Obama’s Pacific Innovations
Washington changes its strategy in the Pacific Rim
Now half way through his presidential term Barack Obama is beginning to revise U.S. policy in the Pacific Rim. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Asian tour, which started on October 27 and took in the Association of South-East Asia Nations (ASEAN) summit in Hanoi (Vietnam), Hainan Island (People’s Republic of China), Cambodia, Malaysia, Papua-New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia, is part of this initiative. On November 6, President Barack Obama himself toured the Pacific Rim, visiting India and Indonesia. The G20 summit in Seoul (South Korea) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Yokohama (Japan) brought the curtain down on the president’s tour of the region.
These visits were intended to demonstrate the Pacific Rim’s growing role in U.S. foreign policy. In each capital they visited, the American guests focused on U.S. relations with the host country. But the talks’ overall message remained unchanged: both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama emphasized the need to modify the format of U.S. presence across the Pacific region.
What does Washington fear?
The system governing America’s presence in the Pacific was established in the1950s. The country signed alliance treaties with Australia, New Zealand, Philippines and South Korea. Later came the U.S.-Japanese security treaty (1960) and the Taiwan Relations Act (1979). Those agreements were designed 1) to guarantee Japan continued pursuing a peaceful course, 2) to guarantee continued U.S. presence in the Pacific Rim, and 3) to keep Soviet and Chinese military power in check.
In the late 2000's the economic threat posed by China was the main concern. In November 2009, Obama proposed that the USA and Beijing enter into dialog on the global economy, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and climate change. In response, Beijing announced its commitment to the concept of a "multipolar world" and the rejection of the G-2 format proposed by America. These contradictions deepened due to the growing U.S. trade deficit with China. Thus the Obama Administration decided to revert to the policy of “containing China” which had been in place since 1995.
A strengthened Association of South-East Asia Nations (ASEAN) poses another problem for America. Over the last 20 years this Association has aimed to become the center of regional integration. A system of privileged consultations between ASEAN and its partners emerged in the formats of ASEAN+3 (China, Japan, South Korea) and ASEAN+6 (ASEAN+3 plus India, Australia and New Zealand). In 2005 the East Asia Summit was held on the basis of ASEAN+6 as a potential future East Asian community. So, America’s fear is that the privileged partnership between ASEAN and China could give rise to a new security system in East Asia without U.S. participation.
Longer term projects
It is virtually impossible to use the old military alliance to counter these tendencies. Therefore, the Democrats set out to launch new projects.
Firstly, Washington is strengthening political and military cooperation with Australia and New Zealand. On November 4, the Wellington Declaration on strategic partnership between the USA and New Zealand was signed. This document aims to develop cooperation between the countries in the fight against terrorism, natural disaster management and in working towards the non-proliferation of WMD. On November 8, the U.S. and Australia signed the Melbourne agreement boosting Australia’s troop contribution. They also discussed a draft U.S.-Australia Space Situational Awareness Partnership Statement of Principle.
During the Cold War the ANZUS Treaty (1951) had little military significance. Now the situation has changed, and Australia and New Zealand, with U.S. support, are building a network of nuclear test monitoring stations. The Americans are helping both antipodean capitals, Canberra and Wellington, upgrade their missile capacity. Since 2007 Australia has been involved in the deployment of the U.S. strategic missile defense system. New Zealand is also expected to join the project.
Secondly, the USA intends to expand its political and military presence in Mainland Southeast Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed to the need for strengthened military ties with Thailand and the Philippines in the fight against terrorism and in the aftermath of natural disasters.
According to Hillary Clinton, strengthening the U.S. military presence in Singapore, that is, in the Strait of Malacca, carries equal weight. In a related move, the U.S. is expected to boost its cooperation with Malaysia and Indonesia in the aerospace industry.
Developing U.S.-Vietnamese relations may also have a special role to play in this context. There are no current plans to develop partnership in the military sphere. But on October 29 Hillary Clinton said American intended to expand its ties with Hanoi. The State Department hopes Vietnam could help the U.S. join the East Pacific summit, thus creating a new opportunity for the country to have an involvement with ASEAN.
Third, the Americans are expanding their political and military contacts with India. Delhi has already developed an extensive system of interaction with the U.S.: from the U.S.-India peaceful nuclear agreement (2006) to the Monitoring arrangements for high technology military sales (2009).
U.S.-Indian cooperation is now expected to see further political development. Thus on November 8, Barack Obama promised to help India become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This is the first time since the early 1990s that the White House has deviated from the strategy of blocking UN reforms.
Fourth, the United States is considering a rangeof scenarios for the establishment of an alternative to ASEAN. The Agreement on Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership signed by Singapore, Brunei, Chile and New Zealand (2005) could be the start of something like that. Washington’s experts favor the ideas of enhanced economic cooperation in the North Pacific Ocean between the United States, Canada, Japan and the Russian Far East.
Obama’s new pacific strategy clearly changes the idea of the containment strategy as applied to China. Where previously the Obama administration would have displayed its might as close to China’s borders as possible, now it is banking on the rise of alternative loci of influence on China. The U.S. is ready to provide them with the resources they need to become regional powers. Thus, the focus of America’s interests has shifted from the triangle of China-Taiwan-Japan to the South Pacific region.
The Japan effect
Japan has thus far enjoyed a special position in America’s Pacific strategy. After the Second World War Japan was stripped of itsindependent military policy. Signed in 1960 the treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan allowed Tokyo only limited forces purely for self-defense. Japan was forbidden from using them outside the Japanese archipelago. The USA was to defend Japan from external enemies.
Since then, almost every single government Japan has had, expressed the desire to re-draft the 1960 treaty to boost Tokyo’s military autonomy. In 1992, the Japanese parliament passed a law allowing Japan's Self-Defense Forces to participate in UN peacekeeping operations. In 2004, the Tokyo agreement on missile defense cooperation was signed. In 2006, the United States did not object to the transformation of Japan’s Self Defense Agency into a Ministry of Defense.
Now, as 2010 draws to a close, we can clearly discern a certain duality in U.S.-Japan relations. Japan’s current Democratic Party government, led by Naoto Kan, stands for a complete development of military contacts with Washington. However, the Obama administration does not seem to encourage this growth in Japan's military self-sufficiency. Thus, during the recent crises around the Southern Kuril Islands and Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands the White House adopted a distinctly non-committal stance. The State Department reaffirmed its obligation under the U.S.-Japan security treaty, but stopped short of declaring any direct support of Tokyo in a crisis. The limited empowerment of Japan in the military-aerospace and naval policies is likely to be the subject of future U.S.-Japan talks.
The Russian Perspective
From Russia’s perspective, America’s new Pacific Strategy has its positive and negative aspects. Washington's interest in the Russian Far East could facilitate U.S. investment in the region. As a result, joint economic projects under the APEC framework, which are potentially lucrative for Russia, could see some acceleration. In the longer term this could include the creation of free economic zones in the Russian Far East.
But Russia already has a complex web of political relations with China. The Russia-Chinese treaty (2001) includes a wide range of mutual obligations between Moscow and Beijing. If Russia were to become involved in this re-conceptualized U.S. presence in the Pacific, Beijing might suspect that Moscow of trying to realign its position.
Russia needs U.S. investment in the Far East for its policy in the Pacific Rim to be effective. But artfully avoiding any excessive closeness to America, even if only to prevent a potential conflict with Beijing, is also vital.
This article first appeared in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 15 November 2010
Alexei Fenenko is Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences