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Next phase of the U.S. Pivot to Asia: Responses from China By Prof. B. R. Deepak

C3S Paper No. 0087/ 2015


Just before setting off to his visit to Japan, South Korea and the US Pacific Command in Honolulu between April 8 and 11, the US Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter while delivering a speech at Arizona State University’s McCain Institute on April 6, 2015 said that he was ‘personally committed to overseeing the next phase of the rebalance, which will deepen and diversify the US engagement in the region.’

Carter was perhaps reassuring the US allies in Asia-Pacific that even though the US was bogged down in conflicts in the Middle East and Af-Pak region, it was serious about its pivot to Asia. Secondly, if the first phase of the pivot was overshadowed by China’s grandiose initiatives such as Asia Infrastructural Development Bank (AIDB), ‘Belt and Road initiative, Silk Road Fund, and the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), the second phase will see the US taking its leadership role in the Asia Pacific region. Thirdly, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and its companion agreement Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) floated by the US, that has remained non starter may be realised sooner than the later. It was in this context that Carter compared the TPP as a ‘new aircraft carrier’ and one of the most important parts of Obama administration’s effort to shift more attention to Asia-Pacific. He urged the Congress to give President Barack Obama authority to complete the agreement that holds ‘enormous promise’ for economic development and job creation. Carter declared Asia-Pacific as ‘defining region’ for the future of the US.

According to Carter there are three cornerstones of the next phase of the US pivot to Asia: advanced high-tech weapons; trilateral alliance between the US, Japan and South Korea; and the TPP. He said that most advanced weapons would be deployed in the Asia-Pacific, and 60% of the US naval fleet (six aircraft careers) would be deployed in the region. China finds it interesting that when the idea of pivot to Asia was floated in 2011, the US has pointed out that 60% of its fleet would be stationed in the Pacific, however, after 2013 the US have included the Indian Ocean as a part of the concept.

It is in this context that analysts in China are apprehensive about India becoming a ‘pawn’ on the ‘pivot to Asia’ chessboard, for India has been issuing joint statements since last year on Asia-Pacific with the US.  However, many including Prof. Wang Wei of Central Nationality University believe that India may not be willing to play the second fiddle to the US. On the contrary, Chinese experts are of the view that India’s ‘Act East Policy’ may be on the path of ‘collision and friction’ as India expands its influence from South Asia to Southeast Asia.

As far as the triangular alliance between the US, Japan and South Korea is concerned, China sees an increased level of defence cooperation between the three, and finds it in sync with Shinzo Abe’s efforts to expand the role of the Self-Defence Forces (SDFs) by loosening constitutional constraints, especially the right to collective self-defence. Japanese SDFs are likely to provide their logistic support for the US forces in a case where Japan’s national security is threatened, and will cooperate under various circumstances including in a case of collective self-defence. The alliance is also considering ballistic missile defence, to this end the US is trying to convince South Korea to deploy ‘Sade System’.

The third cornerstone, the TPP, a symbol of economic and trade cooperation in the region, has been pronounced as one of the most important parts of the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, ‘as important as an aircraft carrier.’ It is interesting to note that Japan and South Korea subsequently has been added to TPP negotiations while China has been kept out, albeit China has signalled that it may not be averse to join the agreement. However, it also believes that the TPP while serving the US pivot to Asia is also aimed to establish a new international economic order in Asia-Pacific under the auspices of the United States and contain China’s growing influence in the regional and global economy. China also believes that the negotiations may be stalled further as the US-Japan differences on trade and tariffs are serious.

The Ashton pronouncements have been regarded by China as ‘old wine in new bottle’; the wordings ranging from Hilary Clinton’s 2009 rhetoric of ‘Pivot to Asia-Pacific’ to Carter’s ‘new stage of the pivot’ according to China is a pointer to the fact the US has never been out of the ‘Cold War mentality’ and that it simply wants to consolidate its dominance in the Asia-Pacific, and maintain its hegemony in the region while containing China.

China believes that the reasons behind ‘the new stage’ of the pivot arise from ‘a sense of urgency’ from Obama administration, as it remains one of the flagships of US’s foreign policy but not taking a definite shape. It also reveals that there is ‘a sense of frustration’ as the ‘pivot’ has failed to contain China’s rise and influence in the region. Not only this, the US has also failed to reassure its allies in the region. Its old ally the Philippines has even announced its withdrawal from the TPP negotiations. The declining leadership role of the US is not only felt by its allies but by the US itself. The third reason the Chinese analysts provide is ‘a sense of powerlessness’ in the minds of the US authorities, and that is why it is strengthening its security alliance with Japan, South Korea and other allies, as well as trying to coax other powers in the regions to be part of its strategy.

Analysts in China are of the view that contrary to be able to bring security and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific, the ‘rebalancing’ will bring disaster to the region. They are questioning whether the TPP which has been compared to an aircraft career is open to various countries on equal footing like the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative or not? Is it inclusive or is there any hidden agenda? If it is not inclusive and not a win-win proposition, how can it bring peace and prosperity and provide security to the region? If it is exclusive, and the players have to play by the US rules, isn’t that the thinking of a hegemon?

It is in this context that China believes that Asian affairs should be left to the Asian countries to be resolved. These could be only resolved on the basis of mutual respect, consensus and a win-win scenario. Asia does not require ‘foreign monks’ to recite the ‘scriptures’! China’s strategy according to Prof. Wang Wei should be win-win cooperation with the US on one hand and consolidating and strengthening of China’s relations with Asia-Pacific countries on the other. She believes that Asia-Pacific is big enough to accommodate both China and the US, however, China need to be cautious as the US harbour evil intention towards China.

B R Deepak is Professor of Chinese and China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. The views are solely his own. 

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