The US Pivot - Peace, Circle, or Costly Experiment?

2013-09-10

Stephane Oertel

Director, Geopolitics, Sinograduate

 

The US ‘pivot’, a policy of re-balancing America’s economic, military and political focus toward the Asia Pacific was instigate in 2011. The Pivot came in response to tensions in a region that is now at the centre of the world economy. Some however claim that it includes a common thread of policy initiatives that reveal a thinly veiled attempt to encircle China. With the pivot having recently come under renewed analytical focus, here I reflect the origins of the pivot policy, and look for examples of peace and of primacy, pondering what this might mean for the future of peaceful development in Asia Pacific and beyond.

 

1. Origins of the US Pivot

 

The end of the Cold War saw capitalism rise as the victor’s ideology, with the United States its national embodiment. Some proclaimed it to be "the End of History"[1]. As it turned out, however, this "unipolar moment"[2] would not last. The aftermath of the global financial crisis that began in 2008 made this evident. Displacing several centuries of economic dominance by the West, the centre of economic gravity is shifting toward the Asia-Pacific.

 

As a corollary, military spending across the region has increased significantly - exceeding European levels of military spending since 2008. The seemingly bizarre – and aggressive – assertions and military activity of North Korea continue to present a threat to the stability of the region. While not having found a solution to that particular challenge, a "new multilateralism" around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) has transformed the broader parameters of interaction in the region. For the US, it is now a case of continued ascendancy, for now, but without the unipolar powers of recent decades. Such changes serve to modify the underlying international relations calculus that otherwise helps to guarantee the region’s stability.

 

In this broader environment, in a speech in late 2009 in Japan, President Obama gave himself the label of the first "American President of the Pacific".  This was in static reference to his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, and also in dynamic reference to his therein explicit repositioning of American foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific[3].

 

 

 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added her contribution to the shift two years later in a speech in Honolulu that preceded the 19th summit of the APEC, in 2011[4]. Her speech followed her article in Foreign Policy magazine, elaborating the shift in US attention toward the Asia-Pacific. In the article Clinton described this as "a necessary pivot toward the new global realities"[5]. New realities, including the rise in economic and military power of China, may have induced the need for a "pivot" that is both an adaptive response to on-going international structural transformation and possibly also a strategy to impose American rules in the Asian geopolitical game.

 

In March 2013 the Obama administration cancelled the fourth phase of the missile defence shield deployment in Europe, reallocating the resources to the US’s missile defence system in Asia. The unpredictable and often very aggressive overtures of North Korea were given as the reason for the shift. These furthermore form part of what has become known as the “US Pivot”. What are the origins of the Pivot? What does it mean for the region, in practice and in possible implication?

 

A recent piece published on the East Asia Forum placed the US’s military engagement in Asia in a context of two broader US goals: peace or primacy. That is, is the US seeking to maintain peace in an increasingly competitive and divided region, or seeking to preserve earlier primacy?

 

More than fifteen years ago, in 1997, Beijing launched a "diplomacy of the periphery" policy. As a policy of good neighbourliness this would so far prove very effective. The policy’s relative success may have been helped by having been launched at the time of the Asian crisis of 1997. China’s decision not to depreciate its currency at a time of mass regional depreciation was well received across the region. Substantial positive multipliers for China’s relations with its neighbours ensued, including the conclusion of a statement of conduct on the South China Sea and on a marked improvement with Washington‘s allies, including Australia, Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan.

 

All the while, China has also been modernising its military, which is receiving an ever-rising share (? – or just rise in absolute level?) of national resources…

 

 

 

For the US however, in the years after the Asian Currency Crisis, its attention was elsewhere, especially after September 11, 2001.  Not only did those events induce a new direction in American foreign policy, they also sanctioned a wide international consensus in favour of the war on terrorism. Yet, the invasion of Iraq strongly contributed to weakening some links between Washington and its Asian partners, and even between Asian countries themselves. US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have nonetheless represented a significant drain on US military and economic resources in terms of remaining resources able to be active in East Asia. By 2012 President Obama was determined to reduce the strain and re-consolidate its stretched resources: " Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home"[6]. Making matters worse, the decade-long American focus on the Middle East was interpreted as a sign of lack of interest or even of disengagement towards the Asia-Pacific. An open regional field emerged for China to assert its own geopolitical vision.

 

2.2 Peace: Tension in the Region

 

An aggressive turn in Chinese foreign policy took place in 2008-09, which put an end to a period of rapprochement between Beijing and its neighbours.

 

For countries such as Vietnam or the Philippines, the rising nationalist Chinese sentiment has been accompanied by a renewed determination in the South China Sea causing skirmishes at sea between vessels. Faced with this development, the South-East Asian States maintain cordial relations with China on which they depend on for their own economic growth, while simultaneously searching for ways to counterbalance the Chinese influence in the region.

