Written by Michael Mazza.
Now in its fourth year, the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia remains beset by a problem of perception. Those countries in the region that the pivot, or rebalance, was intended to reassure remain unconvinced of American commitment to the region’s stability and of American staying power. China, which the pivot should have put on notice, has been angered by American rhetoric and actions without being deterred from its aggressive course.
In large part, this problem of perception is one of America’s own making. Whether the administration prefers the term “pivot” or “rebalance,” both are suggestive of the limitations of American foreign policy and an inability of the United States to focus its attentions on multiple regions at once. With ongoing instability in the Middle East and, indeed, with the United States at war there again—this time with the Islamic State—it is no wonder that Asians are wondering whether Washington has already pivoted back to the Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf.
The Obama administration has also failed to match its actions to its rhetoric. Efforts to enhance alliances with Japan and Australia have been broadly welcomed by U.S. partners, as have new deployments of Marines to Darwin and promises to base a greater portion of the Navy in the Pacific. But at the same time, Asian allies have looked on with unease as sequestration of the defense budget resulted in the cancellation of multilateral military exercises, the grounding of fighter wings, reductions in procurement, and decreased readiness. As far as many Asian countries can see, America’s ability to project power to the region at will is increasingly at risk.
To more effectively reassure allies and deter potential foes, the United States should alter both its rhetoric and its regional defense strategy. First, it is time to be direct with China. The administration should make clear that it welcomes and even encourages China’s peaceful rise, that it sees China as an important economic partner, and that a China that binds itself to the rules and norms of the presiding international order can be a force for peace and prosperity in the world.
But Washington should also be clear in explaining that it views China’s military modernization with great concern. That China would seek to upgrade the People’s Liberation Army as the country grows richer and its interests expand is neither unnatural nor inappropriate. But the nature of the buildup, the Obama administration should note, makes it a central national security concern for the United States, which assesses that the modernization effort is largely focused on enabling the PLA to defeat the U.S. military in battle, to subjugate China’s democratic neighbors (including Taiwan), and to deny the United States free access to the Western Pacific and Asian littoral waters. In this way, Chinese military modernization threatens to undermine an Asian order that has been key to prosperity and security in both Asia and the United States.
The United States, moreover, should convey that China’s regional posture leaves Washington increasingly convinced that Beijing is itself no longer wedded to the idea of a peaceful rise. Chinese attempts to bully neighbors and change facts on the “ground” in the South China Sea are contrary to the spirit and letter of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, to which Beijing is a signatory. Additionally, and given China’s unique interpretation of freedom of the seas, such efforts threaten the security of sea lines of communication through the South China Sea, on which American economic and security interests depend.
Perhaps even more concerning, Washington should explain, are Chinese actions in the East China Sea, which suggest a reckless disregard for the maintenance of peace in Asia and mark a direct challenge to the United States’ most important regional alliance.
In short, the Obama administration should assert that it welcomes China’s peaceful rise but that Washington is increasingly convinced Beijing is interested only in peace on its own terms and, to a growing extent, prepared to abandon the peaceful pursuit of its own interests. As such, the United States will continue to engage with China in an attempt to bring both countries’ interests into greater alignment, but will also be better prepared to defend the peace in Asia.
To defend that peace, the United States must adopt a more robust regional posture and work to further enhance its alliance network. The United States and its allies should be able to contain the PLA within the first island chain and deter aggression within that area. Doing so will minimize the Chinese military’s ability to pose a direct threat to the United States and to effectively threaten America’s allies in Asia.
In essence, a more effective Asia strategy would see the United States finally moving beyond its hub-and-spoke alliance model. An “Asian NATO” is not in the offing; rather than work to bind allies together in a grand mutual defense treaty, the United States should pursue multilateral cooperation in a few discrete areas to enhance regional security. Two efforts in particular are worth pursuing.
First, with U.S. partners South Korean, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and India all upgrading their submarine fleets, American strategists should consider the value of an allied submarine “picket line,” stretching from the Soya Strait (also known as the La Pérouse Strait) between Hokkaido and Sakhalin in the north, to the Bashi Channel and other waterways connecting the South China Sea and Philippine Sea, through the Southeast Asian archipelagos, and into the eastern Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea. A picket line would allow for enhanced tracking of Chinese subs exiting and reentering the South China Sea and position the allies to more easily close strategic chokepoints in the event of a conflict.
Partner nations could divide geographic responsibilities, with Taiwan taking primary responsibility for patrolling waters in and around the Taiwan Strait and the United States doing so in the South China Sea itself. To encourage greater interoperability, the United States should voice support for Japan’s efforts to sell its submarines abroad and should lobby for American industrial participation in indigenous submarine programs. Washington should make Taiwan’s submarine program a priority for the bilateral security relationship, either by assisting Taipei with its indigenous production plans or, better yet, by pushing Tokyo to sell to Taiwan Soryu-class submarines equipped with American communications and weapons systems.
Second, the United States should work to initiate a regional maritime domain awareness (MDA) network, which would include not only traditional U.S. partners but also Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Participating countries would contribute their own intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to the network, and all participants would have access to a common operating picture. The United States could assist currently less capable partners in the development of their ISR assets, thus enhancing its own ISR reach.
Such a network would serve to deter Chinese aggression in the China seas, as Beijing would know it was always under observation. It might also discourage China from provocative activities—such as military construction—on disputed islands under its control. An allied MDA network would have the added benefit of tamping down tensions among participant nations as well, many of which are engaged in territorial disputes and tend to competition with one another.
There are, of course, political challenges in building both an allied submarine picket line and a shared MDA network. Seoul and Tokyo frequently do not get along, Southeast Asian states are fiercely protective of their sovereignty, and India has long insisted on pursuing an independent foreign policy. All are tentative in their dealings with Taiwan and all wish to maintain positive economic relations with China.
But Chinese behavior is already pushing these states towards each other. The United States should take advantage of this trend to play the role of convener. The central American role in each project, moreover, should be to reassure partner states that are traditionally suspicious of one another, such as South Korea and Japan. In cases where direct cooperation may be too sensitive—between the Southeast Asians and Taiwan, for example—the United States can abet implicit coordination.
Since its inception in late 2011, the pivot to Asia has failed to live up to its promise. Confusing rhetoric and a mismatch between words and deeds left Asian partners wondering about what the pivot was intended to be and whether it marked a lasting change in American policy in the region. But the rebalance is not beyond resuscitation. If the United States begins to speak more clearly and ensure that, together, it and its allies carry a bigger stick, peace in Asia can be preserved.
Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he analyzes US defense policy in the Asia-Pacific region, Chinese military modernization, cross–Taiwan Strait relations, and Korean Peninsula security. A regular writer for the AEIdeas blog, he is also the program manager of AEI’s annual Executive Program on National Security Policy and Strategy. Michael tweets @mike_mazza. Image Credit: CC by Seong-Woo Seo/Flickr.