Beyond the rhetoric of Asia Pivot

By Vinny Davis

The 2016 Hangzhou summit will be remembered as the last G20 meeting attended by Barack Obama as the American President. His visit to the Asia Pacific is at a time when his much-coveted Asia Pivot Strategy is demanding a face-lift.

Initiated in 2012, Asia Pivot aims to secure the support of the US allies in the Asia Pacific by strengthening multilateral security cooperation, improving avenues of trade and investment and engagement with regional multilateral institutions, besides boosting ties with rising powers in the region and upholding democracy and human rights. This is largely in pursuit of monitoring the challenges posed by China and North Korea in the region. However,Obama’s graceless receptionin Hangzhou and the North Korean firing of ballistic missiles while G20 was underway show growing signs of defiance from the Asia Pacific.

Can we say that Asia Pivot is slowly ending up as rhetoric, even when European allies think that the US gives undue importance to Asia over Europe? Chinese aggression is threatening the Asian hinterlands and the staunchest allies of the US in East Asia are slowly realising the apathy meted out to them. The contentious South China Sea ruling by Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration was snubbed by the Chinese, whoretorted by flying Cessna CE-680 civilian aircraft over Subi and Mischief reefs. The US was a mere spectator primarily because of its non-ratification of the United Nations Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which hinders its legitimacy of actions on contested international maritime issues. This long-pending ratification thatthe Pentagon duly supports is mired in a deadlock. Naturally, such loopholes will be exploited by nations like China to deter US efforts to protect its political and economic interests in Asia and ensure regional stability for its allies.

Considering the economic benefits of engaging with the Asia Pacific region, the US can ill afford to antagonise China and will continue its balancing act of appeasing the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and South Asian heavyweights like India. The diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis India, linchpin to Asia Pivot policy and trusted strategic partner of the US, and ASEAN is therefore crucial for upholding influence in the region.

The Indo–US strategic and commercial dialogue hashad a fillip with the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) after decade-long negotiations. The deal enablesa reciprocal provision of logistics support, supplies and services between the Indian and US militaries, besides allowing access to US military bases across the world via an automatic approval process. The declaration also involves calls for joint combat efforts against global terrorism. Still, the agreement is considered to have surrendered the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of India’s foreign policy at the cost of bolstering mutual defence partnership as stereotypes abound over US bases being stationed in India. This argument does not hold much credibility as the agreement has no mention of bases being stationed in the country. Furthermore, the US has signed similar deals with more than 60 countries and the deal,largely facilitatory in nature,places no obligations on signatories to follow other US military interests. The move can be interpreted as a US tactical response to the Chinese or North Korean military advancesin the region. Then again, Russian responses by closer alignment with China or Pakistan may prove counter-productive for Indian diplomatic advances with the US.

Being the staunchest allies of the US, the ASEAN member nations are pitted againstgrowing Chinese influence. Major takeaways from this alliance in recent times would be the first ever US–ASEAN summit and Obama’s visit to Laos, the first by an American President. The Sunnylands Declaration in early 2016 proved to be a successful initiative of reiterating the US commitment to the South East Asian region.The joint embrace to a rules-based order in the AsiaPacific to coordinate and protect regional peace and progress helped seal cooperation in a plethora of areas –­freedom of navigation, sustainable and inclusive economic development, terrorism, trafficking and climate change. The economic initiativesof linking the major trading hubs of the region reinforce the US presence in South East Asian markets.

Obama’s visit to Laos is another major advance to boostlinks in the region. It will be an attempt to atone for the historical wrongs of turning the ‘Land of a Thousand Elephants’ into a ‘Land of Million Bombs’ (during the 1964–73 Vietnam war, the US had dropped 260 million cluster bombs to cutback the North Vietnamese supply routes along the eastern border of Laos). The visit is to reiterate the significance of greater engagement with South East Asia on the sidelines of the ASEAN summitto strengthen Asia Pivot.

Yet a dampener in the Asia Pacific policy is the delay by the US Congress in approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).Touted as a game-changer, TPPcovering 40% of world economy could have been the largest deal ever to have cemented the US position in the Asia Pacific. Regardless of its economic benefits of boosting real GDP (inflation adjusted) by $42.7 billion and US exports and imports by $27.2 billion and $48.9 billion respectively, the opposition of two major presidential candidates and the resultant public opinion now poses a difficult situation. It seems unlikely that the deal would garner enough support within the US as it has been viewed as promoting big businesses at the cost of citizens.

Though strategic partnerships with India and ASEAN nations seem significant, it can also be perceived as a final effort in upholding the much-hyped Asia Pivot policy before the end of Obama’s Presidency. Amidst the volatile atmospherein the region, even the seasoned alliesexpect a tougher US stand towards China. It seems the US may not take up a confrontationist stand, as the G20 became a platform to gauge the Chinese support to ratify the Paris climate deal. Yet, how far can a non-binding climate commitment yield, or is it a mere show of solidarity of Sino-US partnership? The balanced approach with which Obama played down the embarrassing scenario at the Hangzhou airportsignifies that the US desire engagement than containment with China.

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Vinny Davis

Vinny Davis is a Managing Associate at the CPPR Centre for Strategic Studies. Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) is a policy think tank established in 2004 working in the areas of Governance, Livelihood, Urbanization, Strategy & Security etc. It conducts research studies, events and interactions on various policy issues. Centre for Public Policy Research has four focus study centres within; Centre for Urban Studies, Centre for Strategic Studies, Centre for Comaprative Studies and CPPR Academy.

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