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

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
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 Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, China's Premier Wen Jiabao, and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the 21st ASEAN and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh on November 19, 2012. U.S. President Barack Obama smiles as he poses for a photo with (L-R) Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, China's Premier Wen Jiabao, and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the 21st ASEAN and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh on November 19, 2012. (Damir Sagolf/Courtesy Reuters)


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.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Felix Seidler

    First of all, good and well written overview. In general, I agree with the policy recommendations made in the bullet points.

    Yes, mutual trust building through naval exercises is important, but beside “China’s concerns“, China’s ongoing naval build-up is missed here. The US military shift to the Indo-Pacific is quite transparent. However, the PLAN’s further ambitions and fleet build-up are more subject to speculations due the lack of information given by the Chinese government. Will China commission indigenous aircraft carriers? What are the purposes of China’s stealth fighter programs? These questions are discussed in all kinds of think tanks; however, it would be up to the China’s governments to provide more information to ally other nation’s concerns.

    No matter what US policy looks like, China will continue to rise its military spending and push forward its military build up; including the development of expeditionary capabilities. Besides mutual trust building, therefore, the United States is well advised to set out clear read lines and to give military underpinned security guarantees to its old and new allies in the Indo-Pacific.

  • Posted by Matt

    The Chinese never built one, because it is not possible an Asian alliance. You have to look at history. So can have alliances with countries, but a true united alliance is impossible. You saw at ASEAN, and economic are linked to that history. You can have ten alliances but they are that, even if you are the anchor.

  • Posted by John LaChance

    The question was asked: “How does an established power, such as the United States, deal with a rising power, such as China?”

    Why, the same way we dealt with the Soviet Union. We break it apart into its constituent elements. There are six countries in China held together by the force of guns and a rising economy. What the US is doing is destabilizing China so that the various ethnic elements seek autonomy. And guess what happens after that? Why, the same thing that happened to the Soviet Union. KaBoom

    It’s simple, really. A united China is a threat. A dismembered China is 6 worker units vying against each other for market share. Don’t worry folks. We have this one in the bag, scheduled for 2017. The Dalai Lama should be glad, because one of these six countries that we are now in the process of breaking China into is Tibet, a free and autonomous Tibet.

  • Posted by Bill Pane

    The reason of China’s recent military build-ups is just to ensure its maritime security. China has never been a expansionist power, apart from all the rhetorics U.S. presents, it’s hard to judge whether Washington’s real intentions about China. But one thing is sure: nowadays, many Chinese have good feeling of U.S. culturally even politically, and a lot of future elites have learning experience in America, if the Washington don’t treasure the relationship, it is doing nothing more than cultivating your future adversary.
    There’s no eternal predominant powers, the established power should learn how to live with the emerging ones, and vice versa. America embraces pluralism in domestic affairs, it can also tolerate a multipolar world. And ask yourself, what benefit does it bring to America being the only superpower for more than two decades?

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