 

Such circumstances help to explain the enthusiastic South East Asian embrace of the "pivot". The American military presence in the Asia-Pacific has indeed been the main guarantor of regional stability since the Second World War, and the perpetuation of that American commitment seems to be a foreign policy priority for many Asian States. Vietnam, for example, has decided to open its port at Cam Ranh Bay to the United States navy in 2003, and has recently indicated that it considered the purchase of US military equipment. The Philippines is a beneficiary of military assistance from the United States, the level of which tripled between 2011 and 2012 alone.

 

Myanmar has participated for the first time as an observer in the joint "Cobra Gold 2013" exercises conducted by the United States together with seven other armies in the region. In this way, and through the development of multilateral initiatives centred around ASEAN, the States in the region are seeking to untie their fate to the vagaries of relations between large powers. It is also what gives meaning to the subsequent attempts by the Obama administration to rename the "pivot" into a "rebalancing" in response to the concerns expressed by some of its Asian and Europeans allies.

 

Alongside tensions around ASEAN nations, the second major frontier concerns the North Korean nuclear threat. It is this that was used to justify the US deployment of antimissile systems into areas that the Chinese strategists regard as a threat to their own capacity of strike and deterrence.

 

(from later in the piece) : Since December 2012, following the placing into orbit of a satellite by Pyongyang, the Korean Peninsula has indeed experienced a new escalation of tensions, leading to a third North Korean nuclear test in February 2013, and to Pyongyang’s cancellation of the armistice agreement which had put an end to the Korean hostilities in 1953. The North Korea of Kim Jong-un has registered its nuclear status in its constitution, and called for the international recognition of this status as a condition for any negotiation of peace or disarmament. The regime also said it was in a "state of war" with South Korea, and has deployed two missile launchers - Musudan - on its eastern coast.

 

If the "new firmness" of Chinese foreign policy has provided the necessary foundations for a rapprochement between some countries of the region and the United States, the posturing and nuclear threats from North Korea have certainly contributed very largely to precipitate this dynamic, relegating any last misgivings on missile defence cooperation between South-East Asia and the United States.

 

3. The US Pivot in practice

 

American "rebalancing" of its military, diplomatic, political and economic action toward Asia was institutionalized in January 2012[7]. Less a question of a particular policy, and more an overall effort, this includes not merely a diplomatic push toward the States of the region but also significant involvement in multilateral forums, economic investment, humanitarian support, alongside a redefinition of the military doctrines and strategies, etc.

 

Economic outreach includes the promotion of a trans-pacific free-trade agreement (Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP) by Washington, which excludes China, and falls within the same logic. This is the framework behind the official travels of president Obama in South-East Asia just after his re-election, or the visit of Hillary Clinton in Myanmar.

 

At the military level, expanded US engagement of the region includes decisions to station four coastal combat vessels in Singapore, to base marines in rotation in Darwin/Australia, or to strengthen the military base in Guam. During the informal "Shangri-La Dialog" of 2012, the Secretary of Defence of the time, Leon Panetta, indicated that the principles of "presence" and "power projection" would guide the United States in the region, and that the strategy of the "pivot" included the strengthening of bilateral alliances, the extension of agreements on military bases, new opportunities for military bases in Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as a displacement of naval capabilities toward the Pacific[8]. The Pentagon has also fundamentally revised its strategic posture in reaction to the new capabilities – of " anti-access (A2) and area denial (AD) strategies" - that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) developed[9].

 

4. Chinese Circle, or just Whispers?

 

These elements are particularly revealing of the goals and challenges of the "pivot", and have a very clear link towards China in common. South-East Asia is probably the region most affected by the rise in power and strategy of influence of Beijing, whilst the US deployment of the very modern combat vessels in Singapore denotes a certain willingness by the United States to also affirm its presence at the edge of the South China Sea while maintaining a relatively low profile. This posture may nevertheless prove risky to the extent that several incidents between the US and Chinese navy have already taken place: in 2009, five Chinese vessels harassed the military ship USS Impeccable and ordered it to leave what China considers its territorial waters. These events are fuelling the fear in Washington of a China more inclined to risk confrontation, by for example limiting the access of American ships to the South China Sea.

 

Such changes serve to modify the underlying international relations calculus that otherwise helps to guarantee the region’s stability. In March 2013 the Obama administration cancelled the fourth phase of the missile defence shield deployment in Europe, reallocating the resources to the US’s missile defence system in Asia. The seemingly bizarre – and aggressive - political North Korean gesticulations were the reason for the shift.

