Since its announcement toward the end of 2011, the US pivot to Asia (P2A) has been a ‘sound-bite,’ a goal, not a strategy. It was a teaser; a means of assessing a likely regional response to what will become the primary focus of US foreign policy attention (it could well be argued its announcement was part of a strategy but not inherently the strategy itself). Now, following the announcement, having let the dust settle and gauged and measured the regions response, comes the strategy, and prima facie, the main thrust of it looks like off-shore balancing through strengthening the extant US ‘hub and spokes’ alliance system in combination with increasing US regional ‘strategic partnerships’ -through which the US looks set to ask for greater contributions towards regional security and maintaining a balance of power.
Problematic is that the US is placing its reliance on a system that simply cannot endure the same into the future as it has done so well in the past. The ‘hub and spokes’ system has been predominantly successful because the US has largely carried the burden of maintaining its costs; regional states got ‘on board’ with it primarily because the benefits relative to the costs weighed greatly in their favour. Similarly to the Chinese tributary system, for contributing relatively little and largely accepting US suzerainty over them, they have benefited from having access to the US dominated western liberal international system and most importantly, extended protection under the US security umbrella.
For the past 60 years the US and its partner states have shared mutual interests and the system and balance of power in the region has endured. However, change is afoot. Under what is emerging to be the US P2A strategy, the US seem progressively likely to increase demands and expectations on (new and old) regional partners and expect states to carry more of the burden and financially contribute greater amounts towards their own security, a key component of off-shore balancing.
Paramount will be whether the US can convince its regional partners that their primary interests are aligned and that their security interests remain both interconnected and are genuinely threatened (by China), and I’m not convinced, as these states’ economic interdependence strengthens both vis-à-vis China and with one another, that they can. If maintaining US regional preponderant power is the US P2A end-goal, a majority of regional states won’t be prepared to, and realise they needn’t, foot the bill.
In agreement with Brendan Taylor, the Southeast Asian states’ security ties with the US have probably reached their zenith. They are clearly hedging, seeking greater engagement with both China and the US, but also amongst one another. They realise that if the US wishes to retain its regional preponderance of power then the US has a choice: It can either compete (with China), in which case the US needs them, equally if not more so than they need the US, and they can therefore continue to largely ‘free-ride’, or the US can withdraw, in which case whether they are ‘on board’ with the P2A or not won’t matter and better relations with China, and one another, would thus be pragmatic.
The British statesman Lord Palmerston once famously declared: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow” -and nowhere in the world is this realpolitik thinking more evident or better characterised than in East/Southeast Asia. In a region where international relations are largely viewed through the lens of realism, the biggest challenge the US faces is convincing regional states that they are more than just mere pawns ready to be sacrificed in the game of ‘great power politics’ (US distancing from Taiwan, recent initial poor handling of the Chen Guangcheng case, and neutral position adopted on the Scarborough Shoal standoff will not have served to alleviate regional abandonment fears).
To maintain regional relevance, the US must translate a strategy that moves beyond the apparent ‘contributory’ system- which is likely to fail- and articulate a vision which synergises the combined US-regional states’ interests, ultimately deciding how much of the burden and costs they are willing to shoulder alone in order to achieve it. Unless the US can formulate, articulate and largely stump up the costs for financing such a strategy, expect emerging ‘rivalrous interdependence’ to prevail in the region.
Ben Moles has recently completed his Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. (firstname.lastname@example.org). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles