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Implications of US Re-balancing to Asia in General and West Asia in Particular

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  • September 05, 2012
    Round Table
    1500 hrs

    Speaker: Dr. Jon B Alterman, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Director, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC.

    Chair: Brig (Retd.) Rumel Dahiya, SM, DDG, IDSA.

    Dr. Alterman initiated his presentation by highlighting the importance of India’s relationship with the Gulf in analyzing American policy of rebalancing towards Asia. He observed that the word ‘rebalancing’, coined by the US State Department, is not directed against China and one needs to look at the background of this new policy to understand it nuances. For a decade, the US had been engaged in fighting two and half wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and determining the capabilities and methods needed for the war against terror. Its pre-occupation with these wars led the US to lose its focus on Asia for a decade, in particular after the Asian financial crisis. This decade has been characterized by a significant growth of Asia’s trade and economic capabilities and the American rebalancing policy towards Asia is a testimony of the economic prowess of the region.

    Dr. Alterman emphasized that the new policy aims to play a mutually constructive role in Asia’s future and is an alternative to isolationism and a substitute for fighting wars of attrition to achieve political outcomes. There is a growing realization that the US cannot rely on military means alone to achieve its objectives. Rebalancing is not about containing China but principally looks at creating patterns of interdependence and nurturing norms of mutually beneficial interaction in Asia: there should be space for everyone to operate and nobody should be a dominant power in the region. He argued that there is a growing realization of the limited upside of Europe for the US even though for a long time it viewed international relations through the prism of a trans-Atlantic framework. This change has been further strengthened by an American President whose principal international experience was not in London or Paris but in Nairobi and Jakarta. Europe had struggled to fulfil its military obligations during the operation in Libya and there is a feeling that the upside in Asia is much more than that in Europe even though US will never abandon Europe.

    For the rebalancing policy to succeed in Asia, Dr. Alterman stressed on the need for US to get used to multilateralism rather than bilateralism, a very uncomfortable concept for it to deal with as witnessed in the UN General Assembly and even the UN Security Council. In the past the US has generally worked within the framework of knowing its adversaries and opponents. The challenge for America is to formulate a role and lay down its unique value proposition to the coalition in the absence of a clear threat in Asia since it has never been good at non-hierarchical relationships. For a country used to engaging state actors, the real challenge for US is to figure out how to deal with different forms of state capacities which includes non state and trans-national actors.

    On the question of China, Dr. Alterman emphasized that it is wrong to assume China is the principal threat in the region. Although the future of Chinese trajectory is a matter of concern yet the ultimate US goal is to make sure that it is not in an adversarial relationship with China.
    Dr. Alterman observed that Asia is beginning to act more as a unit since most its energy requirement comes from the Middle East. The US will get increasingly invested in the Middle East; not through the traditional route of Transatlantic, Mediterranean and Suez Canal but through the Pacific and Indian Oceans and into the straits of Hormuz, if it has a stake in the security and economic growth of Asia. The Middle East continues to be a global energy market and disruptions there can have serious repercussions across the world. Consequently, Asian energy security becomes vital to wellbeing of the US even though American dependence on the Middle East oil has declined over the years. The active US involvement in counter-piracy operations is an indication of its commitment to defend the sea lanes. One can expect the US to adopt a more mercantile approach to the Middle East due to Asia’s over-reliance on its oil. Rebalancing highlights the link between Asia and the Middle East.

    In recent times, there has been a lot more activity between the US Central and Pacific Naval Commands. More American ships can be expected to stay in the neighbourhood thus leading to a larger US naval presence in Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean Region.
    However, Dr. Alterman highlighted several impediments to this rebalancing policy. The present Congress continues to be in a dysfunctional state and there may be a budget crisis in the future. There is also an unresolved debate about the future threat environment.

    Key Points Raised During Discussion:

    a) Energy flow from the Middle East to East Asia has an integrating effect on the continent since it has imbibed a broader sense of shared security and economic interests.
    b) It has been observed that patterns of oil usage get embedded in people’s lifestyle. It will take a long time for oil consumption patterns to shift in a radical way. In fact, rising incomes in India and China will drive the demand for oil. The jury is still out on the usage (consumption and production patterns) of unconventional sources of energy.

    c) The US needs to figure out means to successfully engage China and partner India, Japan and Korea in a manner that there are no prevailing tensions in the region. The US is a ‘light handed post modern imperial power’ and the idea is not to be present everywhere.

    d) The Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle East is likely to get worse before it gets better. Iran is concerned about its regional isolation and it may respond by reminding people about its ability to initiate sectarian conflict from Libya to Yemen encompassing Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain and parts of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia on its part has supported the Syrian opposition and the Iran-Saudi conflict may subsequently accentuate.

    e) Israel is at a foundational moment in its relationship with the US. However, Israel is changing due to a change in its demography. The possibility of having a fundamentally different US-Israeli relationship is present much more now than in any time in the last 60 years.

    f) The US has often participated in multilateral partnerships but from a position of leadership as witnessed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US is fundamentally committed to open commercial access to all resources as it is against locking up access to resources.

    g) The Iranian sense of vulnerability and humiliation at the hands of US stands in the way of getting something productive out from it. Iran sees no upside in improving its relationship with the US. However, not being able to make Iran come clean on its nuclear programme is often viewed as a failure of the US foreign policy in the Middle East. Moreover, the Arab states of the Gulf are apprehensive of including Iran in any regional security architecture. The stated US goal is to ensure that Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb. An Iranian nuclear bomb will be a disaster for regional security of West Asia.

    h) Regimes in the Middle East have built their political systems on the basis of food security fuelled by exploitation of aquifers. Exhaustion of these aquifers will destroy the notion of food security and can create political insecurity. However, there is a greater possibility of materialisation of internal dissent rather than external threat. Therefore, climate change can bring about a political change but it will not be the main driver of political transformation in the region.

    i) The threat of terrorists using nuclear devices is minimal since it is extremely difficult and sophisticated to build and the governments that possess such devices are reluctant to give it away.

    j) Republicans will not articulate their views on ‘US rebalancing policy’ till the elections get over in order to cater to their three constituencies of neo-conservatives, realists and neo-isolationists.

    k) The future of G2 as a grouping is not very promising on account of lack of commonality of interests and methods between US and China especially due to Chinese threat of vulnerability and the notion of it being denied a rightful place in world affairs. They are more likely to cooperate within a broader multilateral cooperative framework although the challenge for US will be to tackle multilateral diplomacy.

    l) Turkey has offered itself as bridge between the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia and the Gulf. Its energy corridors have the potential to link Central to West Asia and onto Europe. Therefore, it is set to play a significant role in the region.

    Report prepared by Rajorshi Roy, Research Assistant, Eurasia-West Asia Cluster, IDSA.