Since December 2012, following the placing into orbit of a satellite by Pyongyang, the Korean Peninsula has indeed experienced a new escalation of tensions, leading to a third North Korean nuclear test in February 2013, and to Pyongyang’s cancellation of the armistice agreement which had put an end to the Korean hostilities in 1953. The North Korea of Kim Jong-un has registered its nuclear status in its constitution, and called for the international recognition of this status as a condition for any negotiation of peace or disarmament. The regime also said it was in a "state of war" with South Korea, and has deployed two missile launchers - Musudan - on its eastern coast.

 

At the same time, Chinese - or indeed Russian - objections to a shield in Asia have until recently been virtually ignored in the press and official US documents, even though missile defence has been a subject of diplomatic tensions both in Asia and in Europe. China has on numerous occasions expressed its fears about an encirclement by the United States and the consequences of a missile shield on regional stability.

 

If the United States maintains that the missile deployment in Asia is intended to protect itself from a North-Korean threat, many signs indicate that China is equally targeted. In September 2012, when the Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, announced the deployment of a second missile radar in Japan and the possibility of a third, located possibly in the Philippines, he insisted on the fact that this development was not directed against China but aimed to respond to a possible missile firing from North-Korea. Yet, the third radar does not seem to correspond to the need for protection in the face of a North-Korean threat, but rather to a desire for detection of missiles launched by China. This has led the Chinese Minister of Defence, Liang Guanglie, to ask if the Japanese base of the Prefecture of Aomori was not sufficient to manage the North Korean threat.

 

The American claim that the missile measures in Asia do not aim China has not been able to convince the authorities in Beijing who are concerned that the US missile defence system will allow the United States to neutralize its nuclear forces. In fact, the evolution of the US missile defence in Asia is seen by Beijing as a containment strategy and in February 2010, colonel Dai Xu stated that the United States is putting in place an encirclement of China ranging from Japan to Afghanistan, passing by South Korea, the South China Sea and India[10]. In addition, the US missile defence system is seen as a threat to Chinese claims on Taiwan and a source of risk in territorial conflicts around the South China Sea. In effect, allies of the United States could adopt a more aggressive stance as they feel protected by a shield, which may explain the recent confrontational posture of the Philippines and Vietnam in their South China Sea claims[11].

 

Some analysts argue that, although “the Middle East is the more imminent risk, nowhere is the longer-term threat of armed conflict greater than in Asia.”[12] Indeed, Asia is home to more hotspots, rising powers, and potential conflicts than any other region in the world and the US “pivot”, rather helping to stabilize the region, seems to have added to existing tensions whilst even creating new ones. As the US is about to lose its much coveted “Number One” spot economically, it appears dangerously keen to prove that it will keep the military top spot for much longer…the question is: at what cost??

 

 

[1] Francis Fukuyama, « The End of History? », The National Interest, 1989; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York, Free Press, 1992.

 

[2] Charles Krauthammer, « The Unipolar Moment », Foreign Affairs, 70 (1) 1990/1991, p. 23-33.

 

[3] Obama Barack, « Remarks by President Barack Obama at Suntory Hall », 14 November 2009, Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-barack-obama-suntory-hall

 

[4] ClintonHillary, « America’s Pacific Century », Remarks, East-West Center, Honolulu, 10 November 2011, http://

 

www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/11/176999.htm

 

[5] Clinton Hillary, « America’s Pacific Century », Foreign Policy, 189, November 2011, p. 56-63.

 

[6] Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address, 24 January 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/01/24/remarks-president-state-union-address

 

[7] See Department of Defence, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defence, January 2012.

 

[8] « Rowing between two reefs : China, the United States and containment revenant », NAPSNet Policy Forum, 9 August 2012, http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/rowing-between-two-reefs-china-the-united-states-and-containment-revenant

 

[9] See « Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) », Department of Defence, 17 January 2012, http://www.defence.

 

gov/pubs/pdfs/JOAC_Jan%202012_Signed.pdf ; Stephan Frühling, « US strategy : between the ‘pivot’ and ‘Air-

 

Sea Battle’ », East Asia Forum, 26 August 2012, www.eastasiaforum.org/2012/08/26/us-strategy-between-the-pivotand-air-se... ; « Anti-acces/Area denial: Washington’s response », The Military Balance 2013, London, The International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), 2013, p. 29-31.

 

[10] LiBin, « China and the New U.S. Missile Defense in East Asia », Carnegie Endowment, 6 September 2012, http://

 

carnegieendowment.org/2012/09/06/china-and-news-u.s.-missile-defense-in-east-asia/drth

 

[11] Pan Chengxin, « Is the South China Sea a new ‘Dangerous Ground’ for US-China rivalry ? », East Asia Forum, 24

 

mai 2011, http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2011/05/24/is-the-south-china-sea-a-new-dangerous-ground-for-uschina-rivalry/

 

[12] Ian Bremmer, “Every Nation for Itself – Winner and Losers in a G-Zero World”, 2012, page 69.

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