The American “Pivot” to Asia. Military and Political Challenges and Implications for the US and Pacific-Asia

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

37 Pages, Grade: 1,3


List of contents

1. The Importance of Asia-Pacific in the Global order of International Relations

2. The 21st century - a Pacific or Asian Century?

3. The American “Pivot” Strategy in a risky and complex Environment

4. The Rise of China and the Fear of Chinese Nationalism in the Region - Counterbalance or Integration?

5. Conclusion and Outlook – Future of the Pivot

6. List of Literature

1. The Importance of Asia-Pacific in the Global order of International Relations

In recent years Southeast Asia steadily evolved into one of the most important regions of the world. There are approximately 20 emerging countries, with China above all, in this vast region stretching from Russia, Kuril Islands that is, in the North to Australia and New Zealand in the South, from Pakistan and India in the West and to Papua New Guinean in the East.[1] Subdividing the area further it consists of the continental Southeast Asia including China and former Indochina with states like Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and the Western section of Malaysia. And on the other hand maritime Southeast Asia consisting of the countries of Brunei (on the island of Borneo), the Eastern section of Malaysia (Northern part of Borneo), the Philippines, Singapore, East Timor and all islands of Indonesia. The economic aspect of that region in regard to global politics is on account of their significant trade routes, mineral resources and their continually growing national economies.[2] Over half of the world's commercial shipping passes through the waterways of the Indo-Pacific region. The Strait of Malacca, in particular, is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world and also one of the world's most noteworthy strategic chokepoints. The strait links the Indian and Pacific Oceans and carries nearly 25% of all traded goods. It also carries approximately 25% of all oil that travels by sea.[3] Also one-third of the world’s liquefied natural gas passes through the Straits of Malacca and into the South China Sea, with the bulk of it originating in the Persian Gulf. Liquefied natural gas also flows into the region from Southeast and West. In addition to it the South China Sea contains significant proved and probable oil reserves. Large quantities lie nearby Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The East China Sea is also home to a gas field, but the extents of its reserves are unknown. But Asia is also a vibrant and dynamic region with nearly 4.3 billion inhabitants, which is 60% of the global population. China is the most populous state in the region with around 1.4 billion people. India is projected to pass China’s population in about 15 years, becoming the world’s most populous nation with 1.5 billion inhabitants. Although the Indian Ocean is not the site of nearly as many territorial or maritime disputes which are going to be discussed later in this paper, it is nonetheless inseparable connected to interest of Asia-Pacific. One important factor is that 80 percent of Japanese and 39 percent of Chinese oil imports pass through the Indian Ocean from the Middle East.[4]

The USA having had a long political tradition in the region is maintaining close political relations with some of those states. Moreover the US have a strong presence of seaborne, airborne and ground-based facilities; numerous military materials, as well as personnel, are stationed in the state of Hawaii, Alaska and Guam. This includes troop concentrations in allied countries such as South Korea and Japan but also a rotating stationing of troops in some other partner countries within Pacific-Asia such as the Philippines and Australia. For some time past the USA have been turning towards the region of Southeast Asia and they are beginning to expand their political, economical and military engagement in this region of the world. There are diverse reasons for this such as an opening of new rising markets and the development of political and economical relations to significant emerging countries, and perhaps future industrialized countries of the 21st century. Another reason is China’s ascent as an important player regarding international relations which are significant to the US as well as to future relations of both countries.

This paper is aimed therefore to approach the subject of reorientation of the US foreign policy regarding the Pacific region. Priority will be set on military and alliance policy factors of main parties involved, first and foremost the USA. Moreover the issues of the strategy of reorientation in itself and problems that are involved will be addressed. In addition the following will be discussed: characteristics and implementation options and the question of relevance as to how this reorientation towards Asia means neglecting other regions like the Near East, and how the U.S. are to bring their global claim of validity in conformity with it.

2. The 21st century - a Pacific or Asian Century?

Asia's robust economic performance over the three decades preceding 2010, compared to that in the rest of the world, made perhaps the strongest case yet for the possibility of a Pacific or Asian Century. Now for the first time in more than two centuries the majority of the world’s economic growth took place in the developing world, driven in large part by China, India and other emerging economies.[5] The shift of the global balance of power from the West to the East, which results from this sustained economic growth and the weakening of Western economies prompted by the 2008 global financial crisis, undoubtedly has deep implications for all relevant global categories; from Soft power, like Culture to Economics and Politics.[6] By the early 21st century the base of gravity of the global economy is shifting from West to East with this stronger Asian performance. Global leadership in a range of significant areas - international diplomacy, military strength, technology, and soft power - might also, as a consequence, be assumed by one or more of Asia's nation states.[7] There are a lot of theories, which are trying to establish factors and categories to compare the Asian countries with the Western counterparts and quantify the Rise of Pacific Asia. An example is the seven pillar system by Kishore Mahbubani: The seven pillars include: free-market economics, science and technology, meritocracy, pragmatism, culture of peace, rule of law and education.[8] Also a 2011 study by the Asian Development Bank found that an additional 3 billion Asians could enjoy living standards similar to those in Europe today, and the region could account for over half of global output by the middle of this century.[9]

Another important aspect and indicator to be mentioned is the growing military spending in Asian Countries. In 2012, total world military expenditure was still higher in real terms than the peak experienced near the end of the Cold War. But across the Western countries, defense budgets have undergone substantial and far-reaching cuts as a response to, among many factors, reduced war spending in the United States and allies, and austerity policies following the financial crisis in 2008. In the last years the majority of NATO member states cut their defense spending, several by more than 10 percent. At present, no other European member would be in a position, or has the military or technological ability, with exception of perhaps Great Britain[10], to wage modern warfare as it is modelled by the USA.[11] As a result of the financial crisis, at most, a handful of European states (Germany, Great Britain, Poland, France, Italy and Turkey) might be in a position to upkeep a broad spectrum of military abilities.[12] But emerging markets are now spending more on defense than ever before. Countries such as China, Brazil and India have doubled or even tripled their defense spending during the past two decades, with an eye toward better protection of their assets, especially the shipping lanes, ports and maritime boundaries that are critical to exports and supply chains.[13] Nevertheless it is also important to mention that while defense spending for the region is growing, the scale and pace varies significantly from country to country.[14] Also the strength of the militaries of countries in maritime Asia varies significantly.[15]

However Asia’s growth is not guaranteed and the Asian Century is not preordained. There is no common “Asian” culture or approach to business. The culture in Southeast Asia is very diverse and the region consists of many, widely diverse cultures with long histories and very little in common between them.[16] The countries will have to manage huge multiple risks and challenges. There is for example a growing inequality within countries. This could undermine social cohesion and stability. In this context it is likely that many Asian countries will not be able to make the necessary investments in infrastructure, education and government policies that would help them avoid the Middle Income Trap. Also there is intense competition for finite natural resources, such as land, water, fuel or food and the problem of rampant corruption, in nearly every Asian government.[17] The aging population can have a direct influence on the continuous economic development of Asian countries, too.[18]

In addition there are also opinions proceeding on the assumption that Southeast Asian resources like oil reserves are constantly decreasing.[19] While it cannot be deemed valid that there will be an Asian or a Pacific century, respectively, it is rather safe to say that in the 21st century there will be a multipolar worldwide balance of forces and the global course will be set more and more in Asia, too. In this populous dynamic and increasingly important region of the world, at the beginning of the 21st century, in the prevalent weight of powers it is all about ensuring a significantly new shape by restructuring a pattern of powers.[20] Besides China and India countries of the Indo-Pacific region like Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines also, are running as the future Top 10 candidates of the largest economies in the world.[21] President Obama also underlined that view when he said the following in November 2011: “Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress.”[22] Therefore the reorientation of US foreign affairs towards the Pacific and Southeast Asian region must be understood primarily as the seizure of American interests in the sense of their global claim to shape policies.

Most frequently argued is the rise of China and the challenge of American dominance, as being certainly one of the determinant factors. Especially in the center of the Indo-Pacific region with the Strait of Malakka and the South China Sea, US and Indian interests collide with those of China, and with economically and demographically emerging neighboring states . [23] U.S. policymakers are certainly aware of China’s economic rise and its growing military power, but the rebalance has also been driven by a much broader set of strategic, economic, and political considerations. As noticed, Northeast, Southeast, and South Asia are parts of the world that will be of growing strategic and economic importance in the first half of the 21st century. In geostrategic terms, the rebalance is part of the Obama administration’s grand strategy for U.S. foreign policy.[24]

3. The American “Pivot” Strategy in a risky and complex Environment

On the 5 January 2012 as President Obama entered the press room, the entire military leadership of the country, with exception of a few, gathered behind him. This underlined the significance of this short but important speech, in which the president announced his new strategy for the United States of America.[25] Hillary Clinton had already announced the new strategy in the November 2011 issue of the US Magazine “Foreign policy. The foreign minister made it clear in the article that America would be present and remain present in the Asian pacific region over the next 60 years. Clinton's article emphasizes the importance of the Asia-Pacific, noting that nearly half of the world's population resides there, making its development vital to American economic and strategic interests. She states that "open markets in Asia provide the United States with unprecedented opportunities for investment, trade, and access to cutting-edge technology. The American economic recovery will depend on exports and the ability of American firms to tap into the vast and growing consumer base of Asia.[26] The source of this shift in American interest can be traced back to Georg W Bush´s term in office. It includes amongst others the fundamental re-evaluation of this region following 11. September 2001. In their effort on the war against terrorism the administration identified a whole row of instable countries “arching” from Caucasus all the way to central Asia. The former defence minister Donald Rumsfeld made it clear that America should be in a position to support befriended countries anywhere in the world.[27] This even led to the development of a concept with which the USA could control this “crisis arch” in Asia.[28] For that reason the United States under President George W. Bush began strengthening relations with existing allies in Asia, began moving toward a more flexible and sustainable troop presence in the region, concluded a free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea and forged new partnerships with India and Vietnam.[29] So much of the “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific is a continuation and expansion of policies already undertaken by previous administrations, as well as earlier in President Obama’s term.

According to Clinton, the 'pivot' strategy or the pivot’s main goals of Obama’s administration will proceed along six courses of action: strengthening bilateral security alliances, deepening America's relationships with rising powers, including China, engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment, forging a broad-based military presence and advancing values like democracy and human rights.[30] In March 2013, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon repeated in detail what the US is trying to achieve in Asia, especially in five specific areas: Strengthening alliances, deepening partnerships with emerging powers, Building a stable, productive and constructive relationship with China, empowering regional institutions and helping to build a regional economic architecture.[31] The policy document “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” also reaffirmed that the US has vital interests in East Asia and is therefore determined to continue to play a prominent role in shaping the future of the region.[32] Clinton's and Donilon’s remarks were translated into official policy at the start of 2012, as the Obama administration outlined a new China-centric military strategy.[33] President Barack Obama also toured various countries in recent years, bolster security alliances and work on a new trade bloc called the Trans-Pacific Partnership that involves the United States and 11 other countries, but does not currently include China.[34]

In the following not each bilateral, diplomatic effort that the US has undertaken with individual countries in the region can be listed. Following a brief outline, the studies presented below will be curtailed to Vietnam – by way of example - as a new aim of increased efforts on the part of the USA as well as to Japan, being the “classic” ally of the USA in the Pacific, and also to India as a special case. The Philippines, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore supported a greater U.S. presence in the region, especially because these states are embroiled in territorial and security disputes. Australia and New Zealand also have welcomed the U.S. rebalance policy, though both have taken pains to avoid upsetting China and their important economic ties with Beijing. Many other key countries in the region – including India, Vietnam[35] and Burma – have taken significant steps to improve relations with the United States in recent years. Although governments in these countries have been careful to preserve their close economic ties with China and to avoid offending the region’s rising power, they have taken a few steps closer to the world’s preeminent superpower and its influence, hoping of a positive and stabilizing influence of the United States in the region partly because of a rising and increasingly assertive China.[36] The ongoing and increasingly tense South China Sea dispute with the People's Republic of China, has strengthened the relations between Vietnam and the U.S.[37] In 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for the first time since the Vietnam War, called for a US – Vietnamese strategic partnership and in 2011, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation.[38] In August 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense and Vietnam's Ministry of Defense held the first round of high-level defense talks, known as the Defense Policy Dialogue.[39] The U.S. Navy also is holding annual exercises with the Vietnamese navy now and – according to a top official – the U.S. Coast Guard has repeatedly helped protect Vietnamese fishing vessels from China.[40] In October 2013, the United States and Vietnam signed a pact allowing for the transfer of nuclear fuel and technology from the U.S. to Vietnam[41] and as another clear sigh of deeper cooperation and diplomatic ties, the United States also approved a relaxation of its arms embargo on Vietnam In early October 2014 that has been in place since 1984.[42]

Another important country, and one of the “old guard” of Americas presence in the Pacific region is Japan. The country is one key and pivotal ally of the U.S. in the region and has historically very close ties with the United States. Since the late 1990s and beyond the US-Japan relationship had been improved and strengthened[43], despite that some in Japans politics want to see a greater independence from U.S. policies.[44] Despite it is a “classic ally” of the US, the country is a major area of engagement for the East Asian foreign policy of the Obama Administration. In her inaugural tour of East Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reassured Japanese officials of Japan's centrality in the network of American alliances.[45] A famous example for this is the response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. After that the United States initiated Operation Tomodachi to support Japan in disaster relief.[46] Also that fact that, as of 2014, the United States had 50,000 troops in Japan, including the headquarters of the US 7th Fleet and more than 10,000 Marines, underscores the vital importance the country has for the US.[47]

Another country will be crucial to the success of “pivot” in many experts‘ view and in the view of the author, regarding the future strategic and economic organization of the region, and that is India. President Barack Obama’s visit to India on January 25-27, 2015 renewed India’s place as a centerpiece of the “pivot” to Asia. Moving ahead with long-pending strategic deals and defense co-development, underscores the new cooperative spirit between the two countries.[48] Though not noted on the joint statement by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama, the visit also resulted in the revelation of more than a few straightup hardware deals, including the joint production of parts and systems of the Lockheed C130 (which India operates), and RQ11 Raven drones.[49] On economics, the joint statement ticked all the usual points, promising increased trade and investment opportunities and the statement also notes later that “India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and the United States’ rebalance to Asia provide opportunities for India, the United States, and other Asia-Pacific countries to work closely to strengthen regional ties, the Leaders announced a Joint Strategic Vision to guide their engagement in the region.”[50] Of course there are also benefits for India from a more closely relationship with the US and a greater American influence in the region. For example stability in channels of Goods Trade, access to America’s Strategic Technologies and the ability to influence American Foreign Policy just to mention three.[51] Overall, this visit is a strong indicator that the U.S. is trying to improve and strengthen its ties with India and it can be stated that recent bilateral diplomacy between the United States and India is indicative of a long-term convergence.[52] In this connection it needs to be mentioned that the American orientation towards India has triggered a change in regard to the strategic alignment of the region which will continue. Among other things this must be seen in connection with the India-Pakistan conflict. Both countries waged four wars in less than 60 years, still considering each other as “archnemesis”. Specific disputes are mainly about the territorial status of the Kashmir region but also about resources like water. It is impossible to detach security in India from developments in Pakistan. Also long-term stability in Afghanistan will necessarily depend on India-Pakistan normalization and stability in South Asia. While the USA are working on deeper relationships to India, while Pakistan’s orientation on the other hand is towards China all the more, with whom it has been conducting a long partnership.[53] By way of the latest developments, however, Pakistan is opening a new power political projection surface to Russia in the region as well.[54]


[1] Seidler, 2013; 2.

[2] Cf. to this Pilny, 2008.

[3] Cf. Australian Government, 2012: 74.

[4] The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and The Center for Strategic and International Studies: 18 Maps that explain Maritime Security in Asia, 2015.

[5] Cf. Ablett; Erdmann, 2013.

[6] Guidetti, 2012.

[7] Cf. Asian Development Bank, 2014

[8] Mahbubani, 2008: 51–99.

[9] Asian Development Bank, 2011

[10] Cf. to this: articles on the new drone of BAE-Systems by Zach Rosenberg and Robert Johnson.

[11] Ziesemer, 2010: 80.

[12] Cf. Barry; Binnendijk, 2012: 4.

[13] Cf. to this Shams, 2014.

[14] Dowdy; Chinn; Mancini; Ng: 6

[15] The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and The Center for Strategic and International Studies: 18 Maps that explain Maritime Security in Asia, 2015.

[16] Cf. to this: Osborne, 2010.

[17] Asian Development Bank, 2011.

[18] Park; Shin, 2011.

[19] Cf. e.g. Statista: Erdölreserven in Südostasien von 1990 bis 2008 (in Millionen Tonnen)

[20] Sommer, 2014.

[21] Seidler, 2013; 2.

[22] The White House, Office of the Press Secretary: Remarks By President Obama to the Australian Parliament, 2011

[23] Seidler, 2013: 7 und Patrick, 2011.

[24] Sutter; Brown; Adamson, 2013: 1.

[25] Cf. Borkenhagen; Ehrhardt; Kästner; u.a., 2012: 5.

[26] Cf. Clinton, 2011.

[27] Cf. Dembinski, 2006: 21.

[28] Cf. to this Berman, 2004: 59-69.

[29] Dolven; Daggett; Manyin, 2012.

[30] Clinton, 2011.

[31] Donilon, 2013; Cf. also to the goals of the pivot: Andrews; Campbell, 2013.

[32] Cf. US Department of Defence, 2012.

[33] Barboza, 2012.

[34] Patrick, 2011, Sutter; Brown; Adamson, 2013: 2

[35] Cf. Mohan, 2013; Wong, 2013.

[36] Sutter; Brown; Adamson, 2013: 2f.

[37] Cf. to this Ungaro, 2012: 6f.

[38] Ross, 2012

[39] Cf. Perlez, 2012.

[40] Shinkman, 2013.

[41] Favole, 2013.

[42] US to partially lift Vietnam arms embargo, BBC, 2014.

[43] Cf. Stewart, 2015.

[44] Pessin, 2009.

[45] Alford, 2009.

[46] Dilanian, 2011.

[47] Advanced US drones deployed in Japan to keep watch on China, North Korea, The Japan News.Net, 2014.

[48] Cf. US Department of Defence, 2015; Hagel Welcomes New Defense Cooperation with India, 2015.

[49] Panda, 2015.

[50] a) The White House, 2015: 3rd paragraph

[51] Rossow, 2015.

[52] Pant, 2015.

[53] Cf. Tiezzi, 2015; Krishnan, 2015.

[54] Craig, 2015.

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The American “Pivot” to Asia. Military and Political Challenges and Implications for the US and Pacific-Asia
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (Institut für Politische Wissenschaft)
Mastercourse: American Conflict and Crisis Management in the 21st Century
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american, pivot”, asia, military, political, challenges, implications, pacific-asia
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Christian Rucker (Author), 2015, The American “Pivot” to Asia. Military and Political Challenges and Implications for the US and Pacific-Asia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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