Pivotal Points

US foreign policy refocuses on the Asian-Pacific

by by Erica Schwiegershausen

illustration by by Annika Finne

Last June, President Barack Obama laid out plans for the beginning of the US drawdown in Afghanistan, pledging to pull approximately a third of the 100,000 U.S. troops currently in the country by the fall of 2012, with most American forces expected to leave Afghanistan by 2014. In October, Obama announced that he would pull all US troops out of Iraq by the close of the year 2011, stating at the time that the end of US involvement in Iraq reflected a larger transition away from “the tide of war,” a trend which he said would continue as the nation attempts to shift more attention toward domestic priorities. This November, Obama announced an agreement with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to keep US Marines in the country on a rotational basis. About 250 will arrive next year in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, eventually increasing to about 2,500 and sending a message that despite widespread defense budget cuts and withdrawal from the Middle East, the United States intends to continue to assert itself as a Pacific power. In an address to the Australian Parliament following the announcement, Obama said he had “made a deliberate and strategic decision—as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”

“As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point,” proclaimed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, referring to regional policy in “America’s Pacific Century” in the November issue of Foreign Policy. She lays out an expansive case for increasing US involvement in Asia, stressing the importance of maintaining peace, security and open markets in the region, which she argues will be a “key driver of global politics” in the years to come. “Our economic recovery at home will depend on exports and the ability of American firms to tap into the vast and growing consumer base in Asia,” Clinton asserts, citing that last year American exports to the Pacific Rim totaled $320 billion.


The announcement of troop deployment in Australia came as part of Obama’s nine-day tour of the Pacific Rim, during which he hosted an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation free trade forum in Hawaii and attended the annual meeting of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). During his visit, Obama became the first American president to participate in the East Asia Summit, which was founded six years ago as a diplomatic extension of the ASEAN and includes economic powerhouses such as China, Russia, India, and Japan. The President also held a previously unscheduled meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, during which they focused on economic issues, according the Thomas E. Donilon, the president’s national security advisor. Contending with high domestic unemployment and discontent over the economy, Obama presented his trip in terms of its potential to create American jobs by increasing exports. “As the fastest-growing region in the world, no market is more important to our economic future than the Asia-Pacific—a region where our exports already support five million American jobs,” the President said. However, the announcement of U.S. troop deployment in Australia, which marks the first long-term expansion of America’s military presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War, highlights another motivation behind the pivot in U.S. policy toward the Asia Pacific region—a desire to keep a growing China in check. Although Obama has said that “we welcome a rising, peaceful China,” asserting that “the notion that we fear China is mistaken,” renewed U.S. focus in the region is undoubtedly influenced by security concerns. Although China’s true military budget is not made public, experts believe it has tripled over the past decade (though even these projections remain many times lower than current US military spending). US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has characterized the Chinese military buildup as lacking transparency, and Clinton claims that the US seeks to clarify China’s intentions to “reduce the risk of miscalculation or miscues between our militaries.” However, Catherine Lutz, the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Family Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at Brown University says the idea that the Chinese are a threat to U.S. national security is “ludicrous,” explaining: “The Chinese are a main trade partner, they have our treasury bonds. There are so many reasons why the Chinese would not be interested in any kind of attack on the United States or attack on US interests overseas,” Lutz told the Independent.


According to the BBC’s Nick Bryant, the deployment of 2,500 Marines is hardly a huge increase considering that there are about 100,000 American service personnel stationed in the Asia-Pacific in places like South Korea and Japan. However, the move signifies a deepening of the already close relationship between America and Australia, countries which have been allies for decades; Australians have fought alongside Americans in every war of the 20th century, as well as more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The United States has no stronger ally,” Obama said during his visit. Lutz points out that in addition to the 2,500 troops, the United States will also be bringing in ships, aircraft, and vehicles. “China has rightly felt somewhat threatened by this,” she said. “It’s perceived as quite a provocative move on the part of the United States to open yet another military base [in the region].” Indeed, China is not pleased by this development. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin regards US military expansion in the Asia-Pacific warily, and has stated that “it may not be quite appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interest of the countries within this region.” Some experts have expressed concern over what they perceive as America’s muscular approach to China’s increasing power, fearing that such moves could backfire, resulting in a cold-war style standoff. Zhiquin Zhu, an associate professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University and the MacArthur Chair of East Asian Politics told the Independent that while he doesn’t think a cold war scenario is likely, he does worry that the deployment of troops in Australia will be “counterproductive” to relations with China. Zhu points out that “Darwin is awfully close to the South China Sea, so many speculate that the location of American troops in Australia is aiming [there].” The South China Sea, a shipping lane for more than $5.3 trillion in annual international trade, is the subject of several disputes involving China and its South East Asian neighbors, as Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei all hold rival claims to parts of the waters. China claims ownership of the entire maritime region, which is rich in oil, minerals, and fishery resources, and has grown increasingly aggressive over its claims. Jiabao has warned the U.S. to stay clear of territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, stating that such conflicts ought to be resolved “through friendly consultations.” However, many countries in the region welcome American presence as a counterbalance to China’s increasing military power, and the U.S. is eager to take advantage of diplomatic openings. During his Pacific tour, Obama announced that he would be sending Clinton to Myanmar, making her the highest ranking visitor from the United States to visit the country since the Burmese military seized power in 1962. Clinton’s diplomatic visit to a country previously shunned by the U.S. is a reflection of recent political reforms in Myanmar, though also clearly motivated by America’s desire to lessen the resource-rich, strategically located country’s dependence on China.


