U.S.: A Progress Report on Washington's Re-engagement with Asia

4 MINS READOct 4, 2013 | 10:00 GMT
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Oct. 4 at the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, outside of Tokyo.
Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images
The United States continues to make progress on the military and defense aspects of its foreign policy pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, though U.S. President Barack Obama's canceled visit to Malaysia and the Philippines is a less encouraging sign for diplomatic re-engagement. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry met with their Japanese counterparts on Oct. 3. The sides decided to revise defense cooperation guidelines and settled some outstanding issues on the transfer of U.S. Marines out of Okinawa. Hagel had just left South Korea, where he and top U.S. military officials announced a new strategy with the South Korean military that they described as tailored deterrence. Following major regional summits in Indonesia and Brunei, Kerry will go to the Philippines where, despite Obama's absence, he will negotiate a previously discussed plan to increase American troop rotations into Philippine bases. 
Essentially, Washington meant for Hagel's trip to help recalibrate U.S. regional alliances. As the United States draws down its forces in the Middle East, it has sought to re-establish itself in East Asia in response to the rise of Chinese power, the threats posed by North Korea and an ever-increasing economic interdependence with the region. For their part, Washington's allies have sought greater U.S. military and security commitments. The United States wants to embolden its allies while avoiding entanglement in their affairs. However, Washington also recognizes the need to be prepared in the event North Korea takes steps beyond its usual provocations — or if China becomes less willing to operate within the confines of a U.S.-led international system.
The South Korean defense establishment underwent a dramatic rethinking after what were seen as slow and ineffectual responses to North Korean provocations in 2010. Seoul has since tried to attract greater cooperation from the United States to help ward off such threats. Both sides felt uncertainty and a lack of coordination in the face of Pyongyang's provocations — problems that resurfaced during North Korea's recent long-range missile test and third nuclear test. Seoul fears that China has gained enough leverage over the United States that Beijing could discourage Washington from responding too forcefully to North Korea. The United States wants to set a protocol for responding to the North that reassures the South and mitigates the risk of mistakes or overreactions from Seoul — lest Washington be drawn into an unwanted conflict.
While there are few details outlining the new strategy of tailored deterrence, the concept focuses on coordinating U.S. and South Korean responses to specific threats in specific scenarios, particularly in the form of counter-missile strategy. Washington and Seoul affirmed that they would try to transfer wartime operational control to South Korean forces in 2015, though they recognized the need for flexibility in such a process.
Meanwhile, Japan has attempted to rebuild its status as a great power, partly by seeking to normalize the role of its military more quickly. Tokyo wants to reinterpret the constitution to allow collective self-defense, which the United States has encouraged, and to make several defense policy adjustments, including the authorization of pre-emptive strikes, the formation of an American-style National Security Council to coordinate national defense and diplomacy, and the expansion of military and intelligence capabilities in the southwest islands and the broader Pacific.
With Japan already revising its national defense guidelines, Kerry, Hagel and their respective Japanese counterparts, Fumio Kishida and Itsunori Onodera, agreed that the United States and Japan would update their cooperation guidelines as well. They agreed to a range of new deployments of U.S. military hardware, including a new X-band radar in western Japan, two or three Global Hawk surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles and 42 F-35 fighter jets. The sides also resolved some technicalities on the long-debated plan to transfer 9,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa island to Guam, the Northern Marianas, Hawaii and rotations in Australia, while proceeding with the Futenma base relocation and other measures to ease the burden on Okinawa, which has become a political problem for Tokyo.  

China and North Korea

Of course, there are many differences in U.S. strategic relations with South Korea and Japan. The animosities between Tokyo and Seoul have motivated the United States to improve its bilateral relations with each in order to protect the trilateral alliance structure. But the common theme of Hagel's trip was enhancing deterrence by emphasizing not only the abiding U.S. nuclear umbrella but also ballistic missile defense systems and conventional capabilities, particularly the ability to launch pre-emptive strikes at the would-be origin of a North Korean missile attack.
These actions will challenge North Korea's strategy of appearing reckless and ferocious. Washington has repeatedly connected its credibility on eliminating Syria's chemical weapons to North Korea's willingness to compromise — indeed, the Americans and South Koreans made sure to note the analogy with Syria by pointing to Pyongyang's own chemical weapons stockpiles. And with the United States and Iran showing openness to a rapprochement, Pyongyang faces the risk that Washington could gradually gain more capacity to pressure North Korea. Concerned about internal stability, Pyongyang is attempting to shift its domestic policy focus to economic reform, hoping to gain some breathing room internationally. But it does not yet seem to have reached a level of security that would enable it to push for a breakthrough in relations with the United States.
China especially has been watching the rapid buildup in U.S. military and defense relations with its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing is wary of Japan's efforts to enhance its global status, and it fears that the Japanese will twist Washington away from its fairly stable relations with China. Beijing has recently focused its criticism on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's nationalist government, which provides a convenient target for China's domestic audience.
Meanwhile, Beijing is presenting a more cooperative demeanor in relations with Southeast Asia. There, Chinese territorial assertiveness in recent years has given rise to increasing solidarity, but China's economic growth has not yet faltered to the point that it has lost its advantage in dealing with these states. The latest round of large Chinese investments in Indonesia and Malaysia, announced during President Xi Jinping's visits there, highlight these states' inability to take a confrontational stance against China until they are assured of U.S. support. While Washington has not yet demonstrated this support on the presidential level, its recent steps to refurbish its Asian military alliances have great significance in the long run.

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