Obama’s Rebalance or Pivot to Asia needs filling out and a new vision, writes HAMISH McDONALD.
Barack Obama has landed in Tokyo this week on a visit to Asian allies and friends, nearly two-and-a-half years after announcing his major foreign policy initiative, the Pivot or Rebalance to Asia.
But Obama’s grand vision for America’s place in the so-called Asian century, probably his major foreign policy theme, still remains a work-in-progress, or less charitably a policy in search of substance.
Rebalance or redux?
The most visible element of the policy was and is the annual rotation of a Marine Corps battle group through Darwin, in northern Australia. Otherwise the Rebalance isn’t very new.
America already had nearly 60 per cent of its defence assets in Asia, and the upgrading of quality – F-22s in Japan, advanced attack submarines in Guam, and regional missile defence – had started back after the first Korean nuclear crisis in 1994 and the Taiwan Straits missile crisis in 1996.
The hardening of Japan’s defence posture and more active role in the US alliance, new space and cyber cooperation with Australia, and port calls by US aircraft carriers in Singapore also went back many years.
A second leg of the Rebalance, the economic one, has come to be defined as the Trans- Pacific Partnership, an ambitious services-oriented free trade agreement. America jumped into this arrangement in September 2008 under George W Bush and it was gingerly picked up by Obama in November 2009, then later thrown into the Rebalance mix.
While filling out the Rebalance, the TPP has emerged as a serious economic proposal with Japan joining the negotiations.
As well as being a virtual US-Japan free trade agreement, the TPP has become identical with the “third arrow” of Abenomics, the suite of measures by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to jolt Japan out of deflation and restore growth. It is also an instrument of reform for Vietnam, and potentially for China itself.
But negotiations are currently stalled by US politics and Japanese protectionism. Without the TPP the Rebalance looks pretty thin.
The Rebalance’s third leg, greater diplomatic engagement in Asia, also began earlier.
Obama signed up to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009, allowing him to be the first US president at the peak body of regional architecture, the East Asia Summit.
This attention to Southeast Asia really did put an enhanced strand into American diplomacy. Under Obama, America became a more engaged partner with ASEAN, and worked harder through its forums and institutions.
Gatherings once seen as mostly funny shirts, karaoke and comedy skits became more serious events, though ASEAN remains still more a forum for building and maintaining relationships than hammering out new policies and decisions.
If all of these things had been presented together at the beginning, with the Marine deployment in Darwin added later or just presented as incremental to existing training programs, the Rebalance would have looked a more coherent policy.
Calling a spade a spade
What the Rebalance clearly is, is a direct response to a distinct shift in tone by China that was unsettling many countries around it.
Up until 2008, Beijing had kept to the Deng Xiaoping line of keeping a low profile. The Lehman collapse and GFC produced a new narrative, with more talk of China ruling the world and America in decline.
The Marine Corps swing was an opportunistic bit of politics on more than one front. Australia’s fragile Labor government welcomed a chance to show toughness in security and support for the ANZUS alliance.
The US Marine Corps, seeing its role as the second land army coming to an end in Afghanistan, was repositioning itself back into relevance for the new era as a naval force once again, one more dispersed around Pacific bases and ready for quick deployment.
It looked immediately like an obsolete clinging to American shirt-tails by Australia, an overly military response to a broad Chinese ascendancy, and to the Chinese themselves a move to “containment”.
Still, the best friend of the Rebalance has been Beijing.
China’s recent “assertiveness” has created a favourable climate for Obama’s Rebalance in many countries of the region, notably Japan.
In his first 15 months since leading the LDP back into power, Japan’s Abe has put through many of the measures long contemplated to tighten cooperation with the US military forces in Northeast Asia, though regrettably wrapping them in revisionist ideas about Japan’s pre-1945 actions in Asia.
Vietnam is equipping itself with six advanced conventional submarines, bought from Russia with Japanese financial assistance. With the crews being trained by India, there’s an example of the “networking” among allies and friends under the Rebalance, in contrast to the more familiar hub-and-spokes alliance system.
Letting go of the status quo
But, the biggest diplomatic task of all is welding the Rebalance, which is focused on bolstering the resilience of allies and friends, to the pursuit of cooperative relations with China − with the aim of integrating the East Asian nation as happily as possible within the established world order.
New Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s overtures for a New Model of major power relations have struck some chords within the Obama administration. Its second-term National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, declared in November 2013 that the United States was seeking “to operationalise a new model of major power relations” with China.
Rice’s speech, along with receptive remarks by Secretary of State Kerry and Vice-President Joe Biden, about the New Model, appear part of an effort to wind back the harsher tone of the Rebalance under Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary, and give space for the new Chinese leadership to respond.
However, this softer approach raises concern, in US hardline security circles as well as in Japan, that Obama is being drawn into a partnership with China that will involve major concessions of strategic rights. By elevating US-China relations to an effective “G2” (Group of Two) duumvirate is effectively demoting other powers such as Japan, India and Indonesia.
A major drawback of the Rebalance is that it looks like a defence of the 1945 status quo rather than a vision for a changing Asia and an American role in it.
The United States needs to position itself for a multipolar order, welcoming the region’s nations as they “come into their own” in distinctive ways.
Most of all, America needs to dispel talk of decline and political paralysis, from taking the simple step of ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to the great task of modernising infrastructure, improving schools and applying social/taxation policies that better distribute benefits, service-sector profitability, and the oil and gas boom.
Hamish McDonald, journalist-in-residence at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, has been studying the Rebalance at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC.