US Pivot and Rising Security Dilemma in South East Asia

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2018

11 Pages, Grade: 3.00


Why the Pivot?

The global politics and global strategic dynamics during the era of Cold war left two players in the international arena in the 20th century i.e. USA and USSR (latter broken into Russia). These two power controlled majority of the geostrategic choke points of the world until 1990’s. The aim to control communism and projecting US to be the only actor capable of a global leadership left USA focused and fixated on the region of East Europe and Central Asia. The soviet invasion during 1980’s concentrated US efforts and military projections in Afghanistan and Central Asian states. At the very start of 21st century the USA was struck in its homeland on 9/11, the new approach focused primarily on winning the war in Afghanistan against non-state actors with enlisting the help of state actors such as Pakistan. After half a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq the US policy makers and strategic analysts realized that the untapped economies of South East Asia presented a more risk free and viable investment than the military expeditions they had so eagerly supported on earlier.

When President Barack Obama took the seat in 2009 he emphasized on the importance of US relations in the South East Asian Economies. The ‘Pivot to Asia’ was probably the single policy change in the US history that changed the course of politics globally, the national US policy took a shift from Europe to Asia and specifically towards the region of South East Asia. This policy led to substantial decrease in the military deployments by us military in Middle East and South Asia. Nicholas Spykman’s theory of the ‘rim-land states’[1] was kept in mind by the analysts when devising the policy regulating the US alliance in the region, the 21st century saw a shift from traditional war towards the economic paradigms that will regulate and control the international order. Obama didn’t get the Asia he was hoping for, instead he was faced to deal with a region that needed immediate financial aids, health care reforms and policies for tacking climate change. Obama was the first Pres. that shifted the focus from deploying military towards engaging the states in an economic order, the former Pres. Bush had military ties with Guam and Japan where they deployed significant naval resources and weapons system to keep a check on the emergence of China and North Korea, during the conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq about 60% of the US naval submarines were deployed in the Asia region[2].

There is no formal document that highlights the drastic policy change or even mentions it, however it was a general trend that was observed by the policy makers and global analysts working in close consideration of the US policies that a set of polices was observed to have come into play that consisted of engaging China directly, balance the alliance with Japan, evaluate and address the North Korean problem and revise the free trade policies. USA adopted what is known as ‘forward deployment diplomacy’ set of policies that focuses on the strong economic, political, diplomatic and secure environment umbrella for all the states under it. The final aim was to integrate the South East Asian economies into the American markets and vice versa.

Obama had the vision of creating a new environment cooperative enough to have strong alliance with Beijing and encourage them to work at par with USA towards addressing common global issues. This sketched out a new approach of ‘ G2 ’ in which USA and China work together in collective goals. US continued to work on a strong alliance system in South East Asia with Japan and showing interests in solving the North Korea in a series of bilateral diplomatic talks. However China had its own ambitions in the region those not particularly in common interest of USA, the East and South China Sea territorial disputes over a number of small islands.

Broader aspects in the region

The trade between the two regions isn’t new, the trade figures between USA and China have been booming for the past two decades, the pivot brought new trends into the existing pacts and assured a more secure form of trade. Obama wanted to make this claim when dealing with the Chinese that unlike his successor the obsessions in the Middle East and the global agenda to promote democratization and war on terror were over. A strong and sustainable economy was the first priority for USA now and they would like if China would be an integral part of this new paradigm to create new ‘economic opportunities’ in the region, the most concrete step taken by Us was the Trans- Pacific Treaty (TPP) which enlists a no. of states including China, Japan Chile, Laos and Cambodia, this treaty entails the terms of trade between these states with USA and within the region also.

Like we discussed earlier, the economies of South East Asia have been gaining momentum since the end of 20th century, the largely spill over democratic transitions paved way for the US to better project its ambitions and aims in terms that can be accepted by these new emerging economies. These economies were more diverse and had the potential to further develop into valuable assets for the American economy over the years to come, the example of Asian Tigers states that consisted of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand further encouraged US to pay more close attention in developing economic and somewhat military ties with these states. The broader region of South East Asia packs an enormous amount of resources and geostrategic significance in the eyes of US. These states border most of the Chinese blue water territories and present great strategic opportunities for the US led alliance system. The ASEAN forum has provided a golden opportunity for US to interact with the states, US is the only non-member of the ASEAN that continues a yearly mission along with hosting a full time ambassador in the forum. For ASEAN to be successful it needs a tremendous amount of internal and external backing for both regional and super powers, the US exports to ASEAN states is ever growing significantly. The volume of exports from US to ASEAN is the same as China and four times that of India. ASEAN states are also a favorite spot for the US MNC’s, the direct FDI in this region is accounted to $99 billion in 2006 and reached $181 billion in 2011.[3] With the free trade liberalization and growing industry the ASEAN is very favorable to US in the near future. Secondly the ASEAN trade under the umbrella of US economy will help balance the power dynamics of China and India in the region, individually these states are not so much important players in the economic system but collectively they make up a strong ally economically for the US.

Apart from ASEAN the regions in the blue waters of China have been serving as a valuable asset for the US to develop its presence in the region, these regions consist of Taiwan, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore. All of these states have somehow one way or the other been a part of the economic and military deals with USA in the recent years. These states are strategically positioned in such a way that they surround the major shipping lanes and the territorial waters on the borders of China. Recently, the status of these countries depends largely on the relations with USA, relations with China and their internal political setups that determine the divergence of their policies when it comes to their official stance of rising China and US influence in the region. These states behave as Hedgers, Balancers or as Bandwagoners.

US has an increased interest in the monitoring of these regions especially after the East and South China territorial disputes of the water boundaries regarding the EEZ zone in the recent years.

The Presence of China

“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world,”

Napoleon’s words seem spookily veracious today, as the shock waves from China’s awakening echo around the globe.

During the past few decades China has grown into one of the most notable global influencer. Whether it be economy, public health, security, trade or cultural affiliations the Chinese diplomatic shadow has been increasing especially in the Asia and South Asia region. China has been maintaining a very active foreign policy in the region, unlike its global competitor China has keeping its approach more economy oriented and less military influenced. China has don’t tremendous working on its image building by securing the notion of a state having economic and security interest of the region with no military persuasion or intervention at least. This positive agenda has brought somewhat good yields in the terms of trade liberalization and security interests of the states not being altered by interacting with a regional super power. Ever since the Asian giant got integrated in the global economic system it has been spreading its influence in the region with huge economical grants and aids to the states granted by their governments. Half a century ago China was battling the most down tided time in their economy, ever since they recovered in 1950’s the country has been exploding its economy with a GDP growth rate of 6.8% per year making her the second biggest economy of the world[4]. The most notorious economic development led to the rise of China, which affected the global trends which up till 1950’s had mostly stayed West oriented. China has been using this perk as an ultimate way to get the attention of global institutions and states beyond its borders .if we talk about the regional influence of China over the years it has been growing exponentially to the status of challenging the power alliance system of the US that has been maintained for the past 5 decades, economically China has succeeded in creating a new status quo of states that are more inclined towards the Sino led economic order rather than the fiery US led economic block. In the realist system the power of a state is defined by how much it can influence another state to take steps it would not have otherwise considered. China is no exception, with increasing power it needs to keep the national interest in play and expand power beyond its borders – which is exactly what it has been doing in the region of South East Asia. This has created a nexus of states which are divided to choose from the US dominated security paradigm or the Chinese led economic environment.

Geographically China is in a much more strong position in asserting its influence over the region than its counter power, 21st century marked the multi-dimensional cooperation of China with extensive bi-lateral and multi-lateral alliance and cooperation with all the South Asian countries including Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, Maldives and Sri Lanka and the blue water states of Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. In order to curb the looming worry some issues of US influence in the regions of South China Sea extensive trade deals and economic proposals have been under the agenda of the Chinese. The blue waters surrounding China have been used by both the powers to their influential gains, with China being on the front foot by leading the situation and US seems to be on back foot because of a historical and geographical tilt of the states towards with the exception of a few states i.e. Japan, Vietnam and Taiwan which have been active members of the US security deals and weapons development an area in which Chinese have not been able to change the existing order of the West oriented status quo. Instead of countering the military presence China has been developing the economic ties with the states that at some extent minimize the need for security from non-regional state actors. The initiation of CPEC in this regard is ground breaking development towards an economic sustainable region that prioritizes trade over security. This ambitious effort opens up the economy of China to attain oil and gas to feed the resource hungry economy of the regional giant. “One Belt, One Road” strategy, is expected to relieve China of the “Malacca dilemma”, what then President Hu Jintao in 2003 called China’s overreliance on the Malacca Strait for trade[5]. The peaceful rise of China has been dubbed as a more tangible factor that has been accepted by most states resulting in the swift power gains, unlike most states that held power by plundering states for their resources, colonizing and using military means to make states submit. Whereas economic prosperity and political stability remain at large the driving factor for China’s internal and external behavior the clash with US for the role of global power holder is inevitable in the near future. Up till now the rise has been perceived as peaceful by the states in the region, this might not be the situation in the future as the lines grow thinner concerning the security and economic versatility of the states with a declining US influence the general perception might shift followed by a somewhat aggressive approach by the Asian Dragon.

Territorial Disputes & US stakes in South China Sea

The boundary lines drawn originally came from the colonial rule of Dutch, British and French in the 19th and early 20th century, after the era of colonialism ended the limits of their colonial masters were identified as the existing borders of the newly independent states. As we can see from the map the water bodies were not given much significance since the law from territorial water bodies came into being in the late 20th century. The emergence of new states brought disputes regarding the water boundaries, the boundaries demarcated back then were vague at very best.

Just like any other region of the world associated with superpowers conflicts also exist in South East Asia primarily in the region of South China Sea, over the past few years these disputes have gained attention of the regional and international forums which have been pressurizing China to solve them before they start posing a security threat to the entire region. However, the nature of these territorial disputes is mostly analyzed as any dispute in the other regions of the world. The character of South China Sea is different from others in a sense that it involves disputes over hundreds of small islets that potentially contain natural resources in abundance claimed by a sizeable number of the states that have adjoining sea boundaries with China. Together are at least six states that majorly claim the rights of ownership to these islands involving: China, Taiwan, Brunei Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. All of these states are also members of the ASEAN, and they all claim the infiltration of Chinese ships inside their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) that overlap with China’s nine dash line.

Apart from the regional fears most of South China Sea is dominated by the regional dominant power and that involves high stakes for the US in the dispute.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Over the years we have seen that China gained the role of a regional power and is now contesting for the role of a global leader challenging USA’s hierarchy, South China Sea still remains an area of most volatile competition between the two powers. US has allies in the region with its defense treaties and perceives the growing influence of Chinese as a threat to its national interests in the region, US sends ships throughout the South china Sea and views the waters are strategically important to limit the growth of China, on the other hand Chinese aim dominance over this region to better project its image as the regional super power and for that they need to minimize the presence of US security aids and treats.

Earlier this year Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented on the situation of South China Sea, he said that US should “send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed[6].” James Mattis, Trump’s defense secretary nominee, was more circumspect in his remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He identified defense of so-called “international waters” as the “bottom line” for the US, suggesting the US would defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea[7].

China perceives the presence of naval elements of USA as a security threat to its national interests and they claim that those ships are there only to prevent the peaceful rise of China at a global level. The Chinese regularly censure USA for meddling in the waters it has nothing to do with, many US analysts also keep this view that US should abstain from over-extending its approach in sensitive areas which was exactly the scenario that led Japan to attack Pearl Harbor as a retaliation. US has high stakes in the region firstly because of their defense treaties in the region and secondly it contests the values of liberal rules order that it has been trying to imply globally since the pacific war.

Moreover the EEZ discussed earlier is the right of every state in the region but Chinese prominently dismiss the fact based on the historical claims that these waters were occupied forcefully under the colonial rule. Chinese have been actively building structures in the area of Spratly Islands, they have been engaged in militarizing the area and are increasing the territories by dredging sand from the ocean floor. Chinese have been able to build three airfields that can easily support military aircrafts and large cargo planes, with this development China has easily strengthened its position over the SCS creating geopolitical consequences for the US. UNCLO’s (United Nations Convention on the Laws of Sea) are a set of laws that must be obeyed and respected by all nations as a part of the members of UN, however the recent advancements of Chinese in the South China Sea have undermined these global values. Which has not been seated well with the interests of USA and its coalition system. The states under the security umbrella of West have urged their protectors to increase the terms of their defense deals in order to give them leverage against the rising supremacy of Sino led progressions.

Rising Security Dilemma in South East Asia

Going back to the basics we need to see what the US Pivot has yielded in the past 18 years, the initial aim of pivot was to increase the economical integration of South Asia states and introduce the untapped markets into the global arena. It’s impossible to calculate the success of foreign policy’s legacy of Obama until he has left office for long, but its fair and share to say that the ‘Pivot’ was the greatest mistake of Obama’s legacy. It was supposed to cut down the spending of US in the costly wars of Middle East and provide a risk free alternative to keep the global power in play, unfortunately it was never done fully. US was pretty active in the initial years after the pivot but gradually left many loopholes in the completion, where it was able to minimize its spending on wars it also neglected the fact that the gradual rise of China needed the most attention than anything else in the Pivot. US was able to increase the trade and economic aspects of the policy but failed to keep a check and balance on the regional growth of PRC. It wasn’t until too late that they realized they themselves were the ones that contributed the most towards the Asian Giant emergence. Taking their flawed policies towards South East Asia they not only created more implications for themselves but also were responsible for allowing Middle East and Europe into further chaos by neglecting them.

In an attempt to increase their interactions in South East Asia by introducing new diplomatic initiatives they made the entire scheme seem to Beijing as an effort to contain them militarily. This led China to be more aggressive in their influence undoing the over-all serenity that existed before 2008 over the region to counter the American stimulus.

Military direction being the only way US deemed fruitful to integrate the South Asian States created more problems for them than what they initially thought of, what they did was induce a risk of uncertainty in the mind of Beijing that the main aim of this pivot is to encircle China and its national interests in the region and avert the rise of another power that could challenge them in the future. Over the years we have observed that China has grown more and more aggressive when it comes to the US influence in the region. The Chinese enlisted help of North Korea under the circumstances to counter American dominance in the Korean Peninsula and the tensions have been increasing ever since. While the rest of the world has been looking forward to cut down its military expenditures and focus more on the economy the south East Asian states have been doing the complete opposite. Total defense spending of ASEAN states doubled over the last 15 years in absolute terms, with countries like Indonesia and Thailand witnessing military expenditure growth rates of 10 per cent on a year-by-year basis[8]. The tight geographical linkages with China has resulted in weapons procurements to hike in the history of the south east Asian states, Hanoi a relatively small state has moved to the top 10 buyer of weapons from 43rd in the region. There is a growing sense of fear among the US dependent states that the rise of China and a possible backing out of US from the region will leave them at complete mercy of Beijing’s ambitions which has turned out in the immense purchases of weapons and technology to protect their national interests. States have moved towards a move of deterrence by procuring weapons which in turn fuel the doubts of Beijing that US wants a military solution to their rise and they need to increase their defense spending to keep hold of the region.

Most of these trends have been gazed by the experts as the initiation of an arms race in the South East Asia, for a small state like Vietnam the buying of six Russian submarines indicates that situation is indeed getting towards a dangerous paradigm in the South China Sea[9]. Similarly the ASEAN states have started increasing their defense budgets by almost 10% yearly[10]. Many of the state’s forces are going towards angling from protecting against internal threats to countering external threats in the region and protection of the borders and its sovereign waters. Southeast Asia is also marred by the ongoing militarization of regional conflicts (such as in the South China Sea), coupled with national strategic beliefs that perceive military weakness as harmful to national security. Domestic factors also come into play here: Thailand drastically boosted its defense spending after the military coups of 2006 and 2014, and Myanmar has pointed to the multitude of armed insurgent groups inside the country to legitimize recent spikes in its defense spending. New trends in arms spending are increasing mutual distrust about the intentions and power ambitions of USA and China. This distrust is deepened by a lack of effective arms control and transparency mechanisms. There is no regional agreement on arms control, and numerous states in the region have repeatedly circumvented international agreements such as the UN Register of Conventional Arms or the Arms Trade Treaty.

It didn’t have to be this way. One obvious chance for a different approach was China’s invitation for the United States to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The United States refused to participate and even objected to the U.K. joining the AIIB. As Leland Lazarus explained for The Diplomat, this decision was an enormous error[11]. If the United States had pursued the Trans-Pacific Partnership by publicly emphasizing it hoped China would one day join while also joining the AIIB, the entire perception of any pivot in Beijing would have been radically different. Instead of appearing to be a strategy to undermine China it would simply appear to be an effort to take full advantage of the economic opportunities presented by Asia’s dynamic economic growth. Instead, the United States chose a path that heightened military tensions and missed out on economic opportunities and hence create an environment of grave concerns of its real intentions sparking the commencement of arms race. In general, it’s should be noted that the holistic regional trend of rising arms purchases and defense spending has increased in the past few years in all of the South East Asian states. However the chance of a region wide conflicts sprouting seems dreary at this moment the tensions have been rising as states participate in the South China Sea on the basis of military gains. Moreover the boom in military spending’s is directly related to the extent of internal security risks, especially in the case of Philippines and Indonesia. A variety of arms trends can be seen within the current arms race where the states have been focusing more on the protection of their national borders in the region whereas formerly they were focused on domestic counter-insurgency and protecting the nation’s borders. One other reason for the change in the region’s arms dynamics is the transformation of the immediate strategic environment. For various Southeast Asian states, humiliation over China's inexorably forceful conduct in the South China Sea – joined with the vulnerability over what precisely Beijing's geostrategic aspirations in East Asia may be this has specifically impacted the choice to modernize and redesign their military forces.


The US pivot whereas aimed at creating an international acceptable approach of American values in terms of economy and trade didn’t quite accomplish its true goal over the years, the reason for failure was mainly because of the indulgence of US military in the region. US incorporated itself in the economic zone partially which led China to use the opportunity and gain momentum in its economic capabilities to the extent of attaining the status of a regional super power. Many claim that the US pivot was indeed the biggest mistake of US foreign Policy under the Obama administration, this was the same reason that led to peaceful rise of China under the US economic integration that didn’t actually help the US economy as much as it did for Chinese. Another perspective was that the rise of China doesn’t sit well with the national interests of the American’s as they continue to struggle in the broader South East Asian region to gain dominance over the region and at the same time observe and limit the rapidly growing influence of China. The area of South East Asia is diverse and strategically pose a greater difficulty in tackling as it’s mainly based on water bodies over which the Sino dominance is considerable, the presence of US military in order to keep a balance in the region has been taken hostilely by Beijing resulting in an aggressive military approach towards gaining dominance over the South China Sea and drive USA out of the region.

The other states thus caught between this dilemmas have been forced to take actions of their own to protect their national interests in a scenario where US might budge out of the region and China is left as the sole power in the region. This situation has resulted in a ‘security dilemma’ scenario where the smaller states are revamping their military capabilities seeing the actions of Beijing- which is acting purely in reaction to the US presence in the region. We might say that there is an arms race going on in South East Asia which further increases the volatility of relations between the regional and non-regional actors playing for their interests.

Taking a wide analysis of this situation we can see that the American stakes are significantly more at risk as compared to those of Chinese, the reason being that USA is a non-regional actor in this case and the states are more inclined towards the Chinese outlook as it represents a safer option in the future. The US pivot has up till now failed to grasp the reality of the situation and as usual the US wants to solve this with military which has further deteriorated the situation. Their incomplete economic ambitions have led to the rise of China and there’s little US can do to control them especially after the withdrawal of Japan from completely aligning with US interests and focusing more on the regional alliance. China on the other hand has its stakes in the region since they are trying to project their power peacefully if USA bails out of the region. China has been growing as regional power of its own and now wants to take on the role as a global super power challenging the status quo thus maintained by US since 1940’s. however the recent developments in the South China Sea have raised questions about whether China will always remain peaceful as it claims. These two power have been contesting each other but when we talk about South East Asia we can see that the Chinese have been more tangible and successful in gaining the support of states because of their major economic motivations, whereas US military ambitions have been taken as a doubtful choice in the long run regarding the security of states.

We have seen the trends that no single state can hold the global power for more than a century and eventually it is replaced by another, maybe it’s time that the role of US in the international arena is over and China is to emerge as a new global power. However the change in the status quo has always been marked with a violent transition with states waging wars against each other, in the 21st century nevertheless the dynamics have changed to the extent that a major power clash is not that possible as it used to be a century ago. Looking at future we might see a dynamic change in the power balance as China and US contest for the global dominance, the disputes in the region of South East Asia don’t seem to carry on for long before states resolve to more peaceful means and pave way for a new global power to emerge.

External links

file:///C:/Users/xaifk/Downloads/Pivot_Southeast_Asia_Paper%20(3)%20(1).pdf!/conflict/territorial-disputes-in-the-south-china-sea / v451640


[2] Ross, Robert (November–December 2012). "The Problem with the Pivot: Obama's New Asia Policy Is Unnecessary and Counterproductive". Foreign Affairs. 91 (6): 70–82










Excerpt out of 11 pages


US Pivot and Rising Security Dilemma in South East Asia
Bahria University
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
pivot, rising, security, dilemma, south, east, asia
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Naufil Amir (Author), 2018, US Pivot and Rising Security Dilemma in South East Asia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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