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October 2013

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US Strategic Alignments and Re alignments in the Asia Pacific
by Vignesh Ram

The Asia Pacific is fast emerging as one of the most dynamic and competitive regions among major powers of the world. The dynamics of the region are shaped by the US’ policy of rebalancing to the region in the face of a rapidly rising China that is challenging the traditional sphere of United States’ influence. It seems that the new US strategy towards the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region might change the global balance of power. It has become obvious from the US actions and strategies that the Asia- Pacific region will be a power play between the US and China. The other major players will have a limited role and it would be mostly dictated by the strategic alignments and realignments of the United States.

China’s rising trade and growing aggressiveness in territorial disputes has not only left the US lagging in regional influence but also challenged the pole position it holds in regional affairs. In its effort to shift focus from its withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 to countering China’s rise, the US declared that it would rebalance and increase its presence in the region. Its rebalancing strategy was indicated in a number of policies that the US proposed including strengthening its relations with traditional allies in the region and also developing new partnerships with other important emerging states.

The US rebalancing to the Asia Pacific has revived the debate about the effectiveness of one of the core areas of US foreign policy, the US alliance system. The alliance system has been a constant feature of US foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. The strategic alignments which the US has forged, provides it with not only a strong presence in the region but also a probable check on the rise of other major regional players which limit its influence. Its rebalancing strategy has focused on key areas of security concern which threaten US or its alliance partners in the region. Since the announcement of its policy and its declaration of being a Pacific nation, the US has signalled its interest in intensifying its subdued role in the region post Vietnam War. To give more teeth to its declarations the US revived troop deployments in the region starting with its traditional ally, Australia. It has also strengthened its naval presence in the region. The US naval deployment has been crucial in sustaining the US role in the Asia pacific. It has also focused on strengthening its policies along with its traditional allies Japan and South Korea, which face threats from not only a hostile North Korea but also territorial disputes with China. The US alliance system is crucial for the region as it also keeps the two allies at a level of cooperation with each other. In short the US alliance system is the glue that holds the traditional rivals together.

The biggest challenge that the US faces in the current context is to honour its treaty commitments in the face of growing assertiveness of China towards its allies in the region. The complex Sino-US relationship constantly limits the full deployment of US activities in the region. Its constant naval presence in the region acts as a strong deterrent against any regional misadventure by China and acts as an assurance to its allies. The challenges that US allies face from China’s rise not only enables the US to strengthen its presence but also allows it to play a stronger role in the region. The role of its allies is crucial as any threat provides it legitimacy to increase its presence and strengthen its image. It is also crucial as these disputes have enhanced the capability of the US to showcase itself as a benign power in providing help to smaller states in the region.

In the current environment prevalent in the region, the US would have to go beyond its traditional patterns of alignment and engagement to more robust strategic partnerships with countries not traditionally part of its alliance system. The US “pivot” in this context is also strengthened with the help of other regional powers joining the US and its allies in enhancing their strategic position in the region against common security challenges that they face. US’ growing engagement with India and Indonesia signals its move to consolidate its position with key strategically located states with growing military capabilities. Moreover, India’s Look East Policy complements the US rebalancing policy in the region. The US move to place the USS Freedom, a littoral combat ship, close to Singapore, signalled its intent to patrol the Malacca strait, which is an important artery of world trade. In order to strengthen its strategic rebalance, the US will place almost sixty percent of its naval forces in the region.     

In its strategy to redeploy to the region, the United States should consider reviving its pre- eminent role by taking calculated steps in responding to the growing challenge from China in the region. China’s rise has been multidimensional. It has advanced rapidly in the technology, military, economic and diplomatic realms. Its naval modernization has been the biggest threat to the US presence in the Pacific, which was traditionally dominated by the US naval forces in the region. China’s acquisition of technologies such as the ASBM is a threat to US naval forces in the region. The US must develop alternate technologies to counter the threat. The territorial disputes in the South and East China Sea have caused frictions between the US and its allies.

The cuts in US defense spending challenge the US in deploying additional forces in the region. Hence its strategy must be multi-pronged in the Asia Pacific region. The US should engage more with its traditional allies in the region and continue to deploy more military and naval assets in the region to act as a counter weight to China. The Sino-US relationship might be a hindrance for the US in being able to completely exercise its powers in the region but its partnership with other important players will enable it to signal a stronger position in the region. The US should also increase its engagements with regional institutions; this will give it leverage in dealing with China diplomatically in the region. This multifaceted approach will help it tackle China’s rise in a more comprehensive manner in the Asia Pacific and give more legitimacy to its rebalance strategy in the region. The likely scenario in the Asia - Pacific is going to be a projection of power trajectory and the deployment of strategic weaponry by both the US and China. Such action would demonstrate a highly volatile Asia-Pacific. It will certainly not be in the region’s interest.bluestar


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Vignesh Ram is a Ph. D. candidate at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, India.

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