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America’s pivot to Asia is not just about countering China

by Ralph A. Cossa and Brad Glosserman

“All right China, come out with your hands up; we’ve got you surrounded!”

When one reads about the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, it is almost always cast in terms of countering China’s rise, as if it — and everything else that Washington does in Asia — is always all about China. Of course, Beijing then reacts accordingly.

But the only thing new about America’s pivot toward Asia is the word pivot. The idea of focusing on Asia during this, the “Pacific Century,” dates back to President Bush … President George H.W. Bush’s new world order that is.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, U.S. presidents have been acknowledging the growing importance of Asia and the need for America to remained engaged in this critical region in its own national interest.

In a series of four East Asia strategy reports between 1990-1998, prepared by the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, the Pentagon — at a time when China was largely an afterthought — clearly signaled its intention to shift its focus toward Asia.

While the George W. Bush administration likewise stressed the importance of Asia in the 21st century, it (regrettably) did not issue its own series of strategy reports; nor (thus far) has the Obama administration. Issuing such a document would help clarify the whys and hows behind the pivot.

Nonetheless, the frequent assertion by senior officials in both administrations that the United States is a “Pacific nation” makes it clear that the region continues to hold pride of place whenever America’s post-Cold War leaders think about America’s economic and strategic future.

As a result, the argument or accusation that the U.S. is suddenly “back to Asia” misses the mark. The U.S. never left.

Asia policy has been one of the few U.S. foreign policy arenas that has enjoyed both considerable continuity and bipartisan support in the post-Cold War era. Sure, each administration has attempted to differentiate its policies from those of its predecessors, but the similarities are far greater than the changes.

From our vantage point, recurring Obama administration assertions that “America is back” runs the risk of being counterproductive.

We understand the political necessity of making such a claim. It provides a policy framework in the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars at a time when Washington is trying to set parameters for defense policy amid unprecedented fiscal constraints. But there is the insinuation that a nation that “returns” has either left or might leave again — that its commitment comes and goes.

The U.S. doesn’t want to be sending that message to allies, partners, and potential adversaries. It also confuses other governments in the region.

In conversations throughout Asia, friends have asked us what this new policy means. Those who never questioned the U.S. commitment still wonder what is behind this language.

They worry that a “surge” in the American presence is a cover for more aggressive and potentially destabilizing policies. They worry, too, that the U.S. is preparing a more confrontational policy toward China. (That doesn’t mean that they don’t worry about China and its intentions, but they want the U.S. to be a comforting presence, not an instigator.)

Take the Darwin deployment for instance. Beginning in 2012, U.S. Marines will begin six-month rotations to Darwin for joint training. Initial deployments will involve 250 marines with the number eventually growing to 2,500 by 2016.

Beijing was quick to protest the announcement, calling it “a manifestation of a Cold War mentality,” and warning, in a People’s Daily editorial, “If Australia uses its military bases to help the U.S. harm Chinese interests, then Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire.”

Someone needs to hand our Chinese colleagues a map. Darwin is some 4,000 km from the nearest Chinese landmass; that’s one heck of a crossfire!

To say that it’s not all about China is not to say that it is not at all about China. In some fundamental ways, Chinese statements and actions in recent years have made it at least in part about China.

The year 2010 in particular was one of ” living arrogantly” for China and its Peoples Liberation Army; 2011 was for the most part a period of backing off, but, by then, damage to the credibility of China’s “peaceful rise” pledge had been done. Concerns about Chinese intentions — and the need to respond to them — have risen exponentially.

Take recent discussions between Washington and Manila about increased defense cooperation, for instance. While defense officials in both countries are careful to portray the talks as aimed at strengthening their long-standing alliance and helping the Philippines to build capacity — not aimed at China or anyone else — every piece of reporting on the discussions begins with an assertion that they are aimed at countering China’s rise.

Most also contend — inaccurately — that U.S. forces and bases are about to return to the Philippines, something that, for starters, would require a Philippine constitutional amendment.

While the U.S. bases agreement with the Philippines ended two decades ago, the alliance remains strong. U.S. ships routinely visit the Philippines, U.S. militaries exercise together on a routine basis, and U.S. advisers continue to provide training and assistance in support of Philippine counterinsurgency operations in the South.

Sustaining and building upon such support is hardly front-page news. But growing Philippine concerns about Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea make it front-page news, and significantly increase Manila’s incentive both to increase the U.S. presence and to remind China about the defense commitments that have always been inherent in the alliance.

In short, America’s “return” to Asia is overblown, as the U.S. never left.

The primary factor behind the continuing focus on Asia is the awareness that Asia’s economic, political and security significance is likely to grow, regardless of the nature of China’s rise.

The U.S. is committed to remaining “all in” with regard to Asia (as President Barack Obama pledged in Australia) because it has been, is, and will continue to be in America’s national security interest to do so.

It’s not all about China and would be less about China than it is today if China would become more transparent about its claims and intentions and military modernization plans in the future.

Ralph A. Cossa is president, and Brad Glosserman is executive director, of the Pacific Forum CSIS (pacificforum@pacforum.org), a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington (www.csis.org/pacfor) A longer version of this article appeared in PacNet Newsletter.