ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Signs of a new push in US pivot to Asia
Publication Date : 28-08-2013
Nearly two years after the United States announced its 'rebalancing" strategy towards the Asia-Pacific, there are hints that a new phase of the widely debated strategy might be under way.
Since March, US officials have been emphasising their intention to rebalance within Asia, going beyond merely shifting resources and attention from Iraq and Afghanistan towards the Pacific region in general, as outlined in the original policy.
This new push will specifically see Washington increase its security, economic and diplomatic collaboration with South-east Asia, a region where the US is "especially underweighted", according to former US national security adviser Tom Donilon.
On Sunday, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel gave the most detailed outline yet of this move, particularly on the security front.
Addressing a gathering of top defence officials at Malaysia's Institute of Defence and Security in Kuala Lumpur, he announced that the Pentagon is seeking a 50 per cent increase in its funding to support foreign militaries and training in Southeast Asia.
He also spoke at length about the US roping in more regional countries, including Malaysia, in its military exercises.
And in remarks sure to get Beijing's attention, Hagel noted that Washington could sell more weapons and further share military expertise with Asean countries, with the eventual goal of "moving towards co-production and co-development of new platforms with our closest partners".
"This will allow us to share American technology and expertise which will further deepen our security partnerships," he added. "We are currently working with Japan and Singapore on these kinds of initiatives, and we are looking to expand this important engagement with other countries in the region."
He gave no further details on the kind of new weapon systems the US might co-develop with the region and which new Asean country it might rope in. Singapore and Japan are involved in America's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme as "security cooperation participants", which gives them access to data and permission to request special studies.
From Kuala Lumpur, Hagel travelled to Jakarta where he demonstrated that his remarks about closer security cooperation with Asean weren't throwaway lines in a long speech. With his Indonesian counterpart Purnomo Yusgiantoro by his side, Mr Hagel announced that the US will, for the first time, sell a fleet of eight Apache attack helicopters to Indonesia. The US$500 million deal comes about two years after the US agreed to provide Indonesia with 24 refurbished F-16 jets.
"Providing Indonesia these world-class helicopters is an example of our commitment to help build Indonesia's military capability," said Hagel.
Prior to his visit to South-east Asia this week, Washington and Manila have also been talking up the prospects of expanding the US military presence in the Philippines, citing the need to help maintain freedom of navigation in the region. This rebalancing within Asia, or a "pivot within the Asia pivot policy" as some have called it, will be welcome by most Asean countries, even if many of the same doubts surrounding the original policy will remain.
For one thing, can Washington sustain its focus in South-east Asia while Egypt and Syria descend further into chaos? Second, can the Pentagon maintain its ambitious engagement programmes given the deep cuts to its budget over the next decade?
These anxieties won't be fully addressed any time soon. Meanwhile, this purported new phase of the US rebalancing strategy raises interesting new questions as well.
The obvious one is whether the increased emphasis on Southeast Asia would entail a strategic scale-back in military assets based in Japan and South Korea, where the bulk of US forces in the region are located.
Hagel and Donilon have given assurances on separate occasions that America's alliances with South Korea and Japan remain the "cornerstones" of its regional security policy. But it's no secret either that US military bases in both East Asian countries have become political headaches with no easy relief in sight.
If more Southeast Asian countries can be persuaded to host US troops and military assets on a rotational basis, it might yet provide Washington with a compromise solution via the well-known "places, not bases" strategy. Under this strategy, the US merely seeks access to the host country's naval facilities, for example, instead of running a full-fledged base.
The Philippines, which hosted major US military facilities until the early 1990s, is an obvious option. Washington's warming relations with Myanmar and Vietnam make for interesting possibilities in the future.
The rebalancing within Asia "could mean certain reductions there or enhancements elsewhere, because the US presence needs to be politically sustainable, and dispersed in an age of high-tech weaponry", said Douglas Paal, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think-tank.
But, he added, given the tension in North-east Asia, such as over North Korea's nuclear programme, he "would not expect significant drawdowns there, despite the rhetorical emphasis on Southeast Asia".
A bigger question is whether the growing militarisation of South-east Asia is necessarily a good thing. While a legitimate argument can be made for the upgrading of the region's less advanced militaries, such as the Philippine and Indonesian armed forces, a sharp influx of new weaponry will only heighten concerns about the already tense territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving China and several Southeast Asian claimant states.
Others, however, will argue that this is the inevitable response to an increasingly powerful and assertive Chinese military.