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#4443, 16 May 2014

US in Asia Pacific

Rebalancing: Part of its Grand Strategy?
Simi Mehta
PhD scholar, American Studies Programme, School of International Studies, JNU

In order to bolster the role of the US in the Asia-Pacific, the Obama administration has identified the region as part of its geostrategic priority by announcing its ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy. The ‘pivot to Asia’ was announced in 2010 as part of the American strategy for the Asia-Pacific. This was later termed as ‘rebalancing’. The strategic concept of ‘rebalancing’ is now a part of the comprehensive grand strategy towards the Asia-Pacific region in a major way.

Since the composition and the character of ‘rebalancing’ are in constant flux, the concept needs to be put in perspective. The strategy can be linked to other geopolitical developments like the US withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the announcement of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Euro Zone crisis.
The ‘rebalance’ is driven by the US’ desire to reassure its allies in the region that the US is not exhausted after a decade-long war and its domestic concerns, and that it is not going to disengage itself from Asia-Pacific affairs. In US’ calculations there is the need for strategic reassurance to its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific in the face of a rising and increasingly assertive China.

Chinese authoritarianism and dominant maritime behaviour, its economic and military modernisation and nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities have begun to challenge the US predominance in the region, while its expansionist ventures have threatened the sovereignty of countries like India, Japan, Philippines and Vietnam. The US ‘rebalance’ in the Asia-Pacific is thus vital to US interests as it seeks to invest in strategic capabilities in the region to create a balance of power. The attributes of ‘rebalancing’ that paint it as an anti-China strategy have irked China considerably.

US interests in the Asia-Pacific centres around its role as an extra-regional power and an offshore balancer in the region. Professor Walter Russell Mead has opined that in the presence of powers like China and Japan, a region fraught with troubles like the Korean Peninsula and with multiple crises in the South China Sea, the US has pursued a series of interlocking, reinforcing and tailored strategies of balancing and engagement. These steps reassert the US’ desire as a great power to carry out its objective of pursuing a long-term grand strategy in this region.

The US’ defence treaties with Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Philippines have often been seen as a strategic partner’s reiteration of its commitment to the security of these countries. Through the rebalancing strategy, the US seeks to reassure its allies that it stands by them in the face of an increasingly assertive China. US’ grand strategy as part of its long-term national interests considers engagement with other countries of the Asia-Pacific as vital to its foreign policy objectives. The seriousness of the US in ‘rebalancing’ to the Asia-Pacific can be gauged from some of the decisions of the Obama administration, such as the closing down of two military bases in Europe and shifting its military weight to the Asia-Pacific despite the defense budget cuts. This makes it clear that the US  is prepared to go the distance if required but will not compromise the core composition of its ‘rebalancing’ strategy.

However, if the US takes a confrontationist stance against China, it would lead to a geopolitical imbalance in the region and a highly volatile Asia-Pacific. To that extent, the US should refrain from deliberate provocations and the creation of a regional anti-Chinese alliance as its economy is deeply intertwined with that of China. The US also requires engaging China on issues like Iran and North Korea.
Verbal declarations that communicate support for an ally through military assistance during a crisis have been a tested strategy of US diplomacy and fits well into the grand ‘rebalancing’ strategy. Professor Deepa Ollapally of the Elliott School of International Affairs advocates that the grand strategy vis-à-vis China must be to positively engage with it rather than trying to contain it, given the rapidity of its economic and military growth.

The Sigur Center for Asian Studies concludes that the US approach in the Asia-Pacific must be governed by both moderation and balance to strengthen the multi-lateral security architecture in the region. Tight-rope diplomatic maneouvering is required as the US grand strategy is likely to continue.

It would be apt to quote President Barack Obama in order to put the ‘rebalance’ into perspective: “This is the future we seek in the Asia-Pacific—security, prosperity and dignity for all ... let there be no doubt: in the Asia-Pacific in the twenty-first century, the United States of America is all in.”

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