Geopolitically, most states in the Asia-Pacific region are embracing closer security and economic ties with the United States. At the same time, however, states across the region have become more sensitive to China’s growing political, economic, and military power, and are potentially vulnerable to Beijing’s increasingly coercive behavior. The U.S. relationship with China is complex, mixing elements of cooperation and competition.
The US ‘rebalance’ to the Asia–Pacific has been under way since late 2011. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in October 2011 of a “strategic turn to the region…to secure and sustain America’s global leadership”, and President Obama’s speech to the Australian parliament in November 2011 gave a presidential imprint to the policy. So, almost four years later, how’s the U.S. tracking in Asia?
On July 1, the U.S. published its new national military strategy, just a few months after China released its own. Both papers are intended for broad public consumption; neither addresses specifics about weapons and strategy. Taken together, they paint an interesting contrasting portrait of the military thinking guiding the two superpowers.
Deeper ties with middle powers like Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, and South Korea are important for India at a time when the magnitude of the United States’ global influence is declining due to the rapid growth of China and the improving growth trajectories of numerous middle powers. Collaborating with these countries can help India progress from being a South Asian power to an Asian and eventually global power.
With Burma, Cuba, and now Iran, the Obama administration has sought to put old fights behind it, freeing the U.S. government to focus on emerging challenges in Asia and the rise of China.
U.S. foreign policy has reached a turning point, as analysts from across the political spectrum have started to dust off Cold War-era arguments and to speak of the need for a policy of containment against China. The once solid Washington consensus behind the benefits of “constructive engagement” with Beijing has fallen apart.
The notion of an Indian arc of influence stretching from Aden to Malacca was, of course, a staple of strategic thinking in the British Raj. Yet, these lines were written not by a mandarin of the Raj, but by the freshly appointed vice-president of the viceroy’s executive council, Jawaharlal Nehru.
It could be expected that military cooperation between the US and Japan could become more focused on containing the rise of China. The more comprehensive their collaboration is, the stronger backlash it will trigger from China, leaving Asia in jeopardy.
The alliance transformation envisioned by Obama and Abe also reflects a changing Asia. In the decade and a half since the Cold War ended, the region has been influenced by new security challenges, such as the nuclear and missile proliferation of North Korea, and has begun to be reshaped by complex economic and political currents that accompany an emerging China.