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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 34, August 10, 2013

US’ Strategic ‘Pivot’ To Asia-Pacific — Some Implications

Monday 12 August 2013, by Ninan Koshy

What are the Implications of the Imperial Pivot? 

There is a new definition of the Asia-Pacific reflecting the expanded stretch of the imperial territory

: The Strategic Guidance document maps the region as “the arc extending from Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia”. In her Foreign Policy article “America’s Pacific Century” (November 2011), the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, defined the Asia-Pacific as “stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas, the region spans two oceans— the Pacific and the Indian—that are increasingly linked by shipping and strategy”. There is a new element here: the inclusion of the coastal areas of South Asia in the geographic area of the Pivot. South Asia has often been considered as a distinct strategic sub-region of Asia. Increasing strategic rivalry between China and India also serves to bring that Asian sub-region into a larger Asia-wide strategic dynamic. Afghanistan is officially listed by the USA under South Asia and Afghanistan is a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). So the Af-Pak region also has a place in the USA’s Asia-Pacific.

The strategy of the Pivot announces the beginning of a new cold war:

If the theatre of the ‘old’ Cold War was Europe, the new theatre is Asia-Pacific. If the US’ enemy in Europe was the Soviet Union, in the Asia-Pacific it is China. As General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it, “the US military will be obliged to overtly confront China as it faced down the Soviet Union”. In fact, implicit in the Pivot is a long-drawn-out cold war between the USA and China which promises to be more intense in strategic brinkmanship than the earlier Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union and its allies.

It is only natural that the US’ Asia ‘pivot’ has prompted Chinese anxiety about US contain-ment. One might inquire on what is exactly about ‘rising China’ that is being counter-balanced with such an increased military presence in the Asia-Pacific “The US is not putting a military presence in the region to be an impartial or fair mediator but to pursue its own interest and that of its allies which are competing against China for ownership of resource-rich islands (including oil)”, as Michael McGrahee points out (New York Times Examiner, November 8, 2009).

The Pivot is basically about a new military strategy: 

The main underlying rationale of the military dimension of the Pivot is the need to assert US military primacy in Asia Pacific and ‘rebalance’ the Chinese build-up. The core element of the military dimension of the Pivot is the formulation and implementation of the Air-Sea Battle Concept. The Concept was officially announced in spring 2011 by the then-Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates. The Joint Operational Concept (JOC) document has clari-fied the main military aim of the concept: “to improve integration of air, land, naval, space and cyberspace forces to provide combatant commanders the capabilities needed to deter and if necessary to defeat an adversary employing sophisticated anti-access area-denial capabilities”.

It is working on translating the Air-Sea Battle Concept by linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans which in effect will mean US military presence over a broader region.

The Pivot is mainly, if not solely, about China:

Although the Obama Administration officials have often stated that these moves are not aimed at any one particular country, the Strategic Guidance document says they are at least in part on an underlying balance of military capability and presence. “Over the long-term China’s emer-gence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the US economy and our security in a variety of ways....The growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intention in order to avoid causing friction in the region.” This is a rather strange statement as if there was clarity about the US’ strategic intention.

“The new developments from the US side are about one thing; containing China’s military rise and the tectonic shifts associated with it”, as Willy Lam points out (“Beijing Laces Up the Foreign Policy Gloves”, Asiatimes online, June 28, 2012) The widespread perception that the ‘rebalancing’ initiative is aimed at China creates a host of risks. The pivot to the Pacific is seen by some in China in starker terms as focused on dividing China from its neighbours and keeping China’s military in check. Such an impression may strengthen the hands of the China’s military (PLA), which has long been suspicious of US intentions in the region.

There has been a fundamental contradiction in the US’ China policy. It wants cooperation with China and so pursues engagement. At the same time in response to China’s growing military might, it wants to restrain it by a policy of containment. Aaron Friedburg has coined the new neologism “congagement” to capture the contradictory nature of the US strategy towards China.

The impact of the Pivot on the region is of long-term consequences:

 “The expansion has come at a price for the region’s people,” Joseph Gerson points out in a Foreign Policy in Focus article (“Reinforcing Washington’s Asia-Pacific Hege-mony”, September 13, 2012).

“In Japan it means reaffirming the nuclear alliance, accelerated missile defense deployments and expanded joint intelligence operations targeting China and North Korea.

“In South Korea where US military continues to have authority over all South Korea military operations in wartime, joint military exercises have been expanded. It is to take the naval challenge closer to the Chinese coast, a massive Korean naval base is built at in Jeju.

“In Southeast Asia, the Obama Adminis-tration upped the military ante by responding to China’s assertive or even aggressive claims in South China Sea. Reinforcing the Philippines’ claims to West Philippines Sea the Pentagon has also increased weapons sales to the country and explored the return of military bases.”

The Pivot also means strengthening the US military’s relationship with Indonesia, Singa-pore, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, and now with Myanmar.

The January 2012 Pentagon document on Strategic Guidance gives a significant place for India in the strategy, something which came as a surprise to many. In his maiden visit to India in the first week of May 2012, US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta called defence cooperation with India “a linchpin” in US strategy. The US is keen to show that there is geo-strategic and even territorial convergence between the USA and India in the region. Although India may not want to be described as a ‘linchpin’ of the US pivot, the present leadership will neverthe-less reassure Washington that it is broadly supportive of US policies abroad.

The Pivot is leading to the consolidation and expansion of American military bases all over Asia and the Pacific:

New bases are being built as in Jeju, new basing arrangements are made, port facilities are ensured for American navy. Chalmers Johnson has called the USA an ‘empire of bases’. That empire is visibly expanding in the Asia-Pacific.

An important issue raised with regard to US military bases is the sovereignty of nations hosting them:

An editorial in Asahi Shimbun (May 16, 2013) was titled “Okinawa asks whether Japan is truly a sovereign nation”. The Status of Forces Agreement between Japan and the US which grants various privileges to US forces in Japan is undermining its sovereignty. In South Korea the country’s defence policy is virtually under the control of the US with its impact on foreign policy. All countries with US military bases and military alliances with US compromise in varying degrees their sovereignty. Considering that it is the people who are sovereign such compromises constitute a betrayal of the people.

The US Pivot has sparked an Asian arms race and accelerated militarisation of states:

The key strategic aim of the pivot, experts contend, is to contain China’s maritime assertive Navy and protect freedom of navigation in Western Pacific, a global artery for trade and energy transpor-tation. Yet the US’ strategic focus has paradoxi-cally not only strengthened the hands of the hardliners in Beijing calling for a more muscular counterstrategy but also emboldened the US’ regional partners, namely, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, to push their claims more aggre-ssively.

It is this change and its implications that should invite opposition and resistance from people across the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, “the manufacturers of weapons are the peacemakers” as Bush stated in his Iraq ‘victory’ speech in 2003 and Obama echoed in his Oslo Nobel Peace Prize speech. The arms lobby is a powerful force in the new US strategy. A US-driven arms race in the region, one that benefits Washington’s military industrial complex, could torpedo any chance of peaceful diplomacy.

Defence spending by China, India, Japan and South Korea accelerated sharply in the second half of the last decade and at $ 225 billion in 2012 was almost the double the amount of a decade earlier. Asia’s defence spending is higher than that of Europe.

Militarisation distorts foreign policy and makes it subservient to defence policy. It generates and invites conflicts. It has adverse influence on society. It ignores development priorities and leads to human rights violations.

The Pivot has a major nuclear dimension:

The elements are coalescing for exactly what the Obama Administration does not want us to recognise—a nuclear pivot to Asia.The region is home to five of the eight states recognised as being in possession of nuclear weapons, three of the world’s top six defence budgets, six of the world’s largest military militaries (US, China, Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, India) two conflict areas from the Cold War era (that is, Taiwan Straits, Korea).

 North Korea’s nuclear prgramme has been highlighted as the major nuclear issue in the region. We have to look closely at this, especially against the background that North Korea has been under nuclear threat from the USA since 1952.

The pivot signifies the transfer of much of the US‘ nuclear weapons arsenal half way around the world. With the redeployment of sixty per cent of the US naval forces to the Asia-Pacific the major part of America’s sea-based nuclear assets will be in the region.

During the Cold War extended deterrence and nuclear umbrella for US allies including those in Asia like South Korea and Japan heightened nuclear tensions. This is repeated in the new cold war. It can be seen most clearly in the drama now playing out with North Korea. The US has responded to Pyongyang following the Cold War blueprint by beefing up missile defence capability in Alaska and sending nuclear capable B-2 and 52 bombers in military exercises in the Korean peninsula.

As illustrated in a Pentagon press conference following the Bomber run, the intended audience is not just Pyongyang. General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made a point emphasising: “The reaction to the B-2 that we are most concerned is not necessarily the reaction it might elicit in North Korea, but rather among our Japanese and South Korean allies. These exercises are mostly to assure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared and to help them deter conflict.”

The Pivot extends the path of NATO into the Asia-Pacific:

The United States in its new regime for the Asia-Pacific has assigned a major role for the NATO in the region. The NATO developed the Tailored Cooperation Packages which took in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea. This led to these nations cooperating in the Afghan War, extending the NATO’s reach through Central Asia to the Pacific Rim. The NATO advocates have called a formal expanded security mechanism in the A-P region which could include more pro-US states. It is argued that “globalisation” of the NATO is integral to the Obama Administration’s A-P policy and reflects continuity with several decades of US policy

Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his much-acclaimed book The Grand Chessboard (1997),defines the North Atlantic alliance as part of an integrated, comprehensive and long-term strategy for all Eurasia on which the NATO would eventually reach Asia, where another military alliance would connect Pacific and South-East Asian nations. The prediction is coming true. 

Dr Ninan Koshy, formerly a Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, USA, is the author of The War on Terror—Reordering the World and Under the Empire—India’s New Foreign Policy.

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