The New US Strategy towards Asia. Adapting to the American pivot
Editors: William T. Tow and Douglas Stuart
Reviewed by Dr. Moritz Pöllath, History Department, Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, Germany
“Power transition situations are among the most reliable predictors of war in the international relations literature” (p.21), states one of the editors and contributor Douglas Stuart about the core premise of the volume The New US Strategy towards Asia – Adapting to the American pivot. His observation underlines the necessary scholarly attention given to Obama’s ‘pivot’ strategy in 2011 of the edited volume, which is the result of a two-day workshop in Canberra, Australia, in June 2013. The contributors are well chosen security experts from the Asia-Pacific region and the editors achieved an engaging mix of security policy analysts, from renowned strategic thinkers with military experience to fresh as well as senior academic scholars with established area expertise.
The choice of contributors promises a challenging combination of a firm historical and political analysis grounded in international relations theory. The articles of William Tow and Douglas Stuart in the first part of the volume set the premise to review Obama’s ‘pivot’ strategy to Asia. The analysis in both articles is grounded in solid historical understanding and driven by keen theoretical insights. To assess the dangerous power transition in the Asia-Pacific region and the new US strategy, the authors dissect three important developments: firstly, they convincingly place the US strategic adjustment in the fourth stage of the American historical engagement in the Pacific. It began with McKinley’s ‘Open Door’ policy (1899), followed by anti-communist containment (1947) and a policy of ‘hegemony light’ initiated with the Nixon Doctrine, the normalization of US relations with China and the American withdrawal from Vietnam (1973). Today, the “Obama Administration is building upon a long tradition of direct American involvement in the Asia-Pacific” (p. 23). Secondly, the reason for the rebranding of the ‘pivot’ to ‘rebalancing’ was swiftly executed, because allies in the region feared that a pivot would be brief and tactical. Actually, Obama conceptualized and the regional allies demanded a long and strategic rebalancing of the American strategic posture from the Middle East to Asia. Thirdly, both authors elaborate on the ‘hub and spokes’ architecture of the San Francisco System (SFS) of bilateral and trilateral alliances with Asian-Pacific allies and the enduring importance of the Nixon Doctrine for the region, which transformed the U.S. into a post-imperial power from 1973 (p. 16).
The third point may provide food for discussion, because the U.S. often is equated throughout history and contemporary debates with an imperial power. Andrew Bacevich pursued the thesis of American Empire up until the Bush Administration and the debate whether or not to speak of a global hegemon, a superpower or an empire flares up whenever the United States acts unilaterally (Bacevich, 2002). It is the credit of the authors and other scholars citied to deliver a nuanced view of the topic and to focus on the concept of ‘hegemony’ in order to assess Washington’s role in the region. The Nixon Doctrine demanded more self-responsibility against internal subversion and outside aggression from Asian partners, transformed clients into allies and posed a new challenge to the San Francisco System: although a flexible and adaptable alliance system, the SFS doesn’t exert pressure on its actors to take burden-sharing seriously and it remains to be seen if it can be transformed from a ‘threat-centric’ to a ‘order building’ mechanism (p. 31). The fourth stage of American strategic engagement will furthermore shed light on the concept of Empire, because strategy of rebalancing to Asia is not merely a build-up of US capabilities, new bases in Darwin or the relocation of ships and units to the Pacific. It also demands even more burden-sharing from its allies and stronger partnerships to ensure stability in the region in order to achieve a more cost-effective alliance system from Washington’s perspective.
The U.S has to negotiate contradictory goals in the Asia-Pacific by containing and engaging China at the same time in order to find and make room for China. The conflict-prone situation is elaborated by the articles in the remaining parts of the volume, which are logically arranged into the meaning of the rebalancing strategy for Northeast Asian, Southeast Asian and Indo-Pacific partners. The third and last article before the parts on regional reactions to the new strategy is written by Jeffrey D McCausland and deserves special attention: With an expert view on military strategy and developments in the Asia-Pacific he delivers an important theoretical contribution to the concept of contemporary deterrence, which has added a third category of dissuasion – highlighting the benefits of restraint – to older categories of imposing costs and denying benefits to strategic competitors (p. 58). McCausland elegantly navigates the concept of deterrence and assesses its meaning for the current geopolitics of Asia-Pacific. In addition, he clearly distinguishes the current situation in the Pacific from the historical Cold War competition to argue that alliance building and containment in Europe and Asia at different points of time might sound structural similar, but are full of significant distinctions. He and Brendan Taylor should be applauded for their insight to touch on the meaning of Thucydides for the interest-driven tensions in the Pacific (p. 51, 161), while the full analysis of the Thucydides Trap is usually credited to Graham T. Allison in “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” (Graham, 2015).
The following articles all deliver in-depth studies of the rebalancing strategy for all US partners in the Asia-Pacific, including India as well. Security Studies students and policy makers will find an up-to-date analysis of the security policy and geopolitical challenges of each actor in the wider region and one can whish these articles a wide reception on account of their many merits. In the chapter on Japan Ken Jimbo discusses Japan’s future role in the SFS with regard to Thailand and the Philippines. Changsu Kim puts the rebalancing strategy into perspective and argues that for South Korea it has “generally been seen as not very different from what has already occurred on the peninsula” (p. 91). Convincingly, the author portrays the deep military cooperation between Seoul and Washington, which has existed for decades.
Taiwan is especially caught between the forces of prosperity through trade with China and security by the U.S. As Fu-Kuo Lin states, the PLA has largely eliminated Taiwan’s conventional military superiority. In consequence, Taipei now pursues a stronger emphasis on technology, advanced platforms and the development of an asymmetric strategy towards China. Exposed to China’s coercive diplomacy Taiwan will continue to walk a tightrope and the current challenges are well laid out in Lin’s chapter. Misalucha sets a different focus in his chapter and discusses the theory of strategic communication in the case of the Philippines. The author asserts that the rebalancing strategy has been successfully sold, although the scope of the new US strategy remains “cloaked in ambiguity” (p.115). His chapter delves deeply into the establishment and internalization of norms in international relations theory and thereby offers a valuable and fresh contribution to the volume.
Prasirtsuk and Tow apply the questions of partnerships and tensions between prosperity and security to Thailand and describe Bangkok as a “reluctant ally” (p.129). Succinctly they argue that Thailand might not support a rebalancing strategy on purely military and geopolitical terms. Thai security policy takes into account that China is no longer a security threat for Thailand. Ralf Emmers and Mahesh Shankar’s studies on Singapore and India instead are underlining the positive reception by both powers of Washington’s rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific. Especially India’s ‘look East’ policy converges with Obama’s pivot in 2011, but Indian policymakers are criticizing the “lack of clarity and credibility” on Washington’s side (p. 195). Ayson also mentions this critique in the case of New Zealand. He differentiates between a negative pivot, away from nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a positive pivot to the Pacific. For Wellington the substance of the pivot remains unclear and “gaps between declaratory policy and operational policy” (p. 173) are left unanswered. Ayson’s observation needs to be highlighted: he categorizes the rebalancing strategy as an organizing concept like the ‘war on terror”, which “reduces the bewildering complexity that arises when one considers Washington’s interests, interactions and roles in Asia” (p. 173).
The volume expertly addresses the impact of the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ strategy towards Asia-Pacific by the United States. It should be applauded for its synthesis of history and political science and the interweaving and application of international relations theory to the military and geopolitical dimensions in the wider Asia-Pacific region. Students and scholars in the fields of International History and Relations and Security Studies will receive a comprehensive picture and in-depth analysis to navigate the complexity of the many actors, interests and structural challenges in the Pacific of the 21st century.
Andrew J. Bacevich. American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic (September 2015) http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/
Dr. Moritz Pöllath (2016), Review of “The New US Strategy towards Asia. Adapting to the American pivot”, William T. Tow (ed.), Douglas Stuart (ed.), East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 9, no. 10.