Written by Carlyle A. Thayer.

The United States’ policy of rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific is a multidimensional strategy. This article focuses on the defence-security dimension. It provides the background and rationale for this strategy before turning to major highlights. The article concludes with an assessment of U.S. rebalancing and the strategic uncertainties it has generated.

The Obama Administration and the Asia-Pacific

From the very beginning of the Obama Administration it was clear that the United States would give increased strategic emphasis to the Asia-Pacific region, primarily along the maritime arc embracing Northeast Asia (Japan and South Korea), Southeast Asia, and South Asia (India).

The United States ‘pivot’ towards the Asia-Pacific gathered momentum between 2009 and late 2011 with high-level visits by U.S. officials and stepped up defence and security engagement with regional states. For example, President Obama attended the First Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)‐United States Leaders’ Meeting in Singapore in 2009 and hosted the second leaders’ meeting in New York the following year. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regularly attended the annual meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum, while the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his successors Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel regularly participated in the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

In 2010, the United States acceded to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and established a Permanent Mission to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. The following year the United States appointed a resident ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat, became an inaugural member of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), and joined the East Asia Summit process. In sum, the U.S. was already comprehensively engaged in expanding its footprint in the Asia-Pacific prior to the formal adoption of rebalancing as national policy.

U.S. Rebalancing Emerges as a National Policy

In October 2011, Obama Administration officials brought all the strands of U.S. engagement with the Asia-Pacific together. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided the overarching conceptual framework in an article published in Foreign Affairs entitled ‘America’s Pacific Century’. Clinton argued that with the draw down of the war in Iraq and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, ‘the United States stands at a pivot point’ that ‘will proceed along six key lines of action: strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening our working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights’.

In mid-November 2011, President Obama visited Australia and in an address to a joint sitting of Parliament declared:

 As President, I’ve therefore made a deliberate and strategic decision… I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority… [A] reduction in U.S. defense spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.

The word ‘rebalance’ was not used in either Clinton’s article or Obama’s address. However, in January 2012 the U.S. Department of Defense issued new strategic guidance, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century. This policy document formally identified ‘rebalancing’ as a key U.S. priority:

U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities. Accordingly, while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region [emphasis in original].

The U.S. policy of rebalancing is a multidimensional strategy that embraces stepped up political-diplomatic, economic and defence-security engagement with the Asia-Pacific. The following section reviews the defence-security dimension.

The Defence-Security Dimension of Rebalancing

Under the policy of rebalancing President Obama pledged that the United States would maintain force levels and military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific despite funding cuts to the defence budget. For example, the U.S. Navy will maintain sixty percent of its fleet in the Pacific. Presently the U.S. Navy has fifty ships allocated to the Pacific Command, this is planned rise to 65 by 2019 and will include the most capable platforms as they come into service such as new guided missile destroyers. Currently the U.S. deploys thirty-one of its fifty-three fast attack submarines to either Pearl Harbor or Guam. Another nuclear attack submarine will be deployed to Guam. The U.S. has begun deploying the F-22 Raptor fifth generation fighter to Hawaii and the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to Guam. In future the U.S. will deploy EA-18G Growler jets and F-35C Joint Strike Fighters to the Pacific.

The United States seeks to disperse its military forces more widely in the region by entering into new basing arrangements with treaty allies, strategic partners and other friendly states. Four countries play an important role in U.S. rebalancing: Australia, Japan, the Philippines and Singapore.

Australia. In November 2011, Australia and the U.S. reached agreement on the rotational deployment of U.S. Marines to Darwin in northern Australia to build up from the rotation of a Company to a full Marine Air Ground Task Force of 2,500 personnel. In August 2014, the U.S. and Australia signed a twenty-five year Force Posture Agreement under which the U.S. Air Force will rotate its planes, including B-52 bombers, through Royal Australian Air Force bases, and the U.S. Navy, including its nuclear submarines, will be given expanded access to Royal Australian Navy bases. Both sides also agreed to increase cooperation in space, cyber, ballistic missiles defence and Special Forces operations.

