Reassessing priorities

Even as multiple crises on the global front challenge American diplomacy, Washington has not lost sight of Asia.

US President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines is a signal that despite questions about America’s staying power in the region, Washington has no intention of ceding its strategic space in the region.

Giving a rebuttal to those who have been questioning America’s commitment to Japan, Obama has declared that “America is and always will be a Pacific nation,” underscoring clearly that “the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.”

The China factor is all around and the Obama Administration is trying its best to get its act together in Asia after making a number of false starts.

When Obama visited China in November 2009, he was at the height of his power domestically. The opposition was weak and diffuse. His administration had ideas about China as the fulcrum of stability in the Asia-Pacific.

China’s growing economic and political clout was forcing the Obama administration in early days to toy with the idea of a G-2, a global condominium of the US and China, whereby China could be expected to look after and ‘manage’ the Asia-Pacific.

The Obama administration, however, was signaling that it was more interested in managing America’s decline than in preserving its pre-eminence in the global order.

There was no strategic vision about Asia apart from the hope that US and China could work together to sort out global problems.

Today it is a much different scenario, one where China has started asserting itself more strongly than before, and Obama’s latest visit to Asia was aimed at reminding China that the US still retains its role as the principle balancing force in the region.

Regional states are worried about China’s rise and its attempts in the recent past to assert its interests more forcefully in the region.

There is a clamour for American leadership in the region, as none of the regional states want China to emerge as the dominant actor in the region.

All want a stronger US presence in the region to confer greater stability.

America’s new diplomatic and military strategy is explicitly geared towards tackling the emerging threat from China’s massive and rapid military build-up and growing diplomatic clout.

It takes forward the already underway process of reorienting the American military might from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Where the new strategy is unambiguous, however, is in underlining the challenge in the Asia-Pacific and turning America’s gaze to this geostrategically pivotal region and to China’s growing prowess.

The U.S. is re-ordering its strategic priorities. As the US secretary of state has already underlined, “the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”

Strategic landscape

At a time when talk of American decline and retrenchment from global commitments has become de rigueur, the signals coming from Washington are that it has no intention of leaving the Asian strategic landscape.

Nor will regional states allow America to lower its profile. After all, the elephant in the room (region) is China’s faster-than-expected ascent in the global inter-state hierarchy.

But America’s strategic rebalancing towards the region, popularly termed as ‘pivot’ has come under strain.

The ‘pivot’ was Hillary Clinton’s brainchild but his successor, John Kerry had been sceptical of the ‘pivot’ strategy in the past and the nomenclature in Washington has already changed to ‘strategic rebalancing’ since his taking over the role of America’s chief diplomat.

Moreover, America’s economic problems and defence budget cuts have engendered an inward-looking foreign policy posture.

The domestic polity in the US is not prepared to make any substantial commitments to maintain America’s global supremacy.

Obama’s leadership has also been a problem as he has failed to make a strong case for America’s global leadership.

His diffidence on Syria and Ukraine is causing many US allies to question America’s resolve in tackling the challenge of China’s rise effectively.

Yet, America’s ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific is viewed in Beijing as a policy designed to contain China and it has been criticised in the new biennial Defence White Paper as a policy that runs counter to regional trends and “frequently makes the situation tenser.”

The US ‘pivot’ will lead to 60 per cent of US Navy’s capabilities deployed to the Pacific by 2020. Regional states are looking to work together with Washington in operationalising this policy.

Singapore will house four US Littoral Combat Ships and the Philippines will be hosting more US troops on a rotating basis.

Around 2,500 US Marines will be deployed to the northern city of Darwin in Australia while Indonesia is seeking to buy significant military equipment and undertaking joint manoeuvres with the US.

This is in addition to Washington’s upgradation of its defence ties with its traditional allies in the region — Japan and South Korea. America has also taken a more activist role in territorial disputes in East Asia and South China Sea between China and its regional neighbours which has been viewed in Beijing as targeting China’s sphere of influence.

While Obama’s latest Asia sojourn may not be enough to dispel all the apprehensions of America’s continuing commitment to regional stability, it will go some way in assuaging regional concerns about Washington’s foreign policy priorities.

Ukraine and Syria are merely distractions as the real story of the 21st century will unfold in Asia and its where America will have to remain engaged if it is serious about its own global pre-eminence.

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