international analysis and commentary

US rebalancing in Asia: containing China or building a new inclusive architecture?

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The recent visit by President Obama to Asia offers a chance to reflect on the so-called Pivot to Asia, the administration’s policy to pursue a strategic rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific region.

To understand whether the Pivot is intended as a code word for Chinese containment or not, it must be assessed against the US effort to upgrade its regional alliances with Japan and South Korea – but also with the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia and other Southeast Asian countries.

As President Obama pointed out on several occasions during his stops in Tokyo, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Manila, long-term US interests lie in the Asia-Pacific. Its economies are becoming increasingly important markets for US exports and an ever-greater proportion of world trade is passing through the region’s sea lanes. The US feels responsible for maintaining maritime security along these sea routes and for addressing territorial disputes in Asia. In short, economic prosperity and security calculations are necessarily intertwined.

On paper, current US strategy encapsulates a broadening engagement in Asia by working to shape a regional order and architecture that facilitates the peaceful rise of China – a China that adheres to international rules, institutions and norms. This regional architecture model has two main pillars: updating the existing security alliances, and pursuing new networked partnerships especially in Southeast Asia.

On the security front the US is upgrading and renewing bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea, but also Australia, Malaysia and the Philippines. These are to be accomplished through alliance-based military activities, like capacity building, increasing military interoperability and maritime assistance.

Military drawdowns from Iraq and Afghanistan make shifting resources to the Asia-Pacific possible, although recent events in Ukraine have complicated the case for also redirecting military resources from Europe to Asia. According to a recent US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report, considerable defense assets are being moved into the Asia-Pacific region: 2,500 Marines to Australia, an additional army battalion to South Korea, two missile defense destroyers to Japan, up to four Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore, as well as likely increased troop rotation in the Philippines and enhanced defense cooperation with Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand.

China’s growing maritime presence is challenging the strategic balance among Asian powers that mostly rely on US security guarantees. The region faces increasingly soured relations, historical animosities and territorial disputes in the East and the South China Sea. China’s maritime build-up has come under greater scrutiny as it has been accompanied by the merging of its maritime agencies into a unified Coast Guard increasingly able to operate in distant waters. In the South China Sea, China’s territorial claims identified by the so-called “9 dash lines include disputes over the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines respectively.   

In the East China Sea, China and South Korea also have tussled over rights to a submerged formation that China calls the Suyan Rock and South Korea knows as the Ieodo. In November 2013 Beijing’s unilateral announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands with Japan alerted the international community.

China’s maritime sphere of interests is inexorably growing to encompass the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Straits area, and the areas all the way to the Malacca Straits. These are areas where the US through its alliance system continues to exert noticeable power. China’s incremental effort to alter the status quo has been labeled a “cabbage” strategy: assert a territorial claim and gradually surround the area with multiple layers of security, thus denying access to a rival.

Attempts to curb this Chinese strategy are under way. Smaller countries like Malaysia and the Philippines are unable to negotiate bilaterally with China, therefore the US, through its allies, is advocating for international institutions to establish common maritime codes of conduct. The Philippines recently filed a complaint against China with an international arbitration panel. Washington’s desire would be to see ASEAN countries negotiate procedures with China to allow for the peaceful resolution of disputes. International law and respect of multilateral agreements should be crucial to the US-led regional environment of Asia. Nevertheless, it should not go unnoticed that the US has not yet ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Thus, Washington’s choice seems to be a combination of traditional alliances to constantly influence the regional balance of power and a selective resort to legal instruments.

A push to create a regional architecture based on common norms is also evident in the economic realm. Here the US is pursuing multilateral trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a high-standard rules-based trade agreement with a dozen countries currently negotiating for greater market liberalizations. Any country, including China, can potentially join the TPP negotiations but given the emphasis on provisions related to intellectual property protection, open procurement and liberalizing state-owned enterprises, the likelihood of China joining the negotiating table today is next to zero. In fact, critics see US attempts to advocate for legally binding norms within and of pushing for multilateral trade agreements like the TPP as ways to contain a rising China through a web of international rules. This may well be the case, but it should be noted that it would then be a form of influence that does not seek to antagonize Beijing and that even some of China’s leaders may find it reasonable. Overall, as the US-China relationship matures in the future new problems will have to be managed and kept under control. Greater US presence in the evolving Asian regional architecture is one way to exert some control over this delicate and long-term process.