Japan. The United States has a considerable military presence in Japan, totaling 38,000 uniformed military personnel at present. This includes the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force stationed in Okinawa now reequipped with the MV-22 Osprey helicopters. As a result of North Korean ballistic missile tests the U.S. will provide Japan with additional TPY-2 radar. Japan and the United States are currently revising their Defence Guidelines to take into account Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to remove restrictions on the involvement the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) in collective defense to enable the JSDF to come to the aid of allies and friends in specified circumstances.

The Philippines. In April 2014, the Philippines and the United States signed the ten-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. This agreement will permit the increased rotational presence of U.S. forces in the Philippines with the goal of improving maritime security and domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, interoperability and long-term force modernization. In December 2013, the U.S. announced a grant of $40 million in maritime security assistance. The U.S. and the Philippines continue to hold the Balikatan exercise, now in its thirtieth reiteration.

Singapore. The United States designates Singapore as a ‘major security cooperation partner’. In June 2012, Singapore agreed in principle to permit the U.S. Navy to deploy up to four of its new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) at Changi Naval Base on a rotational basis. In 2013, USS Freedom and USS Independence were deployed to Singapore as part of the U.S. rebalancing policy. In November 2014, theUSS Fort Worth LCS began a sixteen-month deployment out of Singapore.

Other Allies and Partners. U.S.-Thailand defence relations have been put on hold since the May 2014 military coup against the civilian government. Nevertheless, Thailand continues co-host with the United States the annual Cobra Gold Exercise one of the world’s largest multilateral military exercises.

In July 2013, the United States and Vietnam reached an agreement on a Comprehensive Partnership that included defence cooperation activities. In 2014, the United States lifted restrictions on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam on a case-by-case basis.

The United States has markedly stepped up its training exercises with Southeast Asian states through the long-standing Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT) exercise series. Under the rebalancing policy the U.S. had given special attention to Indonesia and Malaysia in staging combined and joint exercises and naval port visits.

In April 2014, the United States hosted the first informal meeting with ASEAN Defence Ministers in Hawaii.

In 2013, India and the United States held their first strategic dialogue. Bilateral defence cooperation is mainly focused on aircraft sales (C-17s, C-130Js and P-8s). In January 2015, India and the U.S. renewed their ten-year Defence Framework Agreement. This agreement includes provision for co-development and co-production of military technology and equipment under the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative.

Rebalancing: The Plus Side

Current U.S. defence and security engagement with the Asia-Pacific region is extensive. It builds upon a solid foundation laid in previous decades. The U.S. policy of rebalancing has struck a resonate chord in many regional states due to their concern over China’s rise, military build-up and assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. These states welcome the military-security dimension of U.S. rebalancing.

U.S. military engagement with individual states in the Asia-Pacific is designed to offer reassurance, expand defence and security ties, and to build up individual and collective defence capabilities.

The most significant aspect of rebalancing has been the high-level attention paid by the Obama Administration to the region. During President Obama’s first term in office he visited Asia five times, including four trips to Southeast Asia. Secretary Clinton undertook fourteen trips to Asia during her term in office. She attended all ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences and ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial meetings. Secretary of Defense Gates (2010 and 2011) and Panetta (2012) travelled to Asia thirteen times and attended all meetings of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

A key component of the Obama Administration’s approach is recognition of the centrality of ASEAN and U.S. support for ASEAN-centric multilateral institutions including the ASEAN Regional Forum, ADMM Plus, Enlarged ASEAN Maritime Forum and the East Asia Summit.

Rebalancing and Strategic Uncertainty

Nevertheless, the U.S. policy of rebalancing has generated strategic uncertainty. For example, strategic uncertainty continues to be generated by regional skepticism about the ability of the U.S. to fund its rhetorical commitment to rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific as major crises have emerged in Iraq and Syria. In addition, the slow U.S. recovery from the global financial crisis and political in fighting in Washington over budgetary matters continues to fuel anxieties.

Another source of strategic uncertainty focuses on the intent behind China’s military modernization and increasing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. There is concern that the U.S. rebalancing policy is primarily a military strategy to contain China and provoke great power rivalry and destabilize the region.

In the long-term some regional states are concerned that the United States will be unable to balance China’s growing power and, in the worst case, will retreat from the region leaving China as the hegemon.

Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales and at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. He can be reached for comment at c.thater@adfa.edu.au. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr.