In the Aftermath: Sequestration and the Rebalance to Asia

Andrew Kwon

Andrew Kwon is a former AIIA NSW intern (Semester 2 2012) and completed a Masters of International Security at the University of Sydney in 2012. He is currently based at the Korea Economic Institute of America in Washington DC and has been observing the budget crisis since sequestration negotiations between Congress and the Obama administration in February 2013. The following is a short piece he has written on the issue and its potential effects on the US Rebalance to Asia. The views expressed in this article are his own.


It has been some weeks since the passing of a 6 month continuing resolution (CR). Though the bill provides only sufficient spending to avoid a government shutdown, life in Washington D.C. (and the USA at large) has returned to normal. However, with almost $85 billion in automatic cuts remaining in place, academics and practitioners in the capital continue to ponder the ramifications of this daunting political-economic conundrum. A key issue in the debate is the effects on major initiatives such as the rebalance to Asia.

What are the stated goals of the Asia Rebalance?

Based on various official documents such as the US 2012 Department of Defence (DOD) Strategic Guidance Paper, the rebalance has been interpreted as:

  • An Asia-Pacific orientated US strategic policy framework which equalises defence, diplomacy and development;
  • A continuing of established trends in key policy areas such as trade e.g. Trans-Pacific Partnership as an expansion of the George W. Bush Era Free Trade Agreement drive; and
  • A heavy military reorientation e.g. Special emphasis placed on assessing the readiness of US Pacific Command (USPACOM) under Section 346 of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) as well as the 2012 DOD Strategic Guidance Paper shortly thereafter.

What are the automatic and projected cuts in some relevant areas to the Asia-Pacific under sequestration?

Department of Defence:

  • To meet sequestration obligations, the DOD budget must undertake an annual cut of 11% till 2021.
  • The immediate impact on the DOD budget for FY2013 would be a hard sum reduction from the FY2012 level of approximately $650 billion to under $600 billion.
  • Although no military personnel will be affected, civilian personnel face forced unpaid leave. Additionally, the pay increase freeze from FY2010 has been extended.
  • Areas such as research and development into advanced capabilities could face approximately $33.5 billion over the next 5 year to meet sequestration obligations, the lowest since FY2002.

Department of State:

  • According to White House Office of Management and Budget calculations based on Sequestration requirements and current CR provisions, State Department foreign operations will face a $2.7 billion or 3% reduction from FY2012.
  • Of particular note is the reduction of approximately $317 million in Foreign Military Financing as well as approximately $400 million in US economic and development assistance.
  • Unpaid leave notifications have not been implemented. However, a hiring freeze and reduction on capabilities investment has been enacted in key agencies such as USAID.

What has sequestration highlighted and what does it affect?

Sequestration has further highlighted and reinforced the difficulties that were confronting the US government over the Rebalance to Asia. A key difficulty was the inconsistency between formulation, composition and perceptions of the Rebalance.

The rebalance means different things to different states. An issue of particularly concern is the considerable confusion caused by how the rebalance is being explained in varying terms throughout the region. An example of this is the perceptions within the Republic of Korea that the rebalance is a reinforcement of the existing defence-centric US regional alliance framework. This perception is given shape by Republic of Korea hesitancy to participate in Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the purported tip of the spear of the economic side of the rebalance. With sequestration, pressure from the region has grown to clarify the purpose of the rebalance. The resultant confusion not only feeds into uncertainty over US commitment to its allies but also suspicions held by key powers such as the People’s Republic of China.

Amidst this time of austerity, the DOD (more specifically USPACOM) feverishly pursues its goals of rebalancing as mandated by the president under the NDAA. Concurrently, various government departments are also pursuing the goals of rebalancing to Asia in their own way. A pressing question arising amidst the financial tightening; what does the Rebalance to Asia actually mean when it is perceived and interpreted so differently?

This post was reproduced with the permission of Andrew Kwon. The post originally featured on the Australian Institute for International Affairs (NSW) blog, the Glover Cottage Portal. Andrew can be contacted at



Asia pivot: old wine in new bottles?

Carl Pi-Cheng Huang

Around this time last year, one of the biggest U.S. foreign policy issues was US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s America’s Pacific Century speech:

“As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.”


This pivot point later became known as United States’ “Asia pivot” policy through which America looks to sustain its leadership, secure its people’s interests, and advance American values. Clinton later also wrote that “a strong America is working with new powers and partners to update an international system designed to prevent global conflict and promote global prosperity.”

While the Asia pivot did not receive much attention during the 2012 presidential campaign, with Obama’s re-election and recent visit to Asia, America’s new Asia focus seems to raise increasing concerns. On the one hand, Robert Ross wrote on Foreign Affairs that the Asia pivot is “unnecessary and counterproductive.” On the other hand, Trevor Moss believes that Ross is wrong because the ‘friendly’ world he imagines, without the Asia pivot, simply does not exist. It is also noticeable that to some others (including AU’s Gordon Adams), the Asia pivot is still an empty policy or “a bumper sticker without much of a strategic design.”

With a closer look, the Asia pivot is problematic not because of its impact, but because of its all-inclusiveness. Today, it can mean almost any U.S. foreign policy towards Asia, from state visits, signings of defence pacts, promotions of trade agreements, to ambiguous neutrality in Asia’s territorial disputes. Does this year’s Asia pivot reveal anything new about U.S. foreign policy? One can remain suspicious for the following reasons:

1. It is not America’s first active Asia foreign policy

Obama’s historical visit to Myanmar earns him a lot of credits – but this does not make him “America’s first Pacific president” (At least Taft’s a contender?). Despite 9/11 and the global War on Terror, G.W. Bush also managed to make five trips to Asia (two in his first term and three in his second term, including the Beijing Olympics), signed FTA’s with Australia and Singapore, and approved major arms deal to Taiwan. Yes, the Asia-Pacific might be the most dynamic region in the world now, but previous American presidents did not ignore it.

2. It is not a policy departure from Obama’s first term

In Daniel Drezner’s article last year, he believes that Obama’s foreign policy doctrine includes a strategy of counterpunching, which is actually quite identical with Asia pivot:

“In response to international provocations, the United States has signaled that it can still rally allies and counter rising threats. For example, the United States tightened its economic and security relationships with most of China’s neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region, forcing Beijing to rethink its strategy. In demonstrating a willingness to balance against rising threats, the United States has reassured its allies that it will not be retreating into isolationism anytime soon.”

The only difference between counterpunching and the Asia pivot, it seems, is the administration’s failure to explain the former to its people. However, the fact that the Asia pivot occupies a more substantial rhetorical space does not mean a policy departure is in place. In essence, the Asia pivot is a continuation of the same strategy Obama had initiated before the 2012 election.

3. It is not a departure from America’s post-Cold-War strategy

On a broader level, the Asia pivot is also consistent with America’s efforts to preserve its preponderance after the Cold War. Michael Mastanduno argues that to preserve America’s unipolar moment, it should take both balance-of-power and balance-of-threat into account. In terms of the Asia-Pacific, it means that America should not only care about balancing against the rising China, but also assuring the PRC and other Asian states that it is not a threat. If the U.S. fails to do so, Asian states might balance against America’s presence in Asia (Some ASEAN states under the Cambodian leadership have already been advocating a limited U.S. role in regional security).

While the Asia pivot is widely read as rebalancing against the PRC, Obama has shown that the United States will not “go it alone.” Embracing multilateralism and international institutions such as ASEAN and East Asia Summit does not guarantee America the interests it wants, but they are necessary to maintain the balance of threat and are consistent with Mastanduno’s argument 15 years ago.

4. The US is not immune from distractions

One final point is that although Asia is currently on the top of Obama’s foreign policy agenda, there are other factors that could affect a president’s agenda setting power in foreign policy in spite of his own will. Media and Congress are one source, the international system, in general, is another (while the former is not independent from the latter). As taught in American foreign policy class, there are always new developments in the world and the U.S. can be easily distracted. With recent escalations of events in the Middle East (Israel and the Gazza Strip, Egypt, continuation of crisis in Syria), Obama’s focus might ultimately remain there and the U.S.’s full engagement in Asia might sometimes just be impossible.

When Bush came into office in 2001, he also had a specific focus on Asia initially, prior to the events of 9/11. Whether the U.S. will stay in Asia for long this time will be a test of whether a president’s agenda setting power really matters in foreign policy, and the result is likely to be more of the same.

Carl Pi-Cheng Huang is a graduate student at Graduate Institute of Political Science, National Taiwan University. The views expressed are exclusively his. He can be reached at ( and on Twitter @carl_pch

The Emerging Pivot to Asia Strategy: A (con)tributary order that won’t materialise.

Ben Moles

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 emergingrivalrous interdependence’ to prevail in the region.

Ben Moles has recently completed his Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. ( Follow on Twitter @bwmoles

Between a Dragon and an Eagle.

Javad Heydarian

Philippine politics couldn’t be more fascinating or discordant. Recent months have witnessed open legal warfare between the Benigno Aquino administration and its allies in the legislature, on the one hand, and the judiciary, on the other. The ongoing impeachment trial in the Philippine Senate against Chief Justice Renato Corona is part of an attempt by the government to purge allies of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from all key state institutions and eliminate widespread corruption in the bureaucracy.

However, intra-state bickering has spread to other issue areas as well. Thanks to escalating tensions in the South China Sea, and growing calls for a more robust Philippine-U.S. military partnership as America pivots to Asia, there seems to be a new front in the making.

Legislators from both houses of congress are pressuring the executive branch to re-assess the very wisdom of the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951 by specifically focusing on the provisions as well as the implementation of the1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA),which governs the conduct of U.S. military operations in the Philippines.

The United States is not only a former colonial power in the Philippines, but also the Philippines’ most important political ally in its post-colonial history. Washington’s importance to Filipino security was made clear after the Philippine Senate, riding on a nationalist and post-Cold War frenzy, voted in 1992 to not renew the country’s basing agreement with the United States. Within four years, Manila was forced to contend with the grim reality of Chinese intrusions into its territories, culminating in the 1995 Mischief Reef incident. The experience awakened the country to its glaring lack of defense capabilities and the logic of balance of power.

In the years that have followed, Manila and Washington have hammered out a series of agreements that allowed for a non-permanent, non-direct, U.S. military presence in the Philippines. According to the current arrangements, as enshrined in the provisions of the Philippine Constitution and reflected in the VFA, American troops have neither the right to engage in direct combat operations on Philippine soil, nor the mandate to establish permanent bases in the Philippines. They are only legally allowed to train, inform, equip, and advise the Philippine military.

In December 2001, the Philippines became part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and thus a U.S. ally in Washington’s global “War on Terrorism”.The following year, the United States dispatched troops from its Special Operations Command Pacific to support operations in the Philippines, which at the time theNew York Timesdescribed, “[as] the largest single deployment of American military might outside Afghanistan to fight terrorists since the Sept. 11 attack.”Thus, the United States gradually moved towardsestablishing a permanent troop presence in Mindanao, wherein they provided logistical and intelligence support for the Philippine Military’s campaign against various “terrorist” groups including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Abu Sayyaf, and the al-Qaeda regional offshoot, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

In 2003, the U.S. Defense Department announced that the Philippines and United States would engage in a combined operation against Abu Sayyaf– which in practical terms meant that U.S. forces wouldn’t be merely a “support mechanism,” but a direct participant in kinetic operations on Philippine soil. The operation involved 350 U.S. special operations personnel who were logistically backed-up by 750 Americans in the regional headquarters in Zamboanga. In succeeding years, the Philippine shores would host notorious mercenary private contractors. In 2007, Anne Tyrrell, Blackwater’s spokesman said, “[w]e are no longer pursuing a facility in the Philippines.” However, in 2009, American investigative journalistWayne Madsen alleged that Satelles Solution, a Blackwater subsidiary, was using a “five-acre facility in the former United States naval base [Subic] to train operatives for secret U.S.-backed military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hotspots.” In many ways, during the Bush-Arroyo era the Philippines became a “training ground” for U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.

There’s no denying that the Americans played a pivotal role in many high profile COIN operations that severely undermined Philippine-based activities by groups such as the Abu Sayyaf and JI. The latest suchhigh-profile operation was in Jolo, with Filipino officials claiming that three of the region’s most wanted terror suspects – namely, Singaporean Mohammad Ali (alias Muawiyah), Umbra Jumdail and Zulkifli Khir,who have all been blamed for coordinated attacks against American troops – had been killed.

During the course of Philippines-U.S. military cooperation, the U.S. troops are said to have not only provided tactical training and instructions, but also real-time, actionable intelligence for target-rich, time-sensitive operations. This has allegedly included high-resolution satellite imagery, trans-regional triangulated intelligence on terrorist networks, and even drones to support Filipino troop operations against common insurgent enemies.

Ironically, although the VFA stipulates a “temporary” and “indirect” U.S. military presence in the Philippines, there’s a growing impression that the U.S. presence is not only “temporarily indefinite”, but also that it has been more direct in practice. There are concerns that U.S. troops do actually possess “bases” within Filipino bases, namely the Camp Navarro in Zamboanga, with foreign troops exercising de facto jurisdiction over such facilities. Also, there are reports that the Americans haven’t been confined to an advisory-supporting role, and instead have actually engaged in direct combat operations – from special force’s conducting kinetic operations to drone strikes – alongside their Filipino counterparts. For such reasons, legislators and civil society groups have voiced their growing discontent over the status of the VFA, with some raising the specter of constitutional violations to justify terminating the agreement. Currently, there are several pending bills in the legislature that propose abrogating and/or reviewing the VFA.

