As the US continues its 'pivot' back to Asia, three important points need to be reiterated. First, is there really a 'pivot'? Did the US really leave Asia to pivot back? While Asia may have had attention deficit from the US, the reality is that the US never left the region and the US pivot or rebalancing, as it is now called, is more of an attempt of reassurance to its friends and allies in the region.
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This strategy is arguably an effort to rationalise its priorities after over reaching itself in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade. Fiscal compulsions and the emerging dynamics in the Asia Pacific region also demand this new rationalization. The changing nature of warfare along with an increasing emphasis on hard power has meant that there is a potentially dangerous arms race in the making. The resulting newer capabilities and strategies including the anti-access and area denial capabilities have caught the attention of the US military and defence department.
Why Is Assurance Needed?
Second, while the US pivot strategy is not a China-specific one, the US has had to pay attention and factor in China as it outlines its priorities for the Asia Pacific region. Therefore, China is only a part of the story, although a major part. China can be in fact seen as a major trigger for the changes that one witnesses in Asia.
While China has continued to articulate that it is 'rising peacefully,' its actions on the ground leave a different message, particularly to its neighbours. China's actions in some of the conflict areas in the region have been threatening. Looking at the emerging trends, states have come to firm conclusion that it is the Chinese actions and not words that needs to be counted.
Growing Chinese military capabilities including some of the asymmetric capabilities are of concern to many countries in the region, prompting them to acquire new weapon systems in response. AMI International, a US-based consultancy firm forecasts that Asia Pacific accounts for about 25 per cent of the projected global new ship market, spending about $180 billion for almost 800 new ships including surface vessels and submarines through 2013.
This region houses some of the busiest maritime and trading routes essentially for transporting of energy resources and cargo. For major energy hungry powers such as India, China, and Japan, protection of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) is a major preoccupation. India's dependence on oil imports, for instance, at the current level of consumption, is expected to reach 91.6 per cent by 2020. The same story goes for all these other players as well.
All of these developments would result in what is traditionally called the security dilemma in Asia. How the US would respond to crises in the region is a big consideration for some of the smaller countries as well as its allies.
Thus, there is still strong support for an active US role in Asia even among potential adversaries. Whether this will stay the same depends to a great degree on how China behaves. A reasonable China might make the US less important to regional stability. On the other hand, continuing aggressiveness will make the US role necessary, whether or not China accepts it.
Third, clearly, Washington's friends and allies do feel reassured with the US refocus on Asia. Even as there is apprehension of the intertwining economic relationship between the US and China, allies such as Japan support the new strategy. While these countries are still uncertain about the ramifications of a rising China, states that are not typical allies of the US are also enthusiastic about the US rebalancing. It is also clear that China too would welcome the US in the region (even while it will not acknowledge the utility of the US presence) in order to check potential instability. So it could be said that the US rebalancing contributes to much-needed regional stability.
However, the relative decline of the US or at least the perception of decline could instill concern among the allies and others such as India. How this should be managed is an issue that China should seriously ponder over. Filling that power vacuum may be one issue but doing it without furthering additional insecurities is important.
The US pivot to Asia has, in this regard, provided new choices and options for countries in the region although it may be years before this strategy fructifies into something concrete. While hedging was the preferred strategy in Asia since the end of the Cold War, this is now undergoing change. The tendency among a lot of countries in Asia is now to embrace open balancing as a strategy.
Finally, these strategies and counter-strategies are still in their early stages and nothing is yet written on the stone. China clearly mishandled the relations with its neighbours, both big and small. China needs to re-think why it handled its relations so badly. It still has time to take corrective measures and reverse some of the security trends in the region. Many countries in the region are not comfortable playing the balance of power game but have been forced into it. So if China is willing to introspect and become more accommodative, a lot could change in Asia.