By Sandip Kumar Mishra*
The US President Barack Obama announced his new strategy for the Asia-Pacific – ‘pivot to Asia’ – in 2011. It was also called ‘strategic rebalancing’ which emphasised that the US was ‘here to stay’ to and it would re-inject fresh energy into its security and economic presence in the region. The US appeared to contest the growing influence of China by revitalising its partnerships with its old allies in the region and also reach out to other like-minded countries for their support for US initiatives.
In the subsequent year, the US tried to reinvigorate its alliances with Japan, South Korea, Philippines, and Australia, and tried to reach out to countries like India to have a larger and effective grouping to support US positions in regional politics. Even in the economic arena, an ambitious project in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was given more importance. As mentioned earlier, the US ‘pivot to Asia’ was less a strategic balancing and more a counter-measure to China’s growing political and military might, and a last attempt to maintain the US position as the prime mover in the Asia-Pacific. However, it might be said that the US re-entry has not been impressive because of the lack of intensity as well as many internal rifts between the US allies such as mistrust between Japan and South Korea, lack of consensus among other countries of the Asia-Pacific such as India and ASEAN countries on the US move, and more than anything else, decline in US capacity. It has led to the ‘pivot’ being less appealing in subsequent years. A meeting is Hawaii a few days ago to chart the course of the TPP was not able to make any clear headway – it seems it will take more time to realise the TPP on the ground. It may be contrasted with the Chinese project of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has been successfully launched with wide participation by the countries of the region, including South Korea.
There is another unsaid but equally if not more significant ‘pivot to Asia’, which has been gradually but very decisively taking more space in the political and economic landscape of the Asia-Pacific: China’s ‘pivot to Asia’. China’s growing influence in the region is undisputable, especially in the economic sphere. China has emerged as the Asia-Pacific hub, being the number one trading partner of almost all the countries. With the successful launch of the AIIB and One-Belt One-Road (OBOR) initiative, China has almost become a pivot of the entire region in the economic sphere. In security affairs also, undeterred by US moves, China has become more assertive and has been making its intent and design more open. It has deliberately discarded its old policy of ‘hide your capabilities’ and asserted its foreign policy goals. It has made it clear that it would not accept any code of conduct for the South China Sea and in 2013 declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. China probably wants to make its claim for the ‘pivot’ known and open at this point of time, though not it might not be eager to execute them immediately.
Japan, under the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has also its own ‘pivot to Asia’ intent. An important shift in Japan’s approach in recent years has been an aggressive policy to erode its peaceful constitution and unlock all the restrictions on Japan’s military role in regional politics. By citing China’s growing assertiveness and the need for an Asia-Pacific response, Japan has been able to convince the US that a changed Japanese posture is a much needed stance. Japan is aware that the neighbouring countries would not be happy with this attempt to become a ‘pivot’ to Asia and has thus been trying to reach out other, distant countries in Asia, including India, to garner support.
In the past one and half years, more specifically after the Ukraine crisis, Russia has also been trying to engage more with Asia. At this point in time, Russia has neither capacity nor intent to become a regional pivot in the security sphere, though it has been trying to be a player, at least, in East Asia via its cooperation and connections with North Korea. Moscow has signed a nuclear agreement with India and has been strengthening its relationship with China. Russia’s renewed interests in Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam are also reported to be part of its agenda to build a Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’. Russia is more interested in the economic landscape of the region, and in April 2014, Moscow announced a special economic zone in Vladivostok to reach out to Asia-pacific countries.
Few other ‘pivots’ such as ASEAN’s as a collective entity, which tries to offer a ASEAN way in regional politics, as well as India’s growing regional interests, could also be cited as important variables that are going to shape the future of the region. However, they are nascent and less influential at this point of time.
Amidst all the ‘pivots to Asia’, the region has become an arena of contest between the various players of ‘pivot politics’. A multiplicity of ‘pivots’ means that there is no one who has substantial influence over the regional security and economic dynamics, leading to complex scenarios. It has resulted in less predictability and more instability in the region. The interplay of these ‘pivots’ – their contest as well alliances – is going to shape the future of regional political and economics, and must be keenly observed.
*Sandip Kumar Mishra
Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Studies, Delhi University