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America’s Asia Strategy in Obama’s Second Term

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 21, 2013

    In a major speech delivered at the Asia Society on 11 March 2013, US National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon clarified Obama’s rebalancing strategy. The clarification is important as there has been a lot of confusion since 2011 as to what US rebalancing to the Asia Pacific actually meant. The Chinese were particularly concerned that rebalancing was aimed at containing their rise.

    The rebalancing strategy, Donilon noted, is characterized by ‘five pillars”. These are: “strengthening alliances; deepening partnerships with emerging powers; building a stable, productive, and constructive relationship with China; empowering regional institutions; and helping to build a regional economic architecture that can sustain shared prosperity.”

    He explained at length each of these pillars. First, the US remains fully committed to its alliance relationships with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Philippines and Australia. Second, the US will develop closer ties with emerging powers like India and Indonesia. Noting that US and Indian interests powerfully converge in the Asia-Pacific, he described the bilateral relationship as the ‘defining relationship’ of the 21st century. And with respect to Indonesia, he characterised that country as a “global partner” of the US.

    The US-China relationship constitutes the third pillar of the rebalancing strategy. Donilon said, “The US will seek a new model of relationship with China, which will be characterized by ‘cooperation and competition’.” He placed special emphasis on US-China military dialogue aimed at removing apprehensions and misperceptions as well as to reduce the risk of confrontation. He sought to reassure China that the US was not seeking confrontation with China and welcomed its rise in the international order. But at the same time the US will take all steps to protect its interests including in the cyber arena.

    Fourth, the US will strengthen the regional architecture, build relations with ASEAN, protect freedom of navigation, and will not take sides on territorial disputes although at the same time it opposes the use of force to resolve these disputes.

    In addition to the military element, there is also a strong economic content to the rebalancing strategy. Accordingly to Donilon, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is an indispensable fifth pillar of the rebalancing strategy. Along with a Trans Atlantic trade and investment partnership, the TPP will help the US bind economically with the Pacific as well as the Atlantic zones. Aware of its weakening economic strength, the US is keen to leverage the strength of the Atlantic and Asia-Pacific countries.

    Why has Tom Donilon chosen to explain the US rebalancing strategy at this juncture? A possible answer is that the timing of the rebalancing and its previous articulation had created a great deal of confusion even among US allies. The strategy was widely conceived as a China containment strategy in the east. Further, allies were not reassured that the US had the necessary resources to sustain the strategy even if it had the will. Donilon has sought to explain that rebalancing is much more than a military “pivot” involving the repositioning of military assets from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific.

    Further, the TPP had generated a major concern. Many ASEAN member countries were apprehensive of the TPP as it seemed to go against the ASEAN’s own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that is likely to be concluded by 2015. RCEP includes ASEAN, India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. China, which is excluded from the TPP, sees it in a sinister light. Countries like Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei are also members of the TPP. The potential rivalry between RCEP which excludes the US and the TPP which excludes China could divide the region.

    Although there is an effort to reassure China, it is unlikely that Beijing will be fully satisfied. Donilon has acknowledged that there will always be an element of competition in the US-China bilateral relationship. However, what will be disconcerting for Beijing is that cyber threats have been named explicitly in the context of China. Donilon was also explicit about China’s involvement in cyber attacks. Referring to the ‘serious concerns’ of US businesses about “unprecedented” sophisticated cyber attacks originating from China, the US, he said, will protect its interests. According to recent revelations, Chinese hackers have stolen a lot of US military and economic secrets. Cyber issues have thus assumed salience in US-China bilateral discussions at various levels and the cyber arena is likely to emerge as an area of contestation between the two countries.

    There are three key messages in Donilon’s speech. First, it is not a China containment strategy, although it is doubtful that there would be many takers for this view. Second, the US will continue to respect the concerns of its allies. The allies may be looking for signs of commitment not in words but in deeds. They remain concerned that the US may ignore its commitments to the allies for the sake of a better US-China relationship. Third, rebalancing has a strong economic dimension besides a military dimension in the form of the pivot. But the fact is that there is no enthusiasm for the TPP even in Japan, which has only reluctantly announced it will consider joining it. In fact, the TPP could even divide the region.

    India has been mentioned by name in the speech. The US will support India’s rise. This is a reiteration of the stated policy of the US. However, Indian planners would be cautious about an open US embrace as India does not want to be drawn into a US containment policy, which is how China perceives US rebalancing. India cannot afford to burn bridges with China and has to manage its difficult relationship with that country. Further, there are several indications that the US is beginning to make up with Pakistan. The Osama bin-Laden episode has already been put behind by the two countries. Several Western commentators are attributing Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons programme to insecurities it allegedly faces vis-à-vis India. Chinese help to Pakistan’s nuclear programme is being ignored. There is no ‘crisis’ in the US-Pakistan relations, Donilon is reported to have said. The second Obama administration could thus be expected to be softer on Pakistan, especially given the beginning of the 2014 countdown.

    The author is Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.