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Background Briefing: United States: Obama’s Rebalancing Passé; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Article no: 0030/2017

The U.S. Administration has announced it is halting the “Pacific rebalance” policy. We request your assessment of the implications of this decision for the Asia-Pacific Region.

Q1. Why did the U.S. Administration announce the end of Obama’s Pacific rebalance effort at this time? Does President Trump feel greater pressure from China and others? Why?

ANSWER: As I consistently argued last year, the U.S. policy of rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific had a shelf life until President Obama’s term in office expired. No matter who was elected president the term “rebalance” would be replaced by another brand name to reflect the new president’s priorities.

It was the occasion of Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Asia as Secretary of State that the question of the rebalance came up. Susan Thornton, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, noted in response to a question that the term rebalance “was a word that was used to describe Asia policy in the last administration.” Thornton ventured that the new Trump Administration “will have its own formulation.”

Jettisoning the term rebalance was not due to any pressure from China or any other country. Trump has called for “peace through strength” by raising the defence budget by 10 percent and by building up the U.S. Navy. At the moment, a newly appointed deputy assistant to the president for national security strategy, Nadia Schadlow, has been appointed to the National Security Council. She has been tasked with drawing up the United States National Security Strategy as mandated by the U.S. Congress. It is likely that by the time this document is issued the Trump Administration will have coined a new term to describe its policy towards the Asia-Pacific.

Q2. Do you think the halting-over decision is a soft signal sent from the U.S. to China before the April meeting between President Trump and Chinese Xi Jinping? Why? What will the U.S. benefit from this decision in its relations with China at this time?

ANSWER: The Trump Administration will no longer use the terms “rebalance” or “pivot” because they were adopted by the Obama Administration. This does not signal any down grade in the U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific. The main concession that Trump made to China was to reaffirm U.S. support for the One China Policy as a precondition of his telephone call with President Xi Jinping. It is noticeable that Trump has not called China a currency manipulator recently nor has Trump taken any action to put a high tariff on Chinese goods coming into the U.S.

President Trump needs China’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea, the biggest security threat to U.S. interests at present in the Asia-Pacific. China insisted on an informal summit at Mar-a-Lago to give Xi Jinping some flexibility. In other words, the two leaders can exchange views and agree on what steps to take next without all the formality of an official state visit. This summit will be only the first step.

President Trump will gain by this initiative because the world community and his domestic audience will view his leadership in positive terms. Cooperation between the United States and China is necessary for global and regional stability and security.

Q3. What will impact Asian nations, including U.S. allies (like South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore), from this decision in your view?

ANSWER: It is clear that the Trump Administration is giving priority to alliance relations in Northeast Asia with Japan and South Korea. This is necessary to deal with the North Korean problem. The Trump Administration would like to see South Korea and Japan patch up their differences over so-called “comfort women” and work effectively in a trilateral framework with the United States.

Singapore will welcome Trump’s policies of “peace through strength” as long as it means the U.S. will remain engaged in promoting security and stability in East Asia. As a trading nation, cooperative U.S.-China relations are vital for Singapore’s prosperity.

Although both Thailand and the Philippines are U.S. treaty allies, very little if anything has been said by Trump Administration officials. President Trump has not spoken out on human rights and the promotion of democracy, so both Thailand and the Philippines can expect that relations will not deteriorate and that the status quo can be changed slowly into amore positive directions. All of Philippine President Duterte’s indiscretions against the United States were directed at President Obama and his administration. Given recent concerns by the Philippines over Chinese actions in the Spratly islands it is likely the Duterte Administration would welcome some backing by the United States.

Q4. How does this decision affect ASEAN and the South China Sea in your views?

ANSWER: It seems clear at this point that President Trump and his inner circle do not value multilateral organisations such as the European Union and G20. They have not commented on ASEAN. What we know of Trump’s views make it likely that he will not be as active as President Obama in attending many ASEAN leaders’ meetings and summits. Proposed budget cuts to the State Department may mean that initiatives launched by the Obama Administration may be wound back. It is difficult to see the Trump Administration giving ASEAN anything more than political support in its discussions with China on the South China Sea. After all, in Trump’s worldview, what does ASEAN bring to the table? Why should the U.S. stick its nose out for ASEAN? Chinese actions in the South China Sea will become one of a number of issues between the Washington and Beijing but will be lower down the list of priorities. At present, the Trump Administration has no strategy to deal with Chinese assertiveness and militarization in the South China Sea. China will play a two-level game. First, China will try to draw the U.S. into cooperating on global issues – North Korea, ISIS terrorism, economic and trade issues. On the second level China will try to convince the United States that the South China Sea is a lower order issue best left to regional states.

Q5. What would ASEAN in general and Vietnam itself in particular do now and in the near future following this decision?

ANSWER: ASEAN and its members, including Vietnam, need to work hard to convince the Trump Administration that continued U.S. engagement – political, diplomatic, economic and defence/security – is essential to regional peace and stability not only for the sake of Southeast Asia but to balance China so Southeast Asian can retain its autonomy and centrality.

While ASEAN must hope for the best, it must also work hard to make itself more unified through strengthening regional community building. ASEAN must work harder with all its dialogue partners to take up the slack resulting from the Trump Administration’s lack of focus on the region. ASEAN’s core members, including Vietnam, need to promote new multi-nodal arrangements with Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and Russia. Vietnam, for its part, needs to ensure that each of its strategic and comprehensive partnerships function to the maximum extent possible. In other words, until the Trump Administration decides on what it wants in Asia-Pacific, regional states will have to take initiatives to meet current challenges.

Q6. What will the US do in the next couple of months in Asia-Pacific, ASEAN and South China Sea regions after halting over the “rebalance” policy in your view?

ANSWER: Fundamental U.S. interests in Asia-Pacific, such as trade, investment, alliance ties and security partnerships, will not change. Asia-Pacific will continue to be more important due to its economic rise. The geography of the South China Sea will not change for commercial and military ships and aircraft transiting from the Western Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean or vice versa.

Over the next coming months, and longer, U.S. attention will be focused on halting North Korea’s nuclear testing and ballistic missile development, welding a tighter trilateral alliance with Japan and South Korea, and improving the terms of trade with China.

The Trump Administration is required by Congress to submit a National Security Strategy annually. This process is likely to take longer than “the next couple of months.” As well, the U.S. Congress must approve the Trump Administration’s budget. Until the first process is completed the countries of Asia-Pacific will have to deal with greater strategic uncertainty in their relations with Washington.

One key marker of U.S. intentions is what naval operations the U.S. Pacific Command is authorized to carry out. Will the U.S. continue to carry out freedom of navigation operational patrols and other military exercises in the South China Sea? Another marker will be whether the Philippines allows the rotational presence of U.S. forces through five bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: c.thayer@adfa.edu.au. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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