The US pivot towards Asia

Posted on August 9, 2012


In a major security policy speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue at Singapore on June 2 this year, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled plans to shift the bulk of the US naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia. Panetta said: “By 2020, the navy will re-posture its forces from today’s roughly 50/50 percent spilt between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about 60/40 split between those oceans.

That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships, and submarines.” The objective would be to “rapidly project military power if needed to meet” the US security commitments in the region, despite China’s fast- growing military might. The US also planned to expand military exercises in the Pacific and to conduct increased port visits over a wider area extending to the Indian Ocean. The announcement came in the wake of the issuance of the new US defence strategy by President Barack Obama in January 2012, calling for a rebalancing of the US military toward the Asia-Pacific region or the US “pivot” towards Asia as it is commonly described now.

The shift in focus to Asia comes amid increasing concern at the Pentagon over China’s strategic goals, as it begins to field a new generation of weapons that could prevent the US naval and air forces from projecting power into the Far East. In other words, while the US wants to keep the strategic option to project its military power close to China’s shores far away from its own territory, it finds China’s plans to develop capabilities for defending its economic and security interests, even in areas close to its territory as a matter of concern!

Strange as it may sound, the position adopted by the US on matters relating to the Asia-Pacific region is not entirely unfamiliar in international politics, which is governed by considerations of realpolitik or power politics, rather than international morality. It is the US global military superiority and its ability to project its power into the remote corners of the world, which enable it to assert its positions on issues of interest to it in the far-flung areas of the world. In many a case, weaker nations have no choice, but to acquiesce in the position dictated by the US. However, the situation relating to China is neither that simple, nor that easy to handle for the US.

China with a population of 1.3 billion has already emerged as the second largest economy in the world in nominal dollar terms and may surpass the US economy in purchasing power parity terms within the next five years if the present trends continue. Even in nominal dollar terms, it may overtake the US economy by 2025. Although the US still remains the most powerful nation in the world, both militarily and economically, the situation is rapidly changing due to China’s meteoric economic rise. In fact, in economic terms the world is no longer unipolar.

It has now assumed a multipolar character where decisions on important international economic issues must be taken through consultations among major economic powers as symbolised by G-20. The US has already lost the ability to dictate to the rest of the world on international economic issues, even though it still wields considerable clout because of the size of its economy, its technological advancement and the dynamism of its entrepreneurs.

As the relative position of other centres of economic power improves further, the US dominance on the global economic scene will continue to decline necessitating adjustments in international economic relations. Considering the fact that the second and third largest economies in the world are in Asia as are many of the fast developing economies like South Korea, India and Indonesia, it would be reasonable to assume that Asia will become the centre of gravity of the global economy in the near future. Countries will have to reorient their economic policies to take into account this massive global economic transformation. So the US has no choice, but to accord a high priority to the Asia-Pacific region in its economic calculations and in the formulation of its economic strategy.

It is inevitable that China’s fast-growing economic strength would lead to a steady increase in its military might to protect its expanding economic and security interests. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s defence expenditure rose from $30 billion in 2000 to almost $120 billion in 2010. In 2012, China’s defence expenditure is expected to be $160 billion as against $750 billion in the case of the US. China’s defence spending may overtake America’s after 2035 if the present trends continue. Despite the planned cuts in defence spending amounting to $500 billion over the next 10 years, the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region will increase because of the switch in priorities announced by the Obama administration. It should be obvious, therefore, that China is in no position to pose any credible security threat to the US in the foreseeable future.

It appears that the main focus of China’s military strategy for the time being is to deter the American aircraft-carriers and aircraft from operating freely within what is known as the “first island chain”, including areas close to China’s shores in case of outbreak of hostilities. In particular, it would like to have the capability to take military action, if ever Taiwan declares independence and to repel any external (read US) force of intervention. China is, therefore, investing heavily in “asymmetric capabilities” to blunt America’s still formidable capacity to project power in the region. China’s military strategy is accordingly defensive in character.

On the other hand, the main purpose of the announced shift in US priorities towards the Asia-Pacific region is to maintain its ability to project power in areas in which its access and freedom to operate are challenged so as to “credibly deter potential adversaries (read China) and to prevent them from achieving their objectives.” America is also strengthening its alliances with Australia, Japan and South Korea to contain China. For the same purpose, it is contributing to the economic and military build up of India. It is also trying to take advantage of the sensitivities of member states of ASEAN, regarding the rapid growth of China’s military power and the territorial disputes in South China Sea between China and some of the ASEAN states to drum up opposition to China in the region. Although the US policymakers continue to deny it, it appears that the US is in fact engaged in a well-calculated strategy to contain and encircle China.

If this is true, it would be a grave mistake. Historically speaking, the rise of new great powers has been accompanied by a period of tensions and wars when the existing great powers resisted the required adjustments in the international order. A conflict between China and the US would not be in the interest of either one of them. Instead it would be much more preferable for them to bring about the necessary transformation of the global order peacefully.

The onus for the adjustments in international order lies more on the US, rather than on China. The US resistance to such a peaceful transition would condemn the Asia-Pacific region to a prolonged era of conflicts and wars. As Henry Kissinger pointed out in an article in the March-April 2012 issue of the Foreign Affairs: “China and the United States will not necessarily transcend the ordinary operation of great-power rivalry. But they owe it to themselves, and the world, to make an effort to do so.”

Javid Husain

US-China confrontations: Is a new Cold War likely?

Although China and the United States have never been close allies, the recent activities of America in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the South China Sea and China’s overall progress, all appear tending towards the risk of an eruption of a new Cold War. America’s policy shift away from Europe and the Middle East and towards the Asia-Pacific has made China cautious and uneasy. After a decade or more of influencing China’s neighbours, the United States is now seeking an opportunity to develop allies in the region. This will pave the way for renewed tensions.

With China opening a new front in its South China Sea dispute, claiming offshore natural oil and gas blocks within the internationally-recognised exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of both Vietnam and Phillppines, the on-going acrimony between America and China have assumed a new height.

China has blamed the U.S. of “selective blindness”- which has stressed its national interests in ensuring freedom of navigation in the strategically important waters and for stirring trouble in the region by giving up its position of non-intervention in disputes surrounding the South China Sea. Countries like Vietnam have recently sought closer defence cooperation with America, citing the same concerns of aggressive Chinese postures.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang’s recently asked: “Why does the U.S. turn a blind eye to the facts that certain countries opened a number of oil and gas blocks, and issued domestic laws illegally appropriating Chinese islands and waters?” This is likely a reference to recent moves by Vietnam, which have angered China, to offer oil blocks for exploration to foreign companies, including India’s Oil and Natural GasCorp.

China, in recent months, has had run-ins with both the Phillppines and Vitenam, which, along with at least eight other countries, hold competing claims over the disputed China Sea and its islands. Already, the Chinese assertiveness on the world stage acts as a counter-balance to American overtures to several Asian-Pacific states: Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma. American policy towards Taiwan and Japan has always made China uncomfortable, not to mention the U.S. military alliance with South Korea lasting for over fifty years.

Since President Barack Obama visited the East Asia Summit in Bali in November 2011, and later concluded a security arrangement with Australia, the U.S. has cemented its relationship with several Asian-Pacific states. Elaborating on the U.S. defence strategy for the region, Defence Secretary Leon E. Panetta outlined the future American roadmap: “America is a turning point. After a decade of war, we are developing the new defence strategy. In particular, we will expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean Region (IOC) and South Asia. Defence cooperation with India is a linchpin in this strategy.”

Rising Chinese assertiveness

Increasing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea at this crucial juncture appears to be part of a strategy to counter mounting U.S. naval hedging in the Asia-Pacific region because China’s move to upgrade the administrative level of Sansha city, on Woody Islands in the disputed Paracels, and establishing a new military garrison there look contrary to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences, thereby aggravating further the prevailing tensions in the region.

The rising differences between them were also seen on the side lines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh on July 12, 2012, when the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who met China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, said without directly naming China, “worrisome instances of economic coercion and the problematic use of military and governmental vessels in connection with disputes among fishermen”, in a likely reference to the recent stand-off between vessels from China and the Philippines, a traditional ally of the United States.

According to U.S. officials, Mr. Yang expressed “a careful indication” of China’s desire to participate in a dialogue to defuse any tension in the disputed South China Sea. Yang said that both nations “should put in place a sound pattern of interaction in the Asia-Pacific that features win-win cooperation” and expressed hope that the U.S: “will respect the interests and concerns of China and other countries in the region”. At the same time, underscoring a desire to downplay any strains with China, Clinton said that “the United States and China not only can, but will work together in Asia.”

Both China and the U.S. released statements pledging “to enhance and initiate collaborative efforts in the region” in areas ranging from climate change to possible energy exploration. Although both the U.S. and China appear to be trying to play down strains following the Phnom Penh talks, China’s irritation with Clinton’s comments made during her latest Asia visit, both on the South China Sea and on democracy and human rights, was apparent in two commentaries published in the Party-run People’s Daily. Attacking Clinton for comments she made in Mongolia which called on Asian countries to embrace democracy, an editorial argued that Asian countries “can solve their own problems and can find a path different from the West to suit their national characteristics.”

Aspiring global dominance

Mistrust between China and the U.S – and competition for global dominance – even though China still has not come out of the enigma of “middle kingdom complex”, has U.S policymakers concerned about China’s amazing economic and technological progress and also its state of art military modernisation and advancement. The successful hosting of the Beijing Olympics has also added another feather into its cap.

Withthe resurgence of Asia and due to gradual decline of the U.S. and the fall of Western Europe, a new world order appears to be emerging, in which rising imperialistic assertions accompanied by awesome military power of China is a cause of worry not only to the U.S. but also to the whole world. China has emerged as the rising economic power, surpassing Germany and Japan and stands next to the U.S. in its economic stature. It is also nourishing the dream of becoming a dominant super power by replacing the U.S. in order to become the next hegemon in succession to the U.K. in the recent past.

These developments have significantly improved China’s economic and military clout as a dominant player and also a prominent decision maker into global affairs which may ultimately replace America from its position of global supremacy. Perhaps, anew world order appears to be emerging in which rising imperialistic assertiveness accompanied by the awesome military power of China is a concern not only for the U.S but also for Russia, Japan and America’s traditional allies, the Europeans.

China’s meteoric rise has led to the U.S. seeking ways to undermine Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in regards to the South China dispute. Thus,there appears a likely emergence of a second pole of global power after the erstwhile USSR, and a consequent new Cold War between them, particularly because the 21st century is being widely acknowledged as that of Asia.

Sudhanshu Tripathi

Obama’s empty Asia pivot

Soft-power diplomacy needs military backing

A debate has raged for the past few months about what to call President Obama’s Asian strategy. To be honest, it really doesn’t matter whether you call the shift toward Asia a pivot, a refocus or a rebalancing. What does matter is that it’s a relatively hollow move which belies something of much greater concern: The administration is effectively jeopardizing American national security interests by promoting a foreign policy approach far too reliant on soft-power diplomacy.

Although coined by Joseph Nye, the practice of soft-power diplomacy is of course nothing new. It has always played some role in American foreign policy — even in the days of gunboat diplomacy. However, it has never before served as the central tenant of American foreign policy strategy because previous administrations always recognized that soft-power diplomacy does not work in the absence of hard-power leverage. That is why we have continuously invested in the world’s most dominant military.

As Americans, we must be realistic about our future. There is no guarantee that the balance of power in Asia will remain in America’s favor. Sending a few thousand Marines to Australia or convening meetings with regional partners might serve as nice data points at news conferences. But, they are not enough to ensure that the United States remains dominant in the Western Pacific. We need to do something far more substantive than what the Obama administration has done to date.

