The Rebalance to Asia: U.S.-China Relations and Regional Security

By Saunders, Phillip C. | Strategic Forum, August 2013 | Go to article overview

The Rebalance to Asia: U.S.-China Relations and Regional Security


Saunders, Phillip C., Strategic Forum


Key Points

* The rebalance responds to the Asia- Pacific region's increased economic and strategic weight and seeks to bring U.S. global diplomatic, economic, and military resource commitments into balance with expanding U.S. regional interests.

* A key challenge is making the re-balance robust enough to reassure U.S. allies and partners while not alarming Chinese leaders to the point where they forgo cooperation with Washington.

* The rebalance is a comprehensive approach that involves all the tools of national power and devotes more attention to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and regional multilateral institutions.

* Chinese officials and scholars are skeptical about the U.S. rationale for the rebalance and criticize its supposed negative effect on regional security. However, China has also redoubled efforts to stabilize Sino-U.S. relations and build a "new type of great power relations."

* To prevent unwanted strategic rivalry, U.S. and Chinese leaders should increase cooperation on common interests and seek to manage competitive aspects of U.S.-China relations.

Upon taking office in January 2009, Obama administration officials pro-claimed a U.S. "return to Asia." This pronouncement was backed with more frequent travel to the region by senior officials (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first trip was to Asia) and increased U.S. participation in regional multilateral meetings, culminating in the decision to sign the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and to participate in the East Asia Summit (EAS) at the head-of-state level. The strategic "rebalance to Asia" announced in November 2011 builds on these earlier actions to deepen and institutionalize U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.

Asia's rapid growth and economic dynamism have greatly expanded the region's economic and strategic weight, elevating its importance for U.S. interests and demanding an increased U.S. focus. This evolution has been welcomed by America's Asia specialists, who have long advocated greater investment of re-sources and attention from high-level U.S. policymakers. (1) At a time of often bitter partisanship in the United States, there is broad, bipartisan consensus on Asia's importance. Indeed, partisan criticism has focused primarily on whether the administration in power is doing enough to increase U.S. engagement in Asia and whether rhetorical commitment is backed with sufficient resources. (2)

While some initial comments about the U.S. "return to Asia" were cast in terms of correcting alleged neglect of the region by the administration of George W. Bush, senior Obama administration officials believed that the war on terror and U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan had produced an imbalanced global footprint. The United States was overweighted in the Middle East and underweighted in the Asia-Pacific. (3) The phrase rebalance to Asia was intended to highlight the region's heightened priority within U.S. global policy. (The term pivot to Asia initially used by some officials also suggested the transfer of resources and strategic attention from the Middle East and Europe to Asia.)

The rebalance to Asia also reflected the need to articulate U.S. global priorities in the wake of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan, freeing diplomatic and military resources that had been committed to the Middle East for the last decade. Anticipated reductions in U.S. Federal spending and military budgets also called for a clear statement of strategic priorities to guide cuts and reallocate limited resources. For the U.S. military, this came in the form of the January 2012 defense strategic guidance signed by President Barack Obama, which declared "we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region." (4)

The term rebalance is not derived from "balance of power" thinking and does not signal U. …

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