ISSN 2330-717X

Balancing The US Rebalance – Analysis

By

It is not easy to be an established world power – and the lone surviving world power post Cold War for that matter – in a fast changing geopolitical and geo-economic environment. The international community looks upon you for leadership, initiative and boldness. Either way, you get criticized for being there and for not being there, or for coming there too late and indecisively. In the context of the rise of new emerging powers, notably China, U.S. foreign policy and the values that it promotes seem to be on the defensive. While China’s nascent grand strategy One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative seem to be gaining steam, attracting interest, as well as apprehension, its American counterpart, the U.S. Rebalance is still distancing itself from perceptions of being uni-dimensional (given its original defense/security orientation) and for being more reactive and less strategic.

China’s OBOR seems to have stronger economic motivations in its desire to export surplus capital and capacity and while gaining new markets, and less security motivations—although if one would argue for economic security, OBOR promises long term economic security gains for China. The fact that China was able to attract a lot of countries to take part in OBOR and one of its financing vehicles, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), in a short span of time, suggests that China is tapping into a pressing regional need for infrastructure and public works. In contrast, the Rebalance initially took off from a strong military impulse (increase U.S. Navy and Air Force deployment in the Asia-Pacific to 60%) and it requires serious effort to move beyond this security genesis.

Seen from this angle, the Rebalance appears to be antagonistic or adversarial in nature, especially on the part of the purported target country, China, and the westward direction of OBOR appears to be a countermeasure to mitigate potential adverse effects of containment in the east. Rebalance appears to be an effort to counter growing Chinese influence and power projection in East Asia but U.S. should balance not only against China’s increasing assertiveness in the region’s contested territorial and maritime spaces, but also against China’s increasing trade and economic clout. The fact that regional states showed less enthusiasm in openly supporting the Rebalance in its initial iteration reflects strong domestic self-interest at play – China is their biggest trade partner and investor and they would not want to jeopardize this burgeoning economic ties by siding or being seen as siding with its geopolitical rival.

Even disputants in the South China Sea (except the Philippines) which engage the U.S. in the defense/security aspect, likewise engage China in varying capacities on the same field in an effort to demonstrate their balancing act. To this end, the inclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as an economic pillar of the Rebalance, was a step in the right direction. This would firm up the case that the Rebalance is more than military and is in fact comprehensive.

The Rebalance may have prompted OBOR, if not accelerated it, but China’s resurgence and the anxieties and uncertainties generated by the same will naturally elicit a reaction from established powers. China’s neighbors, especially those with which it has unresolved territorial and maritime disputes, will obviously be concerned too about how China’s economic weight and increased military spending and capability will impact on the settlement of said disputes. Regional states would then calibrate their security engagement with the U.S. and Japan, depending on their external threat perceptions, while at the same time, maintain good trade relations with China. Hence, after leaving a power vacuum in the region since the end of the Cold War and stretching itself thin in different theaters, the U.S. is now pivoting back to East Asia in order to balance China’s economic and military growth over the last few decades, which has encouraged China to act more confidently in tackling regional and global issues.

The U.S. is therefore seen as reacting against China and both the Rebalance and OBOR plans are, rightly or wrongly, seen as part of the action-reaction dynamics and regional states must learn how to dance depending on the tune. Hence, if the U.S. wants to package Rebalance as non-divisive, not directed against any country and more strategic, it must bear in mind some key considerations.

First, the U.S. must re-assess the role it wants to play in the region in light of contemporary developments – does it wish to continue on with its traditional role or does it wish to assume a new role. China, in no uncertain terms, obviously wishes to play a greater role in the region and in the world to the point of proposing to the U.S. a new type of major power relations. China may have remained ambiguous or vague in some aspects but this is one area where no quarter for confusion was allowed. OBOR emerges as China’s grand strategy to address domestic development needs and overcapacity, while at the same time enhancing China’s regional and global influence and standing. President Xi Jinping had personally championed OBOR, along with the China Dream, as his key foreign policy legacies so it is expected that the rest of the government will toe the line. OBOR had also tremendous buy-in from provincial and local governments all over China many of whom had been very busy finding ways to benefit from this massive central government-led undertaking. In contrast, the Rebalance still has to graduate from general statements stressing the importance of the Asia-Pacific for the U.S. to be able to assemble all the key departments that will play considerable roles in its success.

Second, even in the defense/security field, which forms the nucleus of the Rebalance, the U.S. response to Chinese assertive actions in the South China Sea (SCS) remains rather lackluster, which has serious long-term implications for the U.S. to position itself as regional security guarantor. After months of seeming procrastination, over-cautiousness and erosion of trust among security allies in the region, the U.S. finally decided to demonstrate its displeasure to Chinese artificial island-building projects in the SCS by conducting freedom of navigation operations. This came out after the MOU Regarding the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters (2014), Code for Unplannned Encounters at Sea (2014) and Supplement to the 2014 MOU relating to Safety of Air-to-Air Encounters (2015), which suggests that the U.S. had already prepared China for this eventuality and China already see it coming. It seems a point of no return has been reached; instead of this strategy being launched right at the onset of China’s island building, retroactive planning suggests that this is more of a face-saving measure for the consumption of America’s allies in the region rather than a strong U.S. determination to deter game-changing unilateral actions on the ground. This is not lost among regional states, especially littoral claimants. Furthermore, China, in recent years, had also been making successful inroads in this traditional U.S. turf, engaging Southeast Asian states in military exercises (e.g. 2012 PRC-Indonesia anti-terror exercises, 2013 PRC-Indonesia naval exercise, 2015 PRC-Thailand air force exercises, 2015 PRC-Singapore naval exercises, 2015 PRC-Malaysia Non-traditional security threats and HADR exercises, etc).

