Washington's Return To Asia

The Obama administration has stated that the US has returned to Asia.  An article by Hilary Clinton in the November edition of Foreign Policy magazine made clear Washington’s intentions of focusing on the region.  Leon Panetta, the new US Secretary of Defense, reiterated this view on an October visit to important allies such as Japan and South Korea.  Finally, in Australia in mid-November US President Barack Obama announced the deployment of 2,500 US Marines to Darwin by 2014.  China has reacted cautiously thus far, although the People’s Daily warned that Australia risks being caught in any “crossfire”.

Putting aside unspoken fiscal issues, the US decision suggests that the post-Cold War order is coming to an end.  The international system in Pacific Asia has changed since 1945, when the US loomed over a Japan in pieces and a China in ferment.  The Maoist revolution and the outbreak of the Korean War transformed Washington’s pre-eminence into a balance of power system divided into US and Soviet led camps.  However, after 1972 an informal anti-Soviet security alliance between the US and China helped shore up American power in the region in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  (An excellent analysis of that shift came from the pen of international relations theorist Hedley Bull).  The Soviet Union compensated by increasing its Pacific naval capacity prior to collapse in 1991.

China’s focus on economic development after the events of Tiananmen Square left the US dominant in East Asia through the 1990s.  Beijing was unable or unwilling to challenge the US until about 2001, powerless in its fury at US President Bill Clinton’s 1996 decision to deploy two aircraft carrier groups in response to Chinese missile testing in the Taiwan Straits. However, the rapid development of China’s economy, largely after its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, has changed that dynamic.  Trading prowess and the acquisition of huge foreign exchange reserves have swelled China’s economic importance, while growing military spending has transformed the People’s Liberation Army.  If the 2001 EP3 spy plane incident and the standoff with the USS Impeccable in March 2009 show anything, it is that Beijing has moved away from Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy adage that it must hide its brightness and bide its time.  In particular, since the 2008 financial crisis, China appears to have pursued a more assertive foreign policy, with notable developments including increased tensions in the South China Sea and, most recently, Beijing’s decision in November 2011 to deploy armed police to northern Thailand.  The new US strategy thus seeks to soothe regional concerns of powerlessness in the face of rising Chinese might.

In some ways, then, the US steps may presage moves away from US preponderance towards a more effective balance of power in East Asia.   A classic view of a balance of power system is one where each power recognises that other players have rights in certain spheres of interest.  The core principle underpinning this approach is one of “co-existence”.  The arrangements in Europe between powers such as Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia between 1815 and the 1860s would constitute such a system, as might the more hostile division of Europe into pro-US and pro-Soviet camps between 1945 and 1989.

Regional developments appear to support this assertion.  One reason behind the Darwin deployment is that Chinese over-the-horizon capabilities, such as its DF-21D missiles and the J-20 stealth fighter, will have the range to hit nearby US facilities. But not those in Australia.  The US troops there may also come from those already in South Korea and Japan, amounting to a restructuring rather than an expansion of regional forces.  Accordingly, the new policy may amount to de facto recognition of China’s growing clout and even its right to exert influence in its near abroad.  The move could thus contribute to a division of influence in Asia between a pro-US camp comprising maritime states such as Australia, perhaps India, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, and a pro-Chinese camp composed of continental states such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea and Pakistan.  In a positive reading, this scenario could evolve into a relatively amicable “concert of Asia” underpinned by strong trading links.  In a more confrontational scenario, it could lead to contest and efforts at containment, although the importance of the US-China trading relationship may for a time prevent the evolution of a new Cold War in Asia.

However, it is not yet clear that Washington is willing to settle for a regional balance of power based on principles of “coexistence”.  First, the Pentagon is developing an Air-Sea Battle Concept which would seek to counter Chinese efforts to deny US forces regional access.  This doctrine is notably assertive, since it would involve strikes on weapons systems based in mainland China, such as missile sites.  It is worth mentioning in this context that one source of friction between Moscow and Washington in the early Cold War was the US ability to deploy nuclear weapons. In part, this capability prompted the Soviet Union to retain control in Eastern Europe so as to make it harder for US bombers to reach Moscow.  China’s planners may take a comparable view of the Air-Sea Battle Concept and alter policy accordingly. Second, a US presence in Australia would permit easy access to both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, thus facilitating the imposition of a maritime blockade on China.  Turning again to history, it was Japan’s fear of blockade which prompted the invasion of South East Asia in 1941.  China, too, would react to any such threat. Third, the new strategy appears to include US efforts to expand influence on China’s periphery, both in states that have a fraught relationship with China, such as Vietnam, and perhaps now in client states such as Myanmar.  Arguably, one reason for Cold War stability in Europe was US unwillingness to engage in “rollback” of Soviet influence in Germany in 1953 or Hungary in 1956.  Should the US seek to push back Chinese influence in Myanmar or elsewhere, Beijing may react badly.  And finally, in terms of economic restraints, success in implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new regional trade pact, might make bilateral trade with China less of an inhibition to US strategy.

The new order is emerging, then.  Australia has decided to move closer to the US despite its trading reliance on China.  Other states, such as Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, will seek to hedge, but may in time have to choose one or another side.  As such, places such as Thailand, which is a US treaty partner but could soon have Chinese armed police operating on its territory, will be important barometers for regional relations.  For its part, the US must find a balance between soothing its allies’ fears and not stoking perceptions of containment or even rollback in Beijing.  That will prove difficult, though, and so the prospects of strategic competition between China and America are rising. 


Kit Dawnay is an independent political and foreign affairs analyst based in Hong Kong, and Far East Correspondent for Current Intelligence.