Wednesday, October 19, 2016

US rebalancing strategy faces dim future

With the US presidential election entering the sprint stage, Barack Obama's eight-year term is also close to an end. Looking back over his eight years in power, the president has brought many new ideas and changes for US diplomacy - giving priority to using multilateral platforms to solve hot spot issues, making efforts to ease relations with hostile countries, promoting non-traditional security issues including climate change and non-proliferation. One of the most notable changes is that the US has shifted its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region, and "rebalancing" has become key to its foreign policy.

Obama's "pivot" has a unique background and rationality. On the one side, during the George W. Bush period, the US, to a large degree, focused too much on the Middle East and anti-terrorism while ignoring Asia, making its Asia-Pacific allies and partners dissatisfied. "The US is losing Asia" has increasingly become a worry among the US strategic circles. It can be said that pivot to Asia was the US bolstering weak spots.

On the other side, at the initial stage of the Obama administration, the US was deeply mired in financial crisis, and its economy grew slowly. The country direly needed to search for new growth and an external market engine. Compared with Europe and the Middle East, the Asian economy was still thriving, and the region on the whole remained peaceful and stable. With the acceleration of regional integration led by ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea, Asia became the development engine for the global economy. The US, on one hand, needed the support of Asia to revive economy; on the other, it felt the risk of being marginalized in the process of regional integration, thus making policy change imperative.

However, when implementing this policy, there were "strategic deviations."

For military, facing the pressure of budget cuts, US military interests groups hyped the "China military threat." While the US enhanced its military presence in the Asia-Pacific, it manipulated regional hot spot issues, pushing Japan, the Philippines and other allies to the frontier to contain China, which has resulted in spiking tensions.

In the economy, the US pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement to build a new cooperation mechanism that excludes China. However, this design ignored the reality that as an economic growth engine, China plays an indispensable role in regional integration. Too much opposition to China and too little collaboration with China not only compromised the legitimacy and authority of the mechanism, but also had a negative impact on economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region.

For diplomacy, the excessive intervention of the US in regional territorial disputes and sovereignty disputes tore the intra-ASEAN solidarity, and also cast a shadow over Sino-US relations. Eight years later, Asian regional security didn't improve because of "Asia-Pacific rebalancing." On the contrary, the region has become dangerous and volatile due to the US' competition with China, and has been called "the area most likely to lead to a recurrence of WWI" by some scholars. This is far from Obama's initial intention.

As the end of Obama's term draws near, his "Asia-Pacific rebalancing" strategy will be judged by history. The TPP met setbacks in the US Congress, and neither house will vote for the TPP during Obama's term. In addition, both major candidates expressed their nonsupport for the TPP. Therefore, in the long run, one of the three pillars forming the strategy - military, economy and diplomacy - has already broken.

The Pentagon has always been a pioneer in promoting the "Asia-Pacific rebalancing." On September 29, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter gave a speech in San Diego and proposed a new Asia-Pacific military deployment plan. Although this move showed more symbolic meaning than substance, it further reinforced the military color of the "pivot" strategy, compounding the strategy's lack of balance.

In the last year of his term, Obama has continued to consolidate the "Asia-Pacific rebalancing" legacy through frequent visits to the Asia-Pacific region. However, as the strategy has deviated from its original design, it's hard for Obama to achieve his desired results.

Obama will leave with an unfinished answer sheet. If the Republicans come to power, his policy will be annulled; if the Democratic Party remains in office, Hillary Clinton will hardly give better answers. The imbalance of "Asia-Pacific rebalancing" is the root making this strategy difficult to continue and inherit.

The author is assistant research fellow of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

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