The Asia pivot is about far more than a rising China.
The so-called pivot to Asia or re-balance to Asia as the Obama administration prefers to call it is misunderstood by both the public and foreign policy establishment. As it is framed, the United States chose to re-balance its interests solely to counter the rise of Chinese power. This, however, is an incomplete view. It ignores other reasons for the shift in regional focus, including the increased influence of Asian military, economic, and political power as well as the importance of Asian sea-lanes to expanding global commerce.
After years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan coupled with ongoing concerns over Iranian nuclear capabilities, there is a public perception that the United States has long concentrated power in the Middle East to the exclusion of other regions. It remains largely forgotten that the United States operated in the Pacific Ocean well before World War II, and has significantly increased power in the Pacific region over the decades since then.
While the United States may have “taken its eyes off of Asia” to engage in wars in the Middle East, Asia was never truly forgotten. The current re-balance reflects this historical involvement, and is also a positive move given predictions that many of the fastest and largest economies will be located in Asia over the next fifty years. Some of these countries include allies such as India, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, and of course China.
Asia is also home to many important sea navigation routes. This is vital, as some percent of all world trade occurs through shipping. The re-balance will shift some emphasis away from historic partners like Japan, which should improve relations with its government and citizens as the US military more forces to other locations like Australia and Guam.
These changes under the Obama administration are not uncontroversial. Conservatives decry these and other new security measures for reducing American military power, stating they will leave the nation unprepared for the next conflict. Even when faced with America’s immense financial problems due to government bailouts, healthcare costs, and other entitlement spending, defense industry lobbyists and executives want more money to build more naval vessels, weapons, and aircraft. Aside from arguments posed by some in the defense sector, some scholars are concerned the US re-balance to Asia cannot really occur because the American public will not embrace it.
In Europe and the Middle East, US allies are worried that the United States intends to forsake them for rising economic powers in Asia. It should be emphasized that this of course is not true. The Transatlantic partnership with Europe remains vigorous. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remains strong, as it continues to conduct training, humanitarian operations, reconstruction, anti-corruption efforts, and counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. NATO is in fact a valuable training resource for many of Asia’s military and security forces. The Middle East, on the other hand, continues to be important to American interests because of oil, Israel, and terrorist threats.
To truly achieve a re-balance to Asia, what will be needed first and foremost is diplomatic engagement with China as well as other allies over a broad spectrum of issues including territorial disputes, sea navigation routes, and economic free trade agreements. The United States must continue to utilize regional frameworks such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and maintain attendance at the East Asian Summit.
Allies with immense technology and entrepreneurship centers such as Singapore and India should remain strong partners; new economic relationships are built as American entrepreneurs continue to work with entrepreneurs from these countries as well as other Asian countries. By following the DIME strategy, or by leveraging “diplomatic, information, military, and economic power,” the United States will also be more likely to succeed in the re-balance. This strategy stresses that all of the elements of twenty-first century statecraft, which include protecting and expanding internet freedom in many of Asia’s fledgling democracies as well as its autocratic regimes, should be pursued. Using the DIME principles with appropriate diplomatic pressure, the United States will be well positioned to support the growth of civil society groups and good governance across Asia.
Ultimately, critics of the re-balance fail to understand that re-balance to Asia is wise and pragmatic, and puts the United States on stronger footing as a 21st-century leader. The pattern of military spending on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror cannot be replicated; the re-balance to Asia will demonstrate a national shift into using all instruments of national power, rather than military force alone.
A successful American strategy in Asia will expand American business and security partnerships while using cheaper and more effective national tools such as diplomacy, information, and social entrepreneurship. President Harry Truman once said, “A president either is constantly on top of events or, if he hesitates, events will soon be on top of him. I never felt that I could let up for a single moment.” Especially in light of disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, re-balance to Asia shows that American leadership is still capable of timely response to current and future events, and can yield power effectively.
Bradley Martin is a graduate student enrolled in the Master of Security Studies Program at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. He concentrates in national security affairs.
Photo courtesy of cseeman via Flickr.