The problem with the administration’s current approach is the unwillingness to make hard decisions when it comes to reorienting the U.S. military’s force structure in the Pacific. Obama officials are not willing to commit to developing new platforms and weapons systems required to counter emerging threats emanating from Asia. Instead, they promote public diplomacy and strategic communications that do little more than send mixed signals to potential strategic competitors.

The South China Sea is a great example. When the United States closed its bases in the Philippines, America lost its hard-power leverage in the region. A power vacuum was created when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could not match the strategic influence of the U.S. forward presence. This, in effect, provided China with an opportunity to challenge the regional order and redraw the borders in its favor. What did China do? It pounced at this opportunity — exactly as realists would expect.

The point here is that the United States cannot rely on soft-power diplomacy alone to promote our interests in Asia. We need to establish a strong forward presence in the region that sends the right signal to potential regional competitors that the U.S. is not going to allow others to challenge peace and stability in the region through coercive actions. This is not about containing others but it is about maintaining primacy. We should not shy away from saying that is our objective.

In the end, the United States cannot continue to be caught empty-handed in Asia. We need the Obama administration to be far more decisive in implementing the change required to ensure our primacy in the region. Politics aside, we cannot afford to see our Asia pivot devolve into another Russian re-set fiasco — the stakes are just too high. That’s why we need the Obama administration to reconsider its approach in Asia even though it’s an election year, when domestic issues predominate.

Eddie Walsh

Party Bristles at Military’s Push for More Sway in China

BEIJING — During a holiday banquet for China’s military leadership early this year, a powerful general lashed out in a drunken rage against what he believed was a backhanded move to keep him from being promoted to the military’s top ruling body.

The general, Zhang Qinsheng, vented his fury in front of President Hu Jintao, according to four people with knowledge of the event. At the banquet, he even shoved a commanding general making toasts; Mr. Hu walked out in disgust.

The general’s tirade was one of a series of events this year that have fueled concerns among Communist Party leaders over the level of control they exercise over military officials, who are growing more outspoken and desire greater influence over policy and politics.

With China’s once-a-decade leadership transition only months away, the party is pushing back with a highly visible campaign against disloyalty and corruption, even requiring all officers to report financial assets.

“Party authorities have come to realize that the military is encroaching on political affairs,” said one political scientist with high-level party ties. “Although the party controls the gun, the expression of viewpoints from within the military on political issues has aroused a high level of alarm.” He, like others who agreed to discuss internal party affairs, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals.

Some generals and admirals have loudly called for the government to assert control over the South China Sea, the focus of increasingly rancorous territorial disputes between several Southeast Asian countries and China, where nationalist spirits are on the rise among the public and politicians as well. And earlier this year, leaders in Beijing became alarmed over ties between generals and the disgraced Politburo member Bo Xilai.

The party’s need to maintain stable rule over an increasingly vocal military is one reason Mr. Hu, its top civilian leader, is expected to hold on to his position as chairman of the Central Military Commission for up to two years after he gives up his party chief title in the fall, according to people briefed on political discussions. His anointed successor, Xi Jinping, would still take over Mr. Hu’s posts as head of the party and head of state, but would have to wait to become China’s military boss.

Mr. Hu’s two predecessors both exercised control of the military after they gave up their other civilian titles. But some party insiders have argued that a staggered handover can lead to rival centers of power, splitting generals’ loyalties. No final decision has been made on whether Mr. Hu will stay on. But if he does, then Mr. Xi could find himself with limited room to expand his power base, even though he has more of a military background than Mr. Hu.

Mr. Hu has been building a network of army loyalists by promoting generals in waves. At least 45 officers have been promoted to full general by Mr. Hu since September 2004, when he became head of the military commission. Just over half the promotions have taken place since July 2010. Four of the 45 are now among the 10 generals who sit on the commission. One officer who rose quickly with Mr. Hu’s support was General Zhang, who could still be in contention for a commission seat despite his drunken tantrum.

When Mr. Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, held on to his military post from 2002 to 2004, factional enmity arose over many issues. The same could happen with Mr. Hu and Mr. Xi, who was promoted to a vice chairmanship of the military commission in 2010. Mr. Jiang yielded his post to Mr. Hu only after conflicts between the two had intensified.

“The way it goes in the military is: whoever promotes me is my daddy,” said one member of the party elite who meets with generals regularly.

Such divisions need not be debilitating in an increasingly professional military, analysts say.

“They prefer to work out these differences in a consensus-building process,” said Dennis J. Blasko, a retired United States Army intelligence officer and former military attaché at the American Embassy in Beijing. “I see the P.L.A. leadership as rational, pragmatic and realistic,” he added, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.

Nonetheless, conversations with officers suggest that some may feel an affinity for the incoming Mr. Xi they do not share with Mr. Hu, a tea trader’s son who has struggled in Mr. Jiang’s shadow to win respect. Mr. Xi, 59, is the “princeling” son of a revered Communist guerrilla leader who grew up in Beijing with military families. He is stepping into the leadership role with closer military relationships than anyone since Deng Xiaoping.

“When those from the ‘red second generation’ move up, there will be a personal feeling, a traditional bond,” a senior officer said.

Mr. Xi’s first job was as an aide to Geng Biao, a guerrilla comrade of his father’s who became China’s defense minister in 1981. Mr. Xi later held political command offices over military units while serving as a civilian leader in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces opposite Taiwan, which China still considers part of its country. And he is married to Peng Liyuan, a celebrity singer from an army performance troupe who holds the equivalent rank of major general.

Even before taking his post on the military commission, Mr. Xi had occasional informal meetings in Beijing with several generals, including the outspoken princelings Liu Yuan and Liu Yazhou, according to Li Mingjiang, an expert in Chinese politics now in Singapore.

When it comes to ideology, Mr. Xi is a cipher. But with China’s rise has come a growing assertiveness in the region, and Mr. Xi will feel pressure to go in that direction. He will be “tougher in terms of protecting China’s interests,” Mr. Li said. “The fact that he does have some military background gives him more confidence in decision making.”

There are signs that some generals believe they have Mr. Xi’s ear. Last year, Gen. Liu Yazhou, political commissar of the National Defense University, sent a famously bellicose major general, Zhu Chenghu, to Singapore to lead a study on that tiny nation’s more flexible authoritarian system. General Liu, who was promoted to full general by Mr. Hu on July 30, planned to present it to Mr. Xi to make the case for a more liberal one-party system as a means toward strengthening the state, said one scholar who met with the group.

Liu Yuan (no relation to Liu Yazhou), another powerful figure in Mr. Xi’s network of princeling generals, is the son of Liu Shaoqi, who had been picked by Mao to take over the post of supreme leader before being purged and left to die in prison. In an essay published in 2002, Mr. Xi reminisced about how he bonded with Liu Yuan when they were both given county-level civilian postings in 1982.

“We agreed with each other even before we talked,” Mr. Xi wrote. “Both of us wanted to take the road of integrating with workers and peasants.”

Despite his favored position, Gen. Liu Yuan came under pressure this year from party authorities because of his connections to Mr. Bo. Indeed, the Bo affair put civilian officials on heightened alert for such collusive links. When the scandal began to unfold in February, Mr. Bo alarmed some party leaders by flying to Yunnan Province to visit the headquarters of the 14th Group Army, the unit once commanded by his father.

Some say that the scandal damaged Gen. Liu Yuan’s prospects for promotion. But his popularity was evident in April, when he earned top marks in a poll of senior officers, according to a party intellectual close to him. To guard his career, the general distanced himself from Mr. Bo and made a declaration of support to Mr. Hu, who had earlier promoted him to full general.

It was one of many ways that Mr. Hu, analysts say, has tried to corral officers from elite families and that could allow him to extend his influence into retirement.

Edward Wong

Posted in: Politics