Simultaneously, however, China’s rise is fuelling a more explicit Filipino tilt toward the United States. Since June 2011, the two countries have intensified their strategic dialogue and military cooperation, with pledges to increase U.S. military assistance to the Philippines and intensify ongoing negotiations on enhancing the U.S. military presence in the country. Earlier this year, the two countries concluded their 2nd Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, with a joint statement promising to build a more robust military alliance.Earlier this month, Andrew Shapiro, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, traveled to the Philippines to conduct discussions with senior government officials on issues like enhancing bilateral military cooperation on both traditional and non-traditional security issues and helping the Philippines to achieve “a minimum, credible defense-deterrence capability.” These negotiations continue to be ongoing with some reports claiming that Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert Del Rosario and Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin will travel to Washington between March and April to iron out a final deal. In response, hawkish elements within China have called for sanctions against the Philippines’ purported efforts to stoke tensions in Sino-American relations. There’s growing concern that the Philippines’ current efforts will pave the way for a “superpower-rivalry,” drawing Manila into an even bigger conflict.

In fact, many Filipino legislators from across the political and ideological spectrum have raised concerns about Manila’s plans to intensify U.S. military operations in the Philippines as a potential hedge against China’s territorial assertiveness and rapidly growing military capabilities. For instance, Congressman Walden Bello has raised concerns with the transparency of the ongoing negotiations between Manila and Washington, while other legislators have called for a more thorough and explicit discussion of how current negotiations and agreements with the U.S. serve the Philippines’ “national interest” – an unclear issue in itself.

It remains to be seen whether the legislature and the executive branches can reach a consensus on how to manage military relations with Washington. Yet the larger strategic issue is whether the Philippines can strike an appropriate balance between its relationship with the U.S. and China in order to defend its national interests.

Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, the Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among other publications. This post has previously been published by The Diplomat.

Riposte: Russia will keep her friends close, because her enemies are even closer.

Guy Roberts

The Russian Far East is certainly the trump card for Russia– exploitation of its resources has been a significant factor in regenerating Russian power after the post-Soviet slump.  Geographically, however, the RFE is closer to Beijing than Moscow, and despite their protestations of friendship, economic cooperation and (window-dressing) IGO initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the border with China actually represents a Russian weakness, not an opportunity.

This is because Russian strategists have for generations shared a sense of insecurity that is almost pathological.  The invasions of Mongolian Khans, of Tamerlane, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler all acted to scar and re-scar the Russian mind – making the pursuit of geographic security all but paramount in Muscovite strategy, whether through direct control (as with Russia’s sprawl eastward to the Pacific), or through proxies and buffer states, as occurred with Russia’s southern and western expansion.  This insecurity has been a motive of Russian strategy under successive leaders and regimes.  There’s a direct link between this search for security and the Crimean War, the Cold War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan– and nine separate wars with Turkey.  The point is that Russia is very prickly about its place in the world.

Regarding Russia/China relations, the border between these giants has been a source of dispute for generations.  Even when Russia and China were the closest of Communist allies (with far more in common than today) the border was still the source of some fairly intense conflict.  Ultimately, it was the relative strength of the USSR, and China’s search for a counter-balance, that created the opportunity for President Nixon’s great foreign policy triumph, the ‘opening of China.’ China’s search for a far-off, powerful friend to counterbalance a neighbouring threat was far more influential in the US/China rapprochement than anything America could have come up with on its own.

Looking at the current situation, while Russia and China do make friendly noises about bilateral cooperation, regional stability and global multi-polarity, ultimately Russia is, and will continue to be the weaker of the two nations (nuclear arsenal notwithstanding).  Therefore, as China continues to reform its polity and economy, and regenerate its relative power, Russia will become increasingly uneasy – far from being a bridge between East and West, Russia (because of it’s pathological insecurity) will feel increasingly threatened by the Sino Giant, neighbouring as it does Russia’s sparsely-populated, strategically-awkward, resource-rich Far East.  In this context, Russia will have two objectives.  Economically, Russia (like so many countries) will pursue the lucrative benefits of closer engagement and integration with China.  Geo-strategically, however, the Russian government will want to hedge its bets – and search for an alternative force to counter-balance its powerful neighbour (a strategy Ben mentions, but ultimately rejects).

In contrast to Ben, I argue that while many Western strategists and economists are advocating the ‘Pivot to Asia’ (P2A) the longer-term Russian objective, like that of Australia and many regional Chinese neighbours, will actually be a closer, more cooperative relationship with the more distant (and therefore safer) bet-hedging power-node called the United States of America.

Guy Roberts, PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne.