Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Economies

American Defence Policy and the Challenge of Austerity: Some Implications for Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Economies

American Defence Policy and the Challenge of Austerity: Some Implications for Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

The United States is a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked with Asia's economic, security and political order. America's success in the 21st century is tied to the success of Asia.

Tom Donilon, U.S. National Security Advisor, 11 March 2013

I. Introduction

The United States is currently engaged in its most important strategic activity in the Asia-Pacific region since the Vietnam War era. Faced by a rising China and by an array of increasingly nervous allies from Seoul to Canberra, Washington has formally announced a "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific to reinforce its role in the region. It is a policy that requires the repositioning of some 60 per cent of American naval and aerospace power in the Asia-Pacific by 2020. Yet, this rebalance of U.S. strategy is occurring at a time when there is much speculation on "American decline". Such speculation is driven by a combination of: unprecedented fiscal austerity; a staggering gross national debt of US$16 trillion; legislative political paralysis; and the impact of two long ground wars in the greater Middle East that have exhausted the all-volunteer military and created a weariness among many Americans over the efficacy of overseas commitments. As the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen (2010) stated, it is national debt with its ominous domestic and foreign policy implications that constitutes America's "biggest security threat". (1)

This article examines two major issues related to America's strategic repositioning towards the Asia-Pacific region. First, it assesses whether the U.S. rebalance to, and within, Asia, is achievable in the face of the fiscal crisis that has engulfed the U.S. economy since 2008. The analysis is focused on the challenges facing U.S. defence and security policy-makers under conditions of fiscal austerity --a situation compounded since March 2013 by further cuts to the American defence budget under the legislative process of mandatory sequestration. Second, this article analyses the geopolitical implications arising from the American pivot, or rebalancing, to the Asia-Pacific. Particular attention is paid to the post-pivot policy options that face many of the states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a time when a number of strategic factors are interacting as portents of change. These factors include: alleged U.S. "decline"; rising Chinese regional influence; ongoing territorial and maritime disputes; and the geopolitics of energy--all of which are combining to create a much more uncertain strategic environment in Southeast Asia.

II. Crippled Eagle? The Pivot, United States Defence Policy, and the Budget Crisis

Since the Obama administration assumed office in 2009, its major foreign policy aim has been to disengage from the counter-insurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to refocus American strategy on the economically vibrant Asia-Pacific. In early 2009, Hillary Clinton became the only Secretary of State since Dean Rusk in 1961 to visit Asia on an inaugural trip. American policy has been driven by the combination of China's continued economic and military rise combined with the fact that in 2010, 61 per cent of U.S. goods and 72 per cent of agricultural exports went to the Asia-Pacific region. By 2015, East Asia's economic power is expected to surpass that of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the eurozone to become the world's single largest trading bloc (U.S. Trade Representative 2011).

Against this background, Hillary Clinton began to speak of an American "pivot point" with respect to Asia in 2009, and she remarked that "one of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment --diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise --in the Asia-Pacific region" (Clinton 2011, de Swielande 2012). In November 2011, President Barack Obama officially unveiled an "Asia-Pacific first" strategy in a major policy speech to the Australian Parliament in Canberra in which he stated, "as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future". …

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