Three years later, Asian allies of the US are worried that America may not be able to sustain the pivot to the region because of financial difficulties.
As he swings through Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia this week, US President Barack Obama might have a hard time convincing the region that his confrontation with Russia over Ukraine does not further undermine his much-touted pivot to Asia. When Obama outlined the policy of rebalancing to Asia in late 2011, America’s regional allies were enthused and China was deeply concerned.
Three years later, Asian allies of the US are worried that America may not be able to sustain the pivot to the region because of financial difficulties, lack of political will and preoccupation with the Middle East and Europe. As its power continues to grow, Beijing appears to be far more confident today that the bark of the US pivot to Asia might be worse than its bite.
If Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state during Obama’s first term as president, was an active champion of the pivot to Asia, her successor John Kerry has been devoting most of his diplomatic energies to the Middle East peace process. Obama’s vacillations in Syria, too, tended to reinforce east Asian worries that America is in a mood of retrenchment. The unexpected crisis in Ukraine and the consequent tensions between the US and Russia have made matters worse. America’s inability to prevent the Russian annexation of Crimea in Ukraine has made many of China’s neighbours ask if Washington will acquiesce in the face of similar actions by Beijing in Asia. Many countries in Asia, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and India, are locked in intensifying territorial disputes with China.
Obama’s strategic problem now is to reassure east Asian allies of the strength of American commitment to them without provoking an unwanted conflict between the US and China. To be sure, the Obama administration has cautioned China against forcibly changing the territorial status quo. At the same time, the US has until recently been unwilling to take sides in territorial disputes between China and its neighbours. Obama did extend guarded support to Japan on the territorial dispute with China during his visit to Tokyo. Obama has no desire to abandon US allies in Asia. But he is also deeply aware of the growing economic interdependence with China and the imperative of deeper political engagement with Beijing. If Obama tilts too far in either direction, he could shatter the increasingly fragile stability in Asia.
The contradiction between deterring China from military adventures and reassuring Beijing’s neighbours is only one part of Obama’s problem. The other is the deepening division among US allies and friends in Asia. In north-east Asia, Obama is trying hard to bridge the differences between Japan and South Korea. The nationalism of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is generating deep anger, not only in China but also South Korea. In Southeast Asia, the ASEAN is increasingly divided in its responses to China’s territorial assertions in the South China Sea. Those countries that do not have territorial disputes with China seem unwilling to stand firmly with those who have.
For its part, the US is stepping up defence engagement with the ASEAN both bilaterally and collectively. Earlier this month, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel convened the first-ever joint meeting with all the defence ministers of the ASEAN. During his visit to Manila, Obama is expected to announce agreements that will allow an increase in the US military presence in the Philippines.
Obama’s simultaneous troubles in dealing with Russia in Europe and China in Asia underline the importance of seeing Eurasia as a single theatre. India can no longer afford to see Europe and Asia as separate realms. Delhi must come to terms with the strategic consequences of developments in one region of Eurasia for the other parts of what has long been known as the geopolitical heartland of the world.
As they stare down each other in Europe, both Washington and Moscow are looking for China’s support. As a result, they inadvertently help shift the Asian balance of power in Beijing’s favour. If they are convinced that no great power is willing or capable of balancing China, many Asian states might come to believe that strategic deference to Beijing is the only option they have.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’