The second decade of the 21st century ushered in a strategic shift for the United States. President Obama’s remarks to the Australian Parliament two years ago was just one speech in a constant drumbeat of United States’ officials emphasizing this rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region or, as it is often called, the United States pivot to the Pacific. Regardless of what term is used, the emphasis on this shift has been intense. This is how then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in a major article in Foreign Policy:
One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in the Asia-Pacific region… At a time when the region is building a more mature security and economic architecture to promote stability and prosperity, U.S. commitment there is essential… Beyond our borders, people are also wondering about America’s intentions – our willingness to remain engaged and to lead. In Asia, they ask whether we are really there to stay, whether we are likely to be distracted again by events elsewhere, whether we can make – and keep – credible economic and strategic commitments, and whether we can back those commitments with action.
The answer is: We can, and we will… Just as Asia is critical to America’s future, an engaged America is vital to Asia’s future… President Obama has led a multifaceted and persistent effort to embrace fully our irreplaceable role in the Pacific… By virtue of our unique geography, the United States is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power. We are proud of our European partnerships and all that they deliver. Our challenge now is to build a web of partnerships and institutions across the Pacific that is as durable and as consistent with American interests and values as the web we have built across the Atlantic.
But major powers – including the United States – have sometimes been long on rhetoric and short on action. This series of posts will endeavor to sort the wheat from the chaff and examine the factors impacting this rebalance or pivot. None of this is intended to cast doubt on the desire or commitment of the administration – or the nation for that matter – to make this strategic shift. Rather it simply an evaluation of the factors pushing – or impeding – this announced rebalance or pivot. Said another way, is this shift to the Asia-Pacific real – or is it something else?
More than four decades ago a popular television commercial featured jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. The singer sang a note that shattered glass while being recorded to a Memorex audio cassette – only to have the tape played back and the recording also break the glass as the announcer intoned, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” Today, many – and especially the nations of the Asia-Pacific region – want to know whether the United States’ rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or pivot to the Pacific is real and live, or just a “strategy de jour” that will pass – just as audio cassette tapes have passed into the technological dustbin. Fortunately, there are indicators to watch that can help us determine if this rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, or pivot to the Pacific, will, indeed, have traction moving forward. Knowing what indicators to watch can help us, as the Duke of Wellington famously said, “Endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I call guessing what’s on the other side of the hill.”
The Official United States Position
“Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth – the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation … Here, we see the future. With most of the world’s nuclear power and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress.”
– President Barack Obama, Remarks to the Australian Parliament, Nov. 17, 2011
The United States’ official position and “strategic intent” on its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region has been widely broadcast in a number of ways. In the fall of 2011, the Obama Administration issued a series of announcements indicating the United States would be expanding and intensifying its already significant role in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in the southern part of the region. The fundamental goal underpinning the shift was to devote more effort to influencing the development of the Asia-Pacific’s “norms and rules,” particularly as China emerges as an ever-more influential regional power. A primary announced purpose of the rebalancing or pivot to the Asia-Pacific was to deepen U.S. credibility in the region. Much of the strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific is a continuation and expansion of policies already undertaken by previous U.S. administrations, as well as earlier in President Obama’s term.
While the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region encompasses many aspects, one of the most closely watched is what is occurring in the military realm. This is critical, because the region has not been peaceful. For example, there have disputes between China and Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea; disputes between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea; and North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, as well as other areas of conflict, to say nothing of ongoing illicit trafficking in people, weapons, drugs, and WMDs. Often, the degree of commitment to deal with these issues is measured in terms of military forces available. The official U.S. Department of Defense policy regarding the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific was articulated in a memo by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. In his August 2012 memo, Secretary Carter noted:
The President’s Strategic Guidance of January 2012 directs several important changes to the Department’s priorities, including a rebalance of emphasis towards the Asia-Pacific region. Rebalancing must encompass: the principles that guide our efforts to reinforce security in the region; our posture, presence and force structure; alliances and security partnerships; investment in new capabilities and technology; operational concepts and tactics, techniques and procedures; and our approach to operational plans.
One of the most closely watched indicators over the next several years will be how the United States is moving to “operationalize” this shift.
But it is one thing to issue policy pronouncements from the E-Ring of the Pentagon. It is quite another to shift forces, build alliance and infrastructure and do all the other things that militarily undergird a major strategic shift. One of the most closely-watched indicators over the next several years will be how the United States is moving to “operationalize” this shift.
“Operationalizing” the United States Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific Region
Over the past several years, the United States has moved to “operationalize” this new strategy, from reaffirming treaty obligations with Asia-Pacific nations, to speeches and articles in international media by Obama administration officials, to more robust U.S. participation in Asia-Pacific fora such as the East Asia Summit, to issuing its Air-Sea Battle Strategy (please see previous Defense Media Network posts on this subject) to address anti-access and area denial challenges in the region. All of these initiatives are important, but what has garnered perhaps the most attention have been the concrete military steps that are under way in the region. While Europe is a landscape, the Asia-Pacific region is a seascape. Therefore, the most significant – and most closely-watched – U.S. force posture changes in the region are likely to be in naval force structure. The U.S. Navy is operationalizing this rebalance in four ways:
- deploying more forces to the Asia-Pacific,
- basing more ships and aircraft in the region,
- fielding new capabilities focused on Asia-Pacific challenges, and
- developing partnerships and intellectual capital across the region.
More on this in future posts. However, all this said, it is impossible to fully understand the rationale behind the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or Pivot to the Pacific without addressing the rise of China. Without putting too fine a point on it, absent China’s astounding rise – and the substantial growth of China’s military – the impetus for this pivot might not be as strong. The next posts will address China’s rise in detail.