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Obama stakes his priorities

by Harsh V. Pant

Special To The Japan Times

Even as multiple crises on the global front challenge U.S. diplomacy, Washington has not lost sight of Asia. U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines last month was a signal that despite questions about America’s staying power in the region, Washington has no intention of ceding its strategic space.

Giving a strong rebuttal to those who have been questioning America’s commitment to Japan, Obama declared that “America is and always will be a Pacific nation,” underscoring clearly that “the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.”

The China factor is all around, and the Obama administration is trying its best to get its act together in Asia after making a number of false starts.

When Obama visited China in November 2009, he was at the height of his power domestically. He was dictating the contours of his domestic political agenda. The opposition was weak and diffuse. His administration had ideas about China as the fulcrum of stability in the Asia-Pacific.

China’s growing economic and political clout prompted the Obama administration early on to toy with the idea of a G-2, a global condominium of the United States and China, whereby China could be expected to look after and “manage” the Asia-Pacific.

The Obama administration was signaling, however, that it was more interested in managing America’s decline than in preserving its pre-eminence in the global order. There was no strategic vision of Asia apart from the hope that U.S. and China could work together to sort out problems.

Today it is a much different scenario, one where China has started asserting itself more strongly than before. Obama’s latest visit to Asia was aimed at reminding China that the U.S. still retains its role as the principle balancing force in the region.

Regional states are worried about China’s rise and its recent attempts to assert its interests more forcefully in the region. There is a clamor for American leadership in the region, as none of the regional states want China to emerge as the dominant actor in the region. All want a stronger U.S. presence in the region to confer greater stability.

America’s new diplomatic and military strategy is explicitly geared toward tackling the emerging threat from China’s massive and rapid military buildup and growing diplomatic clout. It takes forward the process, already under way, of reorienting the American military might from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Where the new strategy is unambiguous is in underlining the challenge in the Asia-Pacific and turning America’s gaze to this geostrategically pivotal region and to China’s growing prowess. The U.S. is re-ordering its strategic priorities. As the U.S. secretary of state has already underlined, “the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”

At a time when talk of American decline and retrenchment from global commitments has become de rigueur, the signals coming from Washington are that it has no intention of leaving the Asian strategic landscape. Nor will regional states allow America to lower its profile. After all, the elephant in the room is China’s faster-than-expected ascent in the global interstate hierarchy.

But America’s strategic rebalancing toward the region, popularly termed “pivot,” has come under strain. The pivot was Hillary Clinton’s brainchild, but her successor, John Kerry, skeptical of the pivot strategy and the nomenclature in Washington, has already changed it to “strategic rebalancing” since taking over the role of America’s chief diplomat.

Moreover, America’s economic problems and defense budget cuts have engendered an inward-looking foreign policy posture. The domestic polity in the U.S. is not prepared to make any substantial commitments to maintain America’s global supremacy.

Obama’s leadership has also been a problem as he has failed to make a strong case for America’s global leadership. His diffidence on Syria and Ukraine has caused many U.S. allies to question America’s resolve in tackling the challenge of China’s rise effectively.

Yet, America’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific is viewed in Beijing as a policy designed to contain China and has been criticized in the new biennial Defense White Paper for running counter to regional trends and “frequently making the situation more tense.”

The U.S. pivot will lead to 60 percent of the U.S. Navy’s capabilities being deployed to the Pacific by 2020. Regional states are looking to work together with Washington in making this policy operational. Singapore will house four U.S. Littoral Combat Ships and the Philippines will be hosting more U.S. troops on a rotating basis.

Around 2,500 U.S. Marines will be deployed to the northern city of Darwin in Australia while Indonesia is seeking to buy significant military equipment and to undertake joint maneuvers with the U.S. This is in addition to Washington’s upgrade of its defense ties with its traditional allies in the region — Japan and South Korea.

America has also taken a more activist role in territorial disputes in East Asia and South China Sea between China and its regional neighbors. Beijing has viewed this as targeting China’s sphere of influence.

While Obama’s latest Asia sojourn might have not been enough to dispel all apprehensions of America’s continuing commitment to regional stability, it will go some way in assuaging regional concerns about Washington’s foreign policy priorities.

Ukraine and Syria are merely distractions as the real story of the 21st century will unfold in Asia, where America will have to remain engaged if it is serious about its own global pre-eminence.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London.

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