Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Even prior to the unveiling of the Defense Strategic Review by President Obama last week, much discussion has been made of the administration’s decision to focus increasingly on Asia Pacific with the intention to maintain, or even to increase, US commitment in that region.

The move is consistent with one of the president’s earliest foreign policy proclamations (that the US is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power) and is meant to advance the US’s interests amid massive shifts in that region’s dynamics, to reassure regional powers and emerging countries in the face of Chinese dominance, and to participate centrally in the definition of the parameters by which China will be called to adhere throughout the course of its swift and massive rise.

Washington’s goal is to institutionalize and formalize regional relationships with security and economics at their core (explicit goal) and manage China’s influence implicit goal).

Administration officials (for example, Hillary Clinton in this article in Foreign Policy) cite the basis for American action in Asia Pacific as the following:

- Being the nation with the largest network of alliances in that region;
- Possessing no territorial ambitions and both a history of goodwill;
- Expressing the will to grow the region’s economic strength to the wider benefits of its people.

While the full results of the DSR are yet to come and will no doubt begin to flesh out the changing nature of the US’s defense engagements, work to enact the stated shift has already begun – namely through a series of actions on behalf of Washington to increase the quality, quantity, breadth and depth of interactions in the region. These interactions have taken the form of security arrangements, economic alliances, and political engagement at multiple levels.

A few examples of these structures are the following:

- ASEAN, and signature of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in the ASEAN
- Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China
- Open Skies Agreement with Japan
- Trans-Pacific Partnership (a nascent economic alliance meant to govern trade initiatives)
- Free trade agreements (namely South Korea)
- Track 2 dialogue occurring beneath the highest levels of leadership, including the US-China Working Group in the US Senate
- “Minilateral” talks (Lower Mekong Initiative, Pacific Islands Forum, or other meetings like the recent and first-ever US-India-Japan trilateral meeting).

China remains a driving force behind the turn to Asia Pacific, but it is not the only compelling reason for increased US participation in Asia Pacific. Since the start of the Obama administration, officials – having dedicated themselves immediately to China and quickly realizing that Beijing would mount resistance on a number of issues (Iran, intelligence-sharing, military transparency, human rights, military build-up) – recognized the necessity of developing a counteractive system of interwoven networks at the bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral levels with regional powers and emerging countries (Japan, Korea, Australia, Indonesia, India and Vietnam among them).

Where it may have been possible to argue that previously the US saw regional multilateral groups as limits to its ability to act in concert with China and in their interests; the roles have reversed and these forums are now the host to subtle power plays and games of influence between the two nations – sometimes to the chagrin of other member states.

Because for all of the talk about deepening links and cooperation throughout the region, the hard power component of Washington’s policy remains – that is, to demonstrate to Beijing that the US has the might to overwhelm China’s military should it decide to act there where US interests are threatened.

Chinese pushback on land disputes has already proved itself one source of hard power tension. In summer 2010, a dispute between China and Japan over a chain of islands in the South China Sea led to US intervention to diffuse the situation with an insistence that the land in question fell under the jurisdiction of the US-Japan Security Treaty. And more recently, in November 2011 during Secretary Clinton’s visit to the Philippines, she confirmed the US commitment to collective defense capabilities able to counter “the full spectrum of state and non-state actors.”

Reflections Going Forward

The decided reorientation of US foreign policy does not come without inherent challenges and constraints, both political and economic. Among the oustanding questions:

- What is the best way to develop economic and political ties with China while simultaneously cursing its military growth? Also, how does the US best entice China to come onboard while avoiding taking too bullish a stance that might risk alienating its leaders?

- Can the US maintain the political will to stay engaged in Asia as proposed by the Obama administration, despite its domestic economic outlook and the tough (and sometimes bellicose) tone taken by Republicans advocating punitive measures against Beijing’s currency and trade policies?

- And more, how durable is the US’s willingness to finance such a robust Asia Pacific presence, and how vehement are domestic obstacles to such a vision?

- What is the most effective course of action for reassuring partners and sowing deeper military and economic ties without eliciting serious criticism of interfering in regional domestic affairs? How to avoid making governments of these allies look weak or caught in a tug of war between two major partners?

- While operating under the logic of reducing the size and funding of the US military called for under the DSR, can we expect to see a shift in prestige and power among the branches of the armed forces since the DSR proposes reducing the importance of large-scale nation-building missions traditionally undertaken by the Army in favor of operations and balancing games that favor the Navy?

Further Reading: Two good articles from Stephen Walt about US posture in Asia Pacific and its shifting defense priorities (I and II).

- Amy Greene

(photo credit: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)