Obama And The Asia Pacific: Macro Strategic Trends In Rebalancing – Analysis


By Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

As Obama’s conversation with Medvedev in Seoul – accidentally overheard – conveyed, he now has “more flexibility” and “room for manoeuvre”. At a micro level, this referred to the Ballistic Missile Defences that the US intends to construct in Europe which the Russians find deeply offensive. But looking at the larger picture, this one act may in fact be a profound and far reaching foreign policy success since this room for manoeuvre is critical to the slow rebalancing happening with US military power. The actual realisation of Obama’s “reset” might be the biggest foreign policy legacy that the president leaves.


The cardinal goal of US foreign policy has, for close to a century now, been to prevent any one power or bloc from monopolising the demographic and material resources of Eurasia. The Communist Sino-Soviet alliance challenged that basis and in due course as it unravelled one was played off against the other. For a variety of complex reasons largely to do with Bill Clinton’s bungled and hubristic foreign policies, a stabilised Russia now embittered and obstructionist is in some senses reviving the Sino-Soviet alliance. To be fair, Russia fears China however, Russia’s female surplus demographic provides a good match with China’s male surplus demographic. The long term projects that China has undertaken in the Russian Far East are producing dynamics that may gradually see the demographic weight of Russia shift from Europe. This movement alone would be critical to a Russian cost benefit analysis – at what point does the “orientalisation” of Russia cease to become a “threat” and at what point does “Europeanised Russia” break from a NATO Europe whose Russia policies are largely driven by over the top Polish and Baltic paranoia. In a sense therefore, Bill Clinton and America’s great mistake was to expand NATO instead of European defence eastwards conflating military insecurities with political and religious paranoia.

This of course is critical to the rebalancing since while many South China Sea littoral countries would be willing to balance China, a Russo-Chinese axis would in all likelihood encourage more bandwagoning than balancing. There are cogent examples of this especially with India. As modern scholarship is beginning to show, much of its “non alignment” far from being morally indefensible, woolly headed humbug, was in fact a play at cold hard realpolitik by the Indians, with one aim alone – to break the Sino-Soviet axis. In this it succeeded spectacularly – though at great cost to itself. Initially the aim was to use “Pan-Asian” unity to weaken China’s ideological proximity to the USSR, and when that failed in Bandung in 1955, Nehru changed tack playing off the Soviets with far greater success. A renewed Russo-Chinese alliance therefore, sets the cats amongst the “rebalancing” pigeons. One immediate consequence is that India but presumably also Vietnam will retreat from any active role in this venture. The second is that this once again makes Japan and Korea frontline states and recapitalises the much diminished value of North Korea.

The much publicised movement of troops to Guam and Darwin earlier this year, while interpreted as a “build-up” was in fact a “draw down” in the face of Chinese Anti-Access Area-Denial weapons technology advances. A cursory glance at the map would show that the “deployment” was in fact a “redeployment” of troops stationed within Chinese hitting distance – in Okinawa, to further away. What Chinese arms are achieving seems to be a vastly increased “high threat” area requiring forward deployment protocols, while the staging areas are being progressively pushed further out into the Pacific.

Obama has one thing right (as opposed to the exceptionally crude and dangerous rhetoric that Romney put up during the campaign) – Russia must be prevented from ganging up with China. Concessions on missile defences that Obama is likely to make are but baby steps in a long painful process, and slowly a lot more will be demanded by the Russians. Eventually it is not inconceivable that one of the East-European “allies” – in reality strategically inutile and unsustainable liabilities – will have to be thrown under the bus. But for now, this will have to do.

Two other Obama presidency related issues with the rebalancing. First is the “weak on security” tag that dogs Democrat Presidents. Second is the fact that second term Presidents are largely seen as lame ducks. The conjunction of these two factors mean it is doubtful that Obama will have the force of personality to carry out what would have been his signal contribution to the rebalancing. The dangers here are obvious – one that Obama does not deliver – underachievement and divisiveness being a hallmark of his presidency. Two that a future republican President given their “security credentials”, undoes anything Obama achieves. One thing though, is clear. Obama seems at least to have the right ideas on the rebalancing process, but his ability to bring home the bacon on the other hand, is quite another ballgame.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
Research Officer, NSP
e-mail: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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