security threat to Asia. The United States’ relative decline as a world power vis-à-vis China’s rise only heightens suspicions that Beijing has hegemonic intentions for the region and beyond.
Most critically, policies based on one’s own perceptions alone without regard for the other will only mutually reinforce misunderstanding and the potential for unnecessary tension. Worse, if left unaddressed, these fears have the potential to become self-fulfilling prophecies.
One can hope, then, that Washington’s latest moves in Asia are the first in a sustained effort to reconcile differences with Beijing. For its part, China is somewhat justified in approaching the implicit invitation cautiously. As the dominant power, the onus remains with the United States to show genuine intentions and assuage Chinese fears. But diplomacy is always reciprocal. Beijing must also be willing to be transparent and negotiate in good faith.
Ernest Chong graduated from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. He also holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from King’s College London. He is currently assistant publisher at Global Brief magazine and is an affiliated analyst for Polaris Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based geo-political consultancy start-up. His areas of interest focus on defence and security issues in Canada, the United States, and the Asia-Pacific. This post is an updated summary of an assessment of the United States’ Asia ‘pivot’ for Polaris Strategies in December 2011. A follow-up piece on China’s latest military budget will appear next week.