US in Asia Pacific

Rebalancing: A Complex Triangle

14 May, 2014    ·   4440

Kimberley Anne Nazareth comments on the delicacy of balance between the US, China and Southeast Asia

The recent crises that have engulfed the international community such as in Syria and now Crimea have raised questions regarding the US commitment to its rebalance in the Asia-Pacific. The visits of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and President Obama to the region in April 2014 are aimed in one sense to quell concerns surrounding the US commitment to its rebalancing strategy.

The US rebalance to the Asia Pacific has created a complex triangle for Southeast Asian countries with the involvement of China, and their responses are not uniform. There are some in favour while others are sceptical.

Doubt Vs Certainty
The Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam have welcomed the US engagement in the region. Military cooperation against external threats, joint exercises and defence dialogues are part of the rebalancing strategy. Since the US has pledged its commitment, it is a surety that bilateral ties will continue to mature. Theses ties are advantageous to both: the US gets a chance to maintain its presence in the region and the Southeast Asian countries stand to gain economic and military benefits.
On the other hand, there are countries that are sceptical of the US involvement in the region. Countries like Indonesia despite good relations with the US, follow a cautious policy with both the US and China. This is true of Malaysia as well, as the South China Sea is one of its biggest concerns and maintaining a balance is imperative.

The rapprochement with Myanmar has created new avenues for both sides. Military relations are in the nascent stage but the ground work has begun. The pace at which this partnership is moving has made many wary, especially members of the US Congress, who have advised a more cautious policy. 

The US is also trying to strengthen its relations with regional institutions like ASEAN, and participate in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Forum (EAF). ASEAN, however, is sceptical of the US as it is not keen on external powers deciding and forming its agenda. Another reason for this scepticism is the possibility of the US-China rivalry inflaming the region, which is not in the best interest of the ASEAN member countries.  

The US strategy in the region involves a number of aspects, such as to keep China in check, reassure allies in the region and prove that its influence is not declining. By forming partnerships, conducting military exercises and making high-level visits, the US is showing its commitment to the region.  As per the QDR 2014 the US presence in the region will only increase, quelling any concerns over its commitment. At the same time, it is trying to avoid a conflict in the region by not provoking China, which would embroil the US and force it to pick sides.

US, China and Southeast Asia: A Complex Triangle
The involvement of China and the US along with the Southeast Asian countries has created a complex triangle in the region. In spite of claims of a ‘peaceful rise’, Chinese unilateralism in the South China Sea and disputes with regional countries over the islands of Diaoyu/Senkaku has ignited fear in the region. The regional countries see the US involvement as a ‘security blanket’ against this unilateralism. Though some might be unconvinced, the US could be the lesser of two evils.

The other aspect that requires consideration is that these countries have robust economic relations with China who happens to be their neighbour. Therefore, antagonising China could upset the delicate balance in the region. In this sticky situation, picking sides for these countries is not an option and following a non-aligned policy is easier said than done. Though many countries are sceptical they mostly look to the US for support. Therefore, maintaining a balance between the two has proven and will continue to prove to be difficult. The US too has to play a balancing game by reassuring allies on the one hand, and not provoking China on the other. The US and China have strong economic and military relations and neither can afford to jeopardise it.

Though the rebalance has fostered greater military and economic relations between the US and countries of the region, it has also created problems for the latter. There are lingering questions about the commitment to the rebalancing strategy especially with the age-old debate on the US’ decline. The US Congress too has reiterated these concerns by questioning the clarity of the rebalancing strategy, funding, legislative issues, strategic issues (bilateral relations including with China), and the manner in which it has been carried out. As for its relations with hesitant countries, steadying the course and continuing to reassure is the only option. The US rebalance cannot happen overnight, there will be ebbs and flows, and the commitment to the region will be the defining factor. In spite of these concerns, the US is moving ahead with the rebalance in a cautionary manner so as not to inflame the situation.