Balancing in Asia: Against China or Ourselves?

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Filipino-U.S. joint military exercises. Courtesy of Reuters.

The Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia has received much attention lately among policy analysts. An article from the Council on Foreign Relations concisely summarizes the main points of the new strategic focus on Asia as a natural result of shifting U.S. attention away from Iraq and Afghanistan and stemming from a desire to hedge against a rising China. A U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific plays an important role in balancing regional powers and maintaining stability. In defining this U.S. presence in a way that will serve U.S. interests, however, policymakers need to recognize the importance of regional allies and multilateral cooperation.

Respect and recognition of allies is not just an ideal. It is a sound way of building soft power, soft power that is necessary to maximize U.S. influence in Asia. Even realists who want to stand up to China recognize the importance of regional allies. In securing working relationships with key allies, the United States needs to acknowledge the political, historical, and strategic concerns of partner states.

In the Philippines, for instance, where the United States  is planning on sending more troops and where the U.S. and Philippine military have been conducting joint exercises, there have also been protests against the return of a former colonial power. Although the Philippine government is glad to have U.S. backing in the face of escalating tensions with China over claims in the South China Sea (particularly Scarborough Shoal), the anti-U.S. protests in Manila show that the path to increased influence is complicated. To make the increased U.S. military presence work to greater U.S. advantage, the United States needs to assure worried Filipinos that the U.S. presence will be limited to temporary bases, as has been currently agreed upon, and will not extend into a threatening, permanent situation. This careful balance of our own presence will help protect the legitimacy of not only the native Philippine government but also our own image in the eyes of our allies. The Philippine example, with its shades of nuance, aptly shows how power does not stem merely from a strong military presence but also a positive image.

The longtime U.S. alliance with Japan also includes some great examples of how balancing our own presence can actually benefit U.S. strategic interests.   For years, the U.S. military presence in Okinawa has been controversial, with locals decrying the noise and criminal activities of military personnel, such as the rape of a 12-year-old girl in 1995. Recently, the United States and Japan issued a joint statement announcing that 9,000 marines will be moved to areas outside Japan, such as Hawaii and Guam. This move is supposed to alleviate longstanding tensions that have strained the U.S.-Japanese relationship. Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, points out that this move not only improves relations with Japan, but also frees up troops and resources to be re-positioned in other strategic locations throughout the Pacific. The recent U.S. move in Japan contains two balancing points, both beneficial. First, it balances the U.S. role in Japan, giving more responsibility to a regional ally while strengthening our relationship with said ally. Second, it allows troops to spread to where they are needed in other parts of the region, thereby balancing the U.S. presence as a whole.

Since 2011, the U.S. pivot to Asia has directed more much-needed attention to this economically growing region. While much of the impetus for this shift to Asia stems from the fear of a militarily growing China, U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific also needs to reflect a recognition of and respect for regional allies. By working with allies, sharing responsibility, and maintaining a positive U.S. image, the United States can more successfully project its power in the Asia-Pacific and maintain regional stability.

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