By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
In January this year, the US outlined a new defence strategy, Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense. The new strategy argues that while US interests are global, its security and economic interests are meshed with developments in various regions, from Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean Region and South Asia. Therefore, the US presence in the Asia-Pacific region is seen as of “necessity rebalancing.” This strategy is arguably an effort to rationalise its priorities after over reaching itself in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last one decade. Economic compulsions and the emerging dynamics in Asia also call for this new rationalisation. The changing nature of warfare with newer capabilities and strategies including the anti-access and area denial also necessitated attention from the Pentagon.
The Asia-Pacific region has understandably responded differently to the US pivot. One could club these countries into three different categories – one, states that have adversarial ties with the US although they perceive the US as a necessary hegemon in the region; two, the US allies in the region looking at the US as the guarantor of security; and three, neutral countries such as India, Vietnam and Laos.
Russia, China and North Korea have by and large had hostile relations with the US with even occasional Cold War like situations. Of these countries, China has been the most pragmatic and has built closer economic ties with the US while pursuing other quasi alliances to counter the US-led world order. In fact, China has built up economic dependency with many countries in the region as well as the US such that it is difficult for either side to breakaway and pursue open hostility. Beijing has been also been shrewd in conducting parallel multilateral diplomacy in Asia. This approach appears to have been adopted with the objective of reducing the dependency of smaller Asian states on the US, thus minimising US influence in those countries. But China may have faltered in this policy in the last two years, especially as it relates to South East Asia. China has managed to ruin the goodwill that it earned among the South East Asian countries in the last one decade with its muscle flexing and aggressive posturing in the South China Sea.
On the other hand, Russia has built a tactical relationship with China on an anti-US platform, though Moscow would ideally like to be acknowledged and recognised as a Western power. Meanwhile, North Korea, the weakest of these three, appears to have perfected the art of nuclear blackmail.
But despite the adversarial approach towards the US, all three countries see the US presence as valuable in the region. China for example seems to believe that in the absence of US presence, other powers such as Japan and India as well as others might increase their own military strength.
The responses of America’s allies have been more supportive. US allies such as Japan, Taiwan and Australia have been enthused by the US pivot to Asia. These countries were rather disappointed about the US lack of attention to the Asia-Pacific over the last decade. With the US being distracted in Afghanistan and Iraq, these countries have had to shoulder greater responsibilities as well as manage the changing Asian dynamics on their own. A decade with such responsibilities has given these countries a better understanding of what China’s rise means for the region and they are able to appreciate the US return to Asia with greater equanimity. This is particularly so because earlier these countries worried that the US may overplay the ‘China threat’ card and complicate the bilateral and multilateral framework in the region. Many East Asian states hoped that China will develop itself into a more benign and responsible power. However, China’s misbehaviour over the last two years has negated such hopes, leading to greater interest in balancing China.
But this has not been an easy decision for many of the South East Asian countries given that they have developed close economic ties with China. The initial reactions from some of the countries reflect these pulls and pressures. The Indonesian reaction is a case in point. However, this early cautionary approach has given way to a more nuanced and pragmatic approach in the recent months.
The reaction of neutrals like India, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have been even more cautious, but also with differences. Vietnam, lately became much more accommodative to the US whereas India continues to be ambivalent about its relationship with the US.
On the one hand, India is keen on developing stronger partnership with the US. On the other hand, it is also concerned about the reaction of China and, increasingly, of Russia. India is still coming to grips with the emerging multi-polar world order and managing great power relations still appears to be a major challenge for Delhi. The Indian concern about Beijing’s reaction is understandable to some extent. Being an immediate neighbour, India has to manage China very carefully. But India is also wary of closer US-China relationship such as what emerged under President Clinton or even during the first year of the Obama administration. The US-China agreement, both in 1998 and 2009, to manage South Asia is not forgotten. The fact is also that the US and India were on opposing camps for four decades during the Cold War years and therefore the two countries need to invest time, resources and efforts before they can reach the levels of reassurance that each side seeks.
Clearly, for different reasons, there is still strong support for an active US role in Asia even among potential adversaries. Whether this will stay the same depends to a great degree on how China behaves. A reasonable China might make the US less important to regional stability. Continuing aggressiveness will make the US role necessary, whether or not China accepts it.
(Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)