18 June 2014
Unless the United States finds ways to be more transparent in its intentions and willingness to act in the region, it might find that its allies there have different ideas about its role.
Xenia Wickett

Xenia Wickett

Former Head, US and the Americas Programme; Former Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs


Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and India's former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, at Hyderabad House, New Delhi, India, on 25 Jan 2014, during the first visit to India by a Japanese leader since 2011. Photo by Graham Crouch/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and India's then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, at Hyderabad House, New Delhi, India, on 25 Jan 2014, during the first visit to India by a Japanese leader since 2011. Photo by Graham Crouch/Bloomberg/Getty Images.


President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Asia has reanimated the debate over what America’s ‘pivot’ to Asia really means. The level of uncertainty over its regional engagement has been heightened by what many in the region, and beyond, consider an inadequate response to the events taking place in Ukraine. Rather than being reassured by the ‘rebalancing’, many Asian allies suspect the United States is becoming a less reliable ally. At the same time, concern is also growing about China’s increasing assertiveness, as demonstrated by recent events with Vietnam.

America’s Asian partners are increasingly exploring new ways to ensure their security, and they will, in time, find different ways to engage with it in the region. Unless the United States is more transparent about its intentions, and what others can expect from it, it is possible that it will be pushed towards a role not necessarily in line with its interests.

President Obama’s announcement of the ‘pivot’ to Asia in November 2011 provoked much debate over what it would mean in practice. It continues to be treated with much scepticism in the region and has raised tensions, with many fearing a military response from China (a fear that, in the eyes of many in the region, has already come to pass).

Allies have also questioned whether American rhetoric is being matched by action. US assets in the region remain strong (additional troops are being rotated in and new partnerships are being formed with the Philippines and others), but America’s will to use them appears less so.

Despite reassurances from Obama during his trip that the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands ‘fall within the scope of Article 5 of the US–Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security’ and that the United States opposes any unilateral attempts to change this, Japan was not reassured. A more ambiguous statement made last year by Secretary of State John Kerry, that the United States ‘does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands’, has left many Japanese policy-makers wondering whether the US would ultimately back their country up in a conflict. Again, they look at America’s responses to events in Ukraine, Libya and Syria and wonder what it would be prepared to commit to if China were to try to seize control of disputed territory.

This uncertainty is leading many of America’s principal allies to consider additional ways to ensure their security. There are three main paths available to them: building domestic capabilities, forming ad hoc groupings, and reinforcing established regional groups.

The allies are first looking internally: across the board, defence spending has increased; for the first time, in 2012, Asia surpassed European spending, reaching a total of $310 billion. Countries such as India are expanding their naval capabilities to enhance their power projection and Japan is moving forward a reinterpretation of its constitution to allow a more ‘normalized’ role for its military, one in which it could come to the assistance of allies.

Asia-Pacific states are also looking to engage one another in informal bilateral or plurilateral groupings. Over the past decade, a proliferation of new groups has formed for such activities as strategic dialogue, joint training or operations. Building on their similar values and concerns, Japan, Australia and India, in particular, have been prolific in creating various combinations of partnerships among themselves and the United States. There are also some more unexpected (and potentially valuable) groupings, including that established between China, Japan and South Korea.

Where they are based on similar interests, these informal groupings can be a source of moral and political support, and even perhaps in time more operational support in the security arena. They can also provide a starting point for engaging a wider audience through more traditional regional groups, such as ASEAN and the East Asia Summit – the third option for allies to enhance their security.

These more established groups, while widely dismissed in the West as mere ‘talking shops’, perform a well-regarded function in the region. By supporting the broader web of networks on which states can come to depend, they provide opportunities for debating and managing (or diffusing) regional tensions.

America remains the most militarily powerful nation in the world. Its influence and common interests with its Asian allies will continue to ensure that it has strong sway in the region. Realistically, it will for the foreseeable future remain a necessary partner for its traditional allies, particularly those concerned by China’s growing assertiveness. And it remains in America’s interests to stay engaged. However, as ambiguity about its willingness to act increases, these allies will continue to reach for alternative solutions for managing their security.

While this aligns with the US desire to share more of the burdens of global citizenship, if it wants to remain a key Asia-Pacific power, America still needs its allies to need it. A little more clarity and transparency on its part, even if only stated privately, could start to rebuild trust and confidence, which would serve both America and its allies well. 

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