John Kerry, America’s peripatetic Secretary of State, is on his fifth trip to East Asia since his appointment in early 2013. At one level, this looks like an unambiguous indicator of the United States’ commitment to the region and evidence of the so-called pivot to Asia in action.
This is not how many of the region’s leaders see it, however. On the contrary, one of the primary goals of the current trip is to reassure increasingly nervous allies that the US is determined to remain a Pacific power with all that that implies for friend and prospective foe alike. For all the talk about rebalancing American forces and establishing a greater presence in the region, many feel that the US has been preoccupied with other more pressing issues elsewhere.
There are two main reasons why many of the region’s leaders have doubts about the pivot in particular and America’s long-term presence in the region. On the one hand, Kerry has spent even more time in the Middle East. Events have conspired to make it difficult for the US to extricate itself from a region with which it remains inextricably bound-up.
Kerry’s efforts to bring about a reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians may strike some as a fool’s errand, but it is a reminder of the region’s external and internal political importance for the US.
Such perennial American priorities mean that relations with Asia have been relatively neglected – or that’s the perception of many in the region, at least. And yet recent events have demonstrated that the world’s only global power does not have the luxury of dealing with one problem or region at a time.
The pivot to Asia was originally a response to the rise of China and its growing influence in East Asia; China’s recent actions have provided a reminder of just how tangible and immediate its challenge is likely to be.
China’s economic weight and growing strategic capability mean that for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the US faces the prospect of having to deal with a genuine peer competitor. Indeed, the challenge posed by China is likely to prove even more consequential because its economic importance is already far more significant than anything we have seen before, a reality that will be reinforced when it becomes the largest economy in the world in the very near future.
China’s economic presence and potential add an additional layer of complexity to US policy toward the region. While Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russell may have chided China about its recently proclaimed air defense zone and its potential for destabilising already fraught regional relations, it is not obvious what the US can actually do about it.
Confrontation is clearly in nobody’s interest and would wreck the global economy in the process. But the US is also constrained by its ever-growing reliance on China to buy its debt. As Hillary Clinton famously observed, ‘how do you argue with your banker’?
American policy is further constrained by the actions of some its most important regional allies. Not only is the always brittle relationship between Japan and South Korea currently testing new diplomatic lows, but Japan has become an increasingly provocative and unpredictable player in a high-stakes regional struggle that threatens to end in actual conflict.
Some of Japan’s nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe’s recent actions, such as visiting the notorious Yasukuni shrine, seem designed to inflame already combustible regional passions.
One country can, of course, be relied on to play the role of dependable—even taken for granted—ally. The decision to host American troops on a permanent basis in Darwin is one of the few tangible expressions of the pivot. While the strategic impact of this decision may have been minimal, it’s symbolism was immense and duly noted in China.
Australian policymakers have effectively locked themselves into a grand strategy that will ultimately be determined in Washington, not Canberra. The dangers of such a policy can be seen in Australia’s pointless participation in the Iraq war and arguably in Afghanistan, too.
This is not, it should be noted, meant to denigrate or diminish the efforts of Australian forces in either conflict, but to question the wisdom of sending them there in the first place.
Eventually some new relationship will be arrived at between the US and China. Hopefully this will be a peaceful process, but however it is decided, it is fair to assume that for both of the principal protagonists, it will be decided by their national interests, not ours.
In this regard, there is a an instructive historical precedent regional policymakers might like to consider. When Richard Nixon and Henry Kissenger engineered a rapprochement with China in the early 1970s, they did so in complete secrecy and without consulting or informing any of their closest and most important allies.
While Sino-American relations may be a good deal more transparent and institutionalised these days, there is no reason to suppose that the interests of other countries are uppermost in the minds of Chinese or American policymakers when they get together.
In such circumstances, recognising the limited influence that lesser powers have is important. Rather than siding with one side in what looks like an inevitable effort to contain the other, therefore, other regional powers might want to collectively urge both sides to multilateralise strategic issues generally and territorial disputes in particular.
Getting both China and the US to sign up to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea might be a good place to start.