Third, the U.S. has to understand that it cannot play an effective role in SCS dispute resolution, as it is not been seen as an impartial and disinterested party. China obviously does not want extra-regional and non-relevant states to interfere in the SCS, and even other claimants are reluctant to elect the U.S. as a mediator in the disputes knowing fully well its failed record on this respect, as well as the ongoing Sino-U.S. rivalry. In the 2012 Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) standoff, the U.S. tried to arrange for both the Philippines and China to simultaneously withdraw from the Shoal, a move performed by the Philippines but which was not reciprocated by China. This resulted in China now having controlled the feature, which prompted the Philippines to initiate arbitration proceedings. The takeaway lesson learned in this episode was that any future U.S.-brokered/mediated agreement in the SCS will yield only undesirable results and may even complicate things. However, regional states will continue to count on the U.S. as a counterweight to China, although they would have hoped to see greater decisiveness and initiative on the part of Washington. The limits of what U.S. can do in the SCS may also prompt regional states to engage other powers, notably Japan, Australia, India and even Russia, and while this would not be warmly greeted by Beijing, any of them (except Japan) may still be preferred over U.S. This would then diminish U.S. significance in this critical theater.

Fourth, the U.S. has to shed the image that it is blocking OBOR because of Sino-U.S. rivalry instead of offering a viable alternative in its place. The U.S., along with Japan and other countries, has voiced concerns over labor, the environment, the quality of the construction, and governance standards associated with projects that may fall under the OBOR framework. But China apparently has been making efforts to address these concerns so that these criticisms may no longer held sway. The fact that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has decided to co-finance projects with the AIIB suggest efforts by this new China-led bank to adopt prevailing international financial norms. China displays a higher appetite for risk in its lending decisions, especially by its policy banks. But while this is criticized by the mainstream financial establishment, it is celebrated by many recipient states, especially those who have long been cut off, neglected, or marginalized by established development banks because of various conditions or un-creditworthy proposed projects from a commercial standpoint.

This raises the profile of China as a no-conditions lender to fellow developing states, which contains an underlying existential challenge to postwar U.S.-led international financial architecture, which largely ties grants and loans to market-oriented and political reforms. With China’s entry into the huge trillion-dollar annual infrastructure gap, authoritarian states may afford to postpone or even discard reforms (especially political) altogether and still get financing. So far, there seems to be no indication that the U.S. will renew direct funding for infrastructure in the region so it remains to be seen how the U.S. will advocate for prudential and norms-based lending without appearing to be setting or imposing its own values. Without mobilizing money (or more money) where its mouth is, U.S. advocacy will eventually reach its limits.

Fifth, the U.S. markets the Rebalance as supporting a rules-based regional order without making any serious attempt to find out if there is indeed general consensus within the region of what exactly amounts to such shared rules. It is convenient to sweep differences under the rug but variances in the approaches taken by regional states in dealing with recent developments suggest the hollowness and absence of strong solidarity towards said rules. There are a few general points that the U.S. can built upon in order to develop consensus on these rules, such as opposition to the use of force and adherence to international law in resolving the SCS disputes, but even in the latter, the U.S. may also hit the ceiling. China, for all the recent assertive actions it had taken in SCS, is still a party to UNCLOS and it, rightly or wrongly, justifies its non-participation in the arbitration on the basis of the reservations it made upon ratification. American legal and moral high ground on the matter, on the other hand, is undermined by its failure to ratify UNCLOS, although it had long been observing UNCLOS as customary international law. China’s ratification of UNCLOS, despite containing provisions which may have harmed its interests, demonstrates some level of acceptance to play according to the rules (although again its recent actions weakens this), while the U.S. is seen as playing it safe by not being a formally bound party. By remaining outside the fold, U.S. leadership promoting such rules-based order may remain tenuous.

Indeed being a major world power is both a blessing and a curse – if you are not on the table, you are in the menu. But this is a challenge and a scourge that U.S. should embrace if it wants to retain such position. Leadership does not come cheap! A better appreciation of the security needs and growing aspirations to assume greater regional, if not global responsibilities, of rising powers and, at the same time, a sound understanding of the security and economic demands of smaller regional states and allies are key pieces in balancing the Rebalance to make it more responsive to the changing Asia-Pacific.

It is not easy to be an established world power – and the lone surviving world power post Cold War for that matter – in a fast changing geopolitical and geo-economic environment. The international community looks upon you for leadership, initiative and boldness. Either way, you get criticized for being there and for not being there, or for coming there too late and indecisively. In the context of the rise of new emerging powers, notably China, U.S. foreign policy and the values that it promotes seem to be on the defensive. While China’s nascent grand strategy One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative seem to be gaining steam, attracting interest, as well as apprehension, its American counterpart, the U.S. Rebalance is still distancing itself from perceptions of being uni-dimensional (given its original defense/security orientation) and for being more reactive and less strategic.

This article was published at China-US Focus

Click here to have Eurasia Review's newsletter delivered via RSS, as an email newsletter, via mobile or on your personal news page.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He was a lecturer at the Chinese Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University and the International Studies Department at the De La Salle University and contributing editor (Reviews) for the journal Asian Politics & Policy. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies. He obtained his Master of Laws from Peking University and is presently pursuing his MA International Affairs at American University in Washington D.C.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.