Understanding America's Asia Strategy


The US move to turn Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and even Myanmar into American military allies does little to serve its core interests, believes Amitai Etzioni

Thomas E Donilon, until recently the President’s National Security Advisor, provided The Washington Post with an overview of America’s strategy in Asia. He makes no reference to ‘pivoting’ to Asia – rather the new catchphrase is ‘re-balancing.’

The United States is restoring its commitment to the previous level in Asia. For instance, the number of American troops in the area, which was decreased as units were moved from Asia to the Middle East, is being restored to its pre-Afghanistan and Iraq level. This emphasis on ‘re-balancing’ is supposed to reassure US allies in the Middle East and Europe that they are not being abandoned or even short-changed – and to reduce the concerns the pivot has raised in China.

The problem with this fig leaf is that it is too small for what it seeks to cover. The US clearly is moving to increase its military commitment to the region. For example, Donilon himself refers to ‘expanding’ the American naval presence, ‘strengthening’ military alliances and partnerships, and ‘deepening the US commitment to Asia’s security,’ as well as ‘placing a greater emphasis’ on economic and diplomatic efforts to strike a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

More Assertive Than Containment

The overview, like many such statements before it, reflects the strategic confusion that bedevils the US approach to China and the region, and that is a matter of concern. Donilon writes that US policy has been ‘caricatured’ as containment and that ‘the United States has a good deal of experience with containment – and a $500 billion annual economic relationship (trade with China) does not resemble that strategy.’ So if it is not containment, then what is it?

Donilon says that the US looks for ‘constructive relations’ with China. But the specifics speak to a rather different approach. The US entered into joint naval exercises with Vietnam and a United States-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty was signed during Obama’s recent visit. The United States is condoning if not encouraging Japan’s military build-up, despite the fact that Japan has engaged in acts that China finds particularly provocative. Washington also promotes a TPP that will include all key countries in the region except China (although China may well refuse to join even if invited).

Indeed, the policy the US is following in effect is more assertive than containment. Containment assumes that each power has its sphere of influence, and conflicts occurred only when one power tried to cross the line that separates the two blocs or attempts to interfere in places where no line was clearly drawn. The US did not come to the assistance of freedom fighters that rose against the former Soviet Union in Poland, in Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, because they were on the wrong side of the containment line.

These days, the United States is actively seeking to lure into its ‘camp’ Asian countries considered friendly or close to China, including Myanmar and Cambodia, and to ally itself with countries once considered ‘no-man’s land,’ such as Vietnam. The US uses its military ships and planes to conduct close surveillance patrols of Chinese coastlines. And although the United States now claims that the Air-Sea Battle plan (ASB) is not aimed at any particular country, documents published by various think tanks close to the Pentagon leave little doubt that the main target of the initiative is China. The plan entails a major commitment to purchasing the kind of weapons a future war with China might require.

Circumstances Prompting Course Correction

The US is not the first major power to talk of peace, stability, and prosperity while – just in case – preparing for war. What is most prominently missing is a clear indication of the circumstances that would convince the US and its allies, particularly Japan, to change course.

If China agrees to settle its disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and Scarborough Shoal through an international court or some arbitration mechanism, would that convince Washington to cease its military build-up in the region, retract the ASB, and discourage Japan from proceeding with its own military build-up? Or would it then insist that it must still ‘re-balance’ in case China uses force to hinder free passage on the high seas or make Taiwan part of the mainland republic?

If China somehow managed to ‘prove’ that it would do neither of these things, would the US then hold out for the conversion of China into a liberal democracy or for freedom for Tibet? Is the US willing to grant China any increased say in the region?

Donilon had very little to say on the conditions that would constitute a  peaceful resolution of the differences between the United States and China and would prompt close cooperation between the two powers in matters concerning non-proliferation; the prevention of terrorism, piracy, and climate change; and important shared economic interests. This is a crying shame, given that both countries have pressing domestic concerns on which they ought to focus and given that the Middle East and Europe – especially following the events in Ukraine – are hardly places from which resources can be withdrawn to maintain – let alone ‘re-balance’ – Washington’s commitments in Asia.

Indeed there is a good reason to expect that the US will repeat in South East Asia the mistakes it made in South East Europe. They are best summed up by Robert Gates, a moderate Republican, who served both in the Bush and Obama administration, in his book Duty, published before the recent crisis: “From 1993 onward, the West, and particularly the United States, had badly underestimated the magnitude of Russian humiliation in losing the Cold War and then in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which amounted to the end of the centuries old Russian Empire. The arrogance after the collapse of American government officials, academicians, businessmen, and politicians in telling the Russians how to conduct their domestic and international affairs (not to mention the internal psychological impact of their precipitous fall from superpower status) had led to deep and long term resentment and bitterness. What I didn’t tell the president was that I believed the relationship with Russia had been badly mismanaged after Bush left office in 1993. Getting Gorbachev to acquiesce to a unified Germany as a member of NATO had been a huge accomplishment, but moving so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to incorporate so many of its formerly subjugated states into NATO was a mistake. Including the Baltic States, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary quickly was the right thing to do, but I believe the process should then have slowed. US agreements with the Romanian and Bulgarian governments to rotate troops through bases in those countries were a needless provocation (especially since we virtually never deployed the 5,000 troops to either country). The Russians had long historical ties to Serbia, which we largely ignored. Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching. The roots of the Russian Empire trace back to Kiev in the ninth century, so that was an especially monumental provocation. Were the Europeans, much less the Americans, willing to send their sons and daughters to defend Ukraine or Georgia? Hardly. So NATO expansion was a political act, not a carefully considered military commitment, thus undermining the purpose of the alliance and recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests. ...”

Similarly, US moves to turn Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and even Myanmar into American military allies, provokes China, allows small nations to have a finger on the American trigger, and does little to serve core American interests.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.