A rebalancing that is way out of kilter

Updated: 2012-11-30 06:46

By Zhang Zhixin (China Daily)

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A rebalancing that is way out of kilter

Obama's reelection presents the chance to take the sting out of Asia policy

Soon after the US President Barack Obama was reelected, he traveled to Southeast Asia even though he faced a looming fiscal cliff and a showdown with Republicans in Congress on lifting the federal debt limit.

The trip included the first visit by a sitting US president to Myanmar and Cambodia, to highlight important US economic, security and democracy interests in the region, and to underscore strengthened military ties between the US and Thailand. Obama's visit largely signaled that he will continue with the controversial "rebalancing strategy" in Asia.

Whatever Americans call it, - a rebalancing strategy, "pivot to Asia" or "back to Asia" - the fact that the US regional political, economic and military presence is increasing is undeniable. The reason for this is at once simple and complicated. After the most serious financial crisis since the 1930s, economics and politics have undergone fundamental changes, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. It is against that backdrop that the US is rebalancing its geopolitics.

First, the financial crisis significantly transformed Western society physically and psychologically. Physically the EU and the US are still suffering from the aftermath of the crisis: unemployment continues to soar and the debt burden remains. Following the crisis, the battle against recession continues. Psychologically, for the first time, people in large numbers began to question the validity of the so-called Washington consensus, or even the sustainability of capitalism.

Second, the emerging powers are rising fast, and the impact of that on the international order is tremendous. China, India, Brazil and Russia are the four big countries that had the most rapid recovery from the global financial crisis; meanwhile, their early recovery stoked regional economic revitalization and contributed to world economic growth. The newly established G20 has become the most promising and influential economic and political forum for world leaders to discuss and deal with international issues and impending emergencies.

Third, whether the US likes it or not, its Asian alliance system is loosening. For a time before the new millennium, the ASEAN countries heavily depended on the US economically and with security. However, when the US became heavily engaged in the fight against terrorism and subsequently neglected Southeast Asia, and China was rising economically and gaining more influence in the regional affairs, the ASEAN countries found it more beneficial to lean toward China economically. The same was true of the Republic of Korea and Japan, their economic growth being heavily influenced by China's economic performance.

Fourth, regional economic integration has made great progress over the past decade without the participation of the US. As George W. Bush waged war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Asian countries were making great strides in negotiating free-trade agreements. In 2010, when the ASEAN and China finally founded a free-trade zone, the US found itself isolated from this economic integration.

When the BRICS countries were recovering from the financial crisis, the US was still having trouble creating sufficient jobs and reducing its huge federal deficit. The EU was still trying to drag itself from the quagmire of debt, so it could not be counted on.

Meanwhile, some conservative scholars called for China's ascendancy to be "contained", seeing it as an economic and security threat. As Thomas Donilon, the US national security adviser, put it, it is in Asia that US security and the country's economic future lie, which explains why the US has reappeared on the scene.

To be fair, the US rebalancing strategy was never solely about or against China. But its implementation sent confusing signals to Asian countries.

For example, the strategy was supposed to be comprehensive and have diplomatic, economic and security dimensions, but the outstanding measures are all about redeploying troops and restructuring military bases. The US strengthened its military cooperation with Japan, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. The alliances with Japan and the ROK are moving toward a more coordinated trilateral military alliance. The US says those measures are about dealing with the potential threat from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or providing help when natural disasters happen. But, particularly with the missile defense system and air-sea battle concept, analysts in Asia and the US are skeptical about its real intentions.

More problematic is US foreign policy on the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands. The South China Sea had never been a hot-button issue until the US said it was on the agenda. Countries in the region had seldom challenged China's sovereignty claim over the sea - that is not until the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, surprisingly announced that the South China Sea is of US national interest. When Vietnam violated an agreement that all participants reached in 2002, the US remained mute. This August, after China announced the establishment of Sansha city and the related military deployment, the US State Department harshly criticized China. Further, the US publicly said it takes no position regarding sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands. However, it has frequently trumpeted that the islands are covered by the US-Japan security treaty, and a recent US and Japanese joint military exercise conducted in the East China Sea sent out signals that could be described as confusing at best.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that the US is advancing aims to raise the standards of protecting intellectual property rights, labor rights and the environment, and integrating the existing APEC and ASEAN plus three economic cooperation institutions. The only problem there is that the US has neither welcomed China nor invited it to join the negotiation process. Given that China is the world's second-largest economy and the second-largest trading partner of the US, such behavior is highly unusual.

All this means that the aggressive US rebalancing strategy in Asia has had disturbing consequences. Tensions in South China Sea and East Asia have escalated. Some regional countries have become emboldened and are seeking to profit from the confusion. The Diaoyu Islands dispute has the potential to embroil the US militarily, or bring confrontation between the US and China. As more analysts voice concerns over the increasing strategic distrust between the US and China, some in China have even concluded that the rebalancing strategy represents a new Cold War against China.

With Obama's reelection, the US and China have a new chance to advance bilateral relations. Of course, there is no reason for conflict or confrontation between the largest developed country and the largest developing one. After the US election and the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, both countries will need time to deal with matters caused by the reshuffle of officials and to review policy toward one another. As Donilon said before Obama's visit, the US-China relationship has both elements of cooperation and competition, and the US policy has been to seek to balance these elements.

But as the scale tips too far in favor of competition, the US, for the sake of regional peace and stability, really needs to bring its rebalancing strategy back into kilter.

The author is an associate research professor, Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 11/30/2012 page8)