from Asia Unbound

The U.S. Pivot to Asia: Much More Than a Military Rebalance

November 20, 2012

U.S. President Barack Obama smiles as he poses for a photo with (L-R) Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Brunei's...iabao, and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the 21st ASEAN and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh on November 19, 2012.
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Diplomacy and International Institutions

United States

Dr. Paula Briscoe is National Intelligence Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

President Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia this week brings into sharp relief the challenges facing the administration: how to retain influence in the region and honor commitments to allies without provoking China or furthering suspicions of encirclement.

In numerous remarks and public statements President Obama’s cabinet have been on message stressing the need for balance. On November 15, the day before the president departed on his five-day trip, the National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, reiterated the importance that the United States places on getting this balance right: “The United States is a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked with Asia’s economic, security, and political order. America’s success in the twenty-first century is tied to the success of Asia.”

On her recent trip to Australia and Thailand with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Clinton also presented a message of partnership and of U.S. neutrality regarding Southeast Asia’s territorial disputes. The Australia-U.S. Ministerial Meeting’s 2012 Joint Communique states: “We welcomed a strong, prosperous and peaceful China, which plays a constructive role in promoting regional security and prosperity.” And: “We reaffirmed that we do not take a position on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.”

Despite these conciliatory statements, China remains concerned about the planned military build up and by attempts to bring diplomatic matters China would prefer to deal with bilaterally into multilateral forums. An example of the more cynical speculation about China’s concerns appeared in the China Daily recently: according to security scholar Wang Yusheng, "Using China’s rise and the ‘China threat’ theory, the U.S. wants to convince China’s neighbors that the Asia-Pacific needs Washington’s presence and protection in order to ‘unite’ them to strike a ‘strategic rebalance’ against China in the region."

To allay China’s concerns while maintaining U.S. influence in the region, the United States must:

  • Include China in naval exercises, initially as observers, but also as participants in the near term. This will build both trust and personal relationships among the U.S. and Chinese officers over time.
  • Exercise diplomatic maturity when navigating issues related to territorial disputes, particularly those where the United States has mutual defense commitments with a party to the dispute.
  • Emphasize all the aspects of the rebalance, particularly the economic facets.
  • Increase U.S. Coast Guard training and exercises with Southeast Asian states which will strengthen their capability to counter narcotic trafficking, maintain waterways and work with one another and the United States on larger issues of concern to the region.
  • Decrease the rhetoric about the rebalance, especially where the United States is mainly continuing efforts already under way such as the movement of naval assets to the Pacific. Calling attention to the rebalance likely increased concerns in China unnecessarily.

The U.S. strategy in Asia is often viewed in terms of naval realignments, but the rebalancing strategy is not simply military. It includes as main tenets: “strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening our working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights.” It is important that we remember that and and that China understands that.