US in Asia Pacific

Rebalancing: Nature of New Alliances

14 May, 2014    ·   4437

Amrita Banerjee analyses the need for the US’ engagement in Asia to be geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable in nature

The post-War order in Asia has rested on the presence and predictability of the US power anchored in a network of military alliances and partnerships. While the countries in the region welcomed this originally, today, these equations have drastically changed. Asia is a region that is home to the productive motors of the global economy, nuclear weapons states, and, a host of unresolved rivalries and differences. 

The US’ ‘rebalancing’ strategy, coming into play at an opportune time, has exposed the threat of China’s attempt at the Finlandization of the continent’s rim areas. With a thriving economy and expanding military prowess, Beijing is no longer the ‘hidden’ dragon, and unlike USSR, it is here to stay. China has responded to the US’ Asian rebalance strategy by picking up squabbles with US allies such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, among others. Having earned the title of a ‘selective stakeholder’ in international politics, it expresses the reality of a new power in Asia that has the capacity to decouple the US from its allies region.

Nature of New Alliances
There are many alliances in effect in the region: The US-China bilateral; the US’ relationship with other nations in the region; China’s relationship with the regional countries; and the relationship dynamics between the countries in the region as well.

What will the new alliances look like in the backdrop of the US rebalancing act? Washington seeks alliances and relationships of various kinds at different levels to further its strategy it views as a multi-player game. 

Since the individual regional countries cannot directly balance China, these states would bandwagon with the US to counter the Chinese threat. One potential alliance that could emerge is that between Japan, India, and Australia. They would require the US in this endeavour as well. Another potential alliance could be a trilateral agreement between the US, Japan and South Korea – or the ‘Security Trilemma’ – that could be further expanded to include Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam to deal with the unresolved issues with China, vis-à-vis the South China Sea.

There is a possibility of China responding to this new milieu by bringing Russia, North Korea, Myanmar and Cambodia on board to deal with issues pertaining to East Asia. Any involvement of the US to build alliances against Beijing will give rise to tensions.

The US’ Predicament
The US, after its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, its domestic economic slump, is a tired nation, and does not want to get into a new conflict, especially not with China. Also, since ‘rebalancing’ is not about isolating or containing Beijing, but engaging it, Washington’s cosiness with Beijing is sure to unnerve US’s allies and partners. Similarly, Washington’s ‘hedging’ strategy to deepen its alliance with friends and partners will certainly unnerve China. The problem gets further compounded when these allies want the US to defend them against Chinese depredations but do not want Washington to do anything that will put their productive economic linkages with Beijing, at risk.

In this regard, India and Pakistan also would not provide any relief to the US. Despite being a ‘strategic partner’ of the US, India would prefer to maintain its strategic autonomy even when overtly challenged by China along the Sino-Indian border. Islamabad, which considers China its ‘all-weather friend’ would remain committed to Beijing and bamboozle the US to receive more funds and aid.

This raises the obvious question about the future and sustainability of such alliances, given how they may not always be mutually exclusive. For countries that have eventful histories and seek independent destinies – such as India, Japan, South Korea and Australia – success of the US rebalancing strategy is vital. However, the US’ silence over certain territorial disputes between China and its allies bring into question the exclusivity and fluidity of such alliances. In fact, Myanmar, a long-time friend of China is now slowly opening up to the West.

The US’ engagement in the region should thus be geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable. To succeed in its endeavour, Washington has to find a ‘Goldilocks’ strategy, whereby it is not too hard and not too soft on China, as well as not too coercive and not too indifferent towards regional partners. The triumph of this calculation in Asia becomes imperative for the two reasons: to preserve peace as in the region 3 billion people call home, and also towards the future of the global order.