Obama’s trip to Asia was also spent firming up negotiations to join a free-trade bloc—the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a formerly little known but fairly liberal trade grouping—which would not initially include China. The TPP agreement was originally signed in 2005 by four countries with fairly small economies: Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. However, negotiations to secure membership for America, Australia, Malaysia, Peru, and Vietnam have been taking place for over a year. A recent statement by the leaders of the nine prospective TTP countries called the agreement a “milestone in our common vision to establish a comprehensive, next-generation regional agreement that liberalizes trade and investment and addresses new and traditional trade issues and 21st century challenges.” Further TTP negotiations are scheduled to take place this December. The final agreement will reduce and ultimately eliminate most import tariffs within the group over the next ten years, a development which US Trade Representative Ron Kirk claims will result in flourishing regional trade. Japan has also expressed interest in joining the bloc, a development which has been received with enthusiasm from the United States. The nine current TTP nations account for only six percent of US trade, which is about the same fraction as American trade with Japan alone. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, former US trade representative Clayton Yuetter and international trade lawyer Jonathan Stoel asserted that with Japanese participation in the TTP, “trade in the Asia-Pacific region will explode. It could easily triple or quadruple.” Obama has communicated that China would be welcomed to the new trade pact only if Beijing is willing to meet the free-trade standards for membership, which would require China to let its currency appreciate, to better protect intellectual property rights, and to reduce subsidies to state owned companies – demands which would require a significant overhaul of China’s current economic system. While some experts have labeled the TPP an attempt to “encircle” China economically, Zhu predicts that “a trade bloc across the pacific without China’s consent is unlikely to work,” considering that China is the largest trading partner in the region. Zhu points out that while many of China’s neighbors may be eager for U.S. military security to counterbalance a growing China, they also recognize that they benefit from China economically, and are likely to try to maintain strong relations with both powers.


Zhu emphasizes that much of the motivation behind Obama’s recent moves in the Asia-Pacific may be influenced by his upcoming re-election, explaining that the President “has to do something to show voters that he’s trying very hard, that he’s tough on China and that he can generate more jobs,” and saying that he is unsure to what degree recent negotiations in the region will represent long term policy. As Dean Cheng points out in a recent New York Times opinion piece, “what is unclear is how long this renewed effort will be sustained, especially in the face of budget cuts,” acknowledging that regardless of Obama’s intentions, “Fewer American resources, including reduced military capabilities, will dilute America’s ability to remain focused on Asia.” However, Obama has stressed that budget cuts in Washington will not inhibit the administration’s renewed commitment to the region, stating that defense cuts “will not—I repeat, will not—come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.” Clinton affirms the importance of US engagement abroad, proclaiming that “maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is increasingly crucial to global progress, whether through defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, countering the proliferation efforts of North Korea, or ensuring transparency in the military activities of the region’s key players.” “China is a challenge, there is no doubt about it, but at the same time China is also an opportunity,” says Zhu, acknowledging the potential for China to boost the US economy and create jobs at home. Ultimately, Zhu says that although we may see periods of tension between the US and China in the coming months and years, prompted in part by the upcoming US presidential elections and power shifts in China, he is optimistic about the strength of the relationship in the long term. Lutz agrees, explaining that she believes future relations between the US and China will be positive “because we are so intertwined at this point,” which she claims generally makes for better relationships. As Clinton has asserted, China represents one of the most “consequential bilateral relationships that the United States has ever had to manage…The stakes are much too high for us to fail.”


ERICA SCHWIEGERSHAUSEN B’13 is open to “friendly consultations.”