Against the backdrops of China’s rising military power and accompanied assertions in territorial disputes with other Asian countries, Washington has taken a series of measures and issued statements to maintain its influence in the region.
It announced the “pivot” strategy in late 2011, but later changed the term to “rebalancing” due to the impression this might give that it attempts to contain China and leave other parts of the world alone by themselves.
It has reaffirmed ties with allies and called for peaceful settlement of disputes by multilateral means while carefully avoiding the unnecessary actions that would lead to security dilemmas.
Washington’s engagement includes US Marine Corps visits to ports in Asia, the marine deployment in Darwin, 60 percent of naval forces in the region by 2020 and enhancement of military ties with Southeast Asian countries.
The US also demonstrates its commitments to allies with treaty obligations. It has agreed to install an early warning radar system in Japan and to assist the Philippines in monitoring coastal waters, and could send a radar system in the future in response to North Korean threat and tensions with China respectively.
In 2010, when the sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea was hotly contested, then-US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US has “national interests in freedom of navigation” and, before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit last month, stated that “we oppose any unilateral action that would seek to undermine Japanese administration [over the Senkaku Islands], and we urge all parties to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreements through peaceful means.”
In spite of the above measures and statement, the US has not launched an all-out balancing against China. Washington takes into account Beijing’s doubts of another containment of the Cold War model.
According to the China Post, US Pacific Commander Admiral Samuel Locklear said on Feb. 1 in a telephone news conference that there will be no new bases in Asia and the rebalancing strategy will aim to strengthen the existing ties with the US allies in the region.
The rebalancing is “collaboration and cooperation” and expects no settlement of disputes by military means.
When the US expresses support for allies with treaty obligations amid territorial disputes, it also sends the message that it does not intend to go that far at this stage.
On Abe’s visit to Washington late last month, the joint statement only highlights the trade issue of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In the published press video, US President Barack Obama only briefly mentioned the overall security partnership it has had with Japan for a long time, while it was Abe and Japanese media who addressed specifically the security issues involving China in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
The Japan Times reported on Feb. 7 that Washington was concerned about provoking Beijing and told Tokyo not to raise the issue of the amendment of Article 9, which renounces the use of force, during the upcoming visit.
Abe made the trip after US Secretary of State John Kerry succeeded Clinton and before Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) officially replaced Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) as president.
The timing may lead to the interpretation that Washington publicly toned down the sensitive territorial issues either because of the new official appointee or because the US and China both wanted to focus on a cooperative and peaceful relationship to get off to a good start.
Without denying these factors, Washington still walked a fine line between its commitment to an ally and expectation of strong relations with Beijing.
Although Obama did not bring up the dispute over the Senkaku Islands — known in Taiwan as the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — Kerry praised Japanese restraint from further escalation.
Abe did get a chance to publicly mention the issue and Japan’s concerns.
Therefore, more evidence would be needed to argue that the US is abandoning the rebalancing strategy, which will be discussed below.
So far, Obama’s second term has raised doubts about the realization of the US’ rebalancing strategy toward Asia.
Bill Gertz of the Washington Times bluntly reported on March 6 that the US administration would discard the pivot or rebalancing strategy.
He cited national security officials as saying that a Chinese government visitor was told that, in an effort to improve ties with China.
He also provided further evidence on how he sees the government to be avoiding direct implementation of the pivot strategy.
When asked about its future, officials including US Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel circumvented the question and only said the US would continue strengthening and deepening its engagement with and commitment to Asia.
Regardless of the confusion that the term of “pivot” causes, what the officials said about the US role in Asia is in line with what former US assistant secretary of State for Asia Affairs Kurt Campbell told the Asahi Shimbun about what the “pivot” or “rebalancing” means in an interview published on Feb. 9 before his departure.
He said that “they are meant to connote revitalization and a re-engagement at a deeper level of our key relationships with Asia.”
Elizabeth Economy from the Council on Foreign Relations writes that Kerry has appeared to turn away from the pivot strategy.
His remarks in the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing have won praise from major Chinese newspapers and academic institutes.
She added that Kerry’s Congressional voting record shows more support for bills that seek cooperation with Beijing than those intended to counter the rising power.
On the one hand, it does seem that Kerry has shifted away from talk about rebalancing toward Asia and places more emphasis elsewhere, as his first trip as secretary of state was to the Middle East, while Clinton chose Asia for her first overseas tour.
However, a different understanding emerges if we consider his history regarding China and Asia.
To some extent, Kerry has taken a middle road. For example, with regard to relations between the US and China, Kerry stated that the two nations are competitors and can form a partnership, but should not be adversaries.
This is consistent with the rhetoric of cooperative and strong relations with China in Obama’s first term.
He has revealed reservations about the US’ increased military ramp-up by drawing on Chinese concerns and the fact that the US has more bases than any country in the world, including China.
What he meant by military ramp-up is unclear.
We might find answers in his following statements: “I am not talking about retreating from our current levels whatsoever. I am simply trying to think how we can do it in a way that doesn’t create the reaction you don’t wanna create.”
More important is his understanding on the term of “pivot.”
He said in a hearing that he understood “pivot” as “turning away from somewhere else.”
He further added that relations with China and other Asian countries “should not come, and I hope will not come, at the expense of relationships in Europe, or in the Middle East or elsewhere.”
“What we need to do is try to bring Europe along with us to recognition of the opportunities in the Far East. It would improve our clout. It would leverage the market,” he said.
Accordingly, Kerry’s understanding of the future US role in Asia also echoes Campbell’s interpretation of Washington’s new strategy.
When being asked if it was strategically feasible to rebalance from the Middle East when it still is not stable, Campbell replied that that concern is related to the logic of “a complete movement away,” but “rebalance” means the shifting of resources and balance, “a scale that subtly reorients.”
Both of them deny that the US will move away from other parts of the world, but affirm a deeper engagement in Asia affairs one way or another.
From Kerry’s vision to Hagel’s with regard to Washington’s future role in Asia, there are few differences with Campbell’s definitions.
Therefore, here are the questions: Are the doubts concerning the abandonment of the “pivot” strategy simply rising from confusions of definitions of the term?
Kerry’s interpretation of “pivot” takes on a negative tone.
Will he get the essence of the new strategy, especially on military issues where he has concerns, after “digging into it” as he says he will, without being affected by the bias “pivot” causes?
Will he consider the fact that the US posture in the past four years is mostly based on existing military ties with Asian countries as Locklear stresses?
Whatever the confusion about the term for the new strategy or actual differences in substance, actions and statements later responding to the regional situations will provide the answers.
Negotiation and cooperation certainly are necessary in tackling various thorny issues related to China, but a nuanced balance between hard power and soft power remains indispensable, especially given the uncertainties surrounding China’s goals of military modernization and naval projection.
Chang Yu-ping is a former research assistant at the Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica.