The US’ rebalance to Asia is forever

Kerry’s (R) talks in Beijing will be keenly watched in Moscow and New Delhi. Source: AFP / East News

Kerry’s (R) talks in Beijing will be keenly watched in Moscow and New Delhi. Source: AFP / East News

John Kerry’s upcoming talks in Beijing will be keenly watched in Moscow and New Delhi. Major policy challenges lie ahead for Russia and India.

The United States Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Beijing this weekend. This signifies the first structured high level political exchange between the US and China in President Barack Obama’s second term as well as since President Xi Jinping assumed office. Indeed, some amount of “groundbreaking” had taken place during the visit by the US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in the third week of March, who also happened to be Xi’s first visitor from abroad after becoming China’s president.

That the two countries are approaching politics through the gateway of economic partnership needs to be noted at the outset, given that a curious pantomime of cooperation and competition constitutes the Sino-American relationship at this point in time.

Kerry’s talks will undoubtedly focus on the North Korea problem. Washington is exhorting Beijing to “do more.” Beijing is willing to go as the by-now famous remark by Xi that no country should be allowed to damage world peace or throw a region into chaos for selfish gains. But then, Xi also called upon “countries – big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor” all to “contribute their share in maintaining and enhancing peace” and pointed out that globalisation does not allow “an arena where gladiators fight each other.”

The ghost at the table where Kerry sits across his Chinese hosts will be the US’ “rebalancing” in Asia. Kerry hinted once at some unease that the “rebalancing” had an excessive military projection, which worried China. Since then, of course, the Asia-Pacific security has dramatically changed.

If anything, there have been or are in the pipeline an unprecedented scale of US military deployments in China’s neighbourhood. These include the deployment of fourteen additional ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and the planned deployment of another TPY-2 radar to Japan. The US has also moved two guided missile destroyers to locations in the Western Pacific and has announced the intention to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System ballistic missile defence system to Guam in weeks. And all this has been couched as “precautionary moves” to strengthen the US’ defence posture against a North Korean missile threat.  

China sees a bigger picture, though, in the US’ defence posture. Zhen Zehao, professor at China’s National Defense University (under the Chinese People’s Liberation Army) writing in China Military sais this week:

“In geostrategic sense, containing China in the Asia-Pacific region is the basic content of the US policy toward China. There are three major means for the US to conduct deep involvement in the Asia-Pacific region: first, wide alliance to win over various countries in the Asia-Pacific region; second, military forward deployment to realize strategic ‘re-balancing’; and third, occupy a ‘leading’ position in the region to play ‘pro-active role.

“The US believes that the time span from the end of the Cold War to 2015 is a period of ‘strategic opportunity,’ during which the rise and development of such major regional countries as China and Russia will pose serious challenges to the US around 2015. Among the two, China “is more likely to become the challenger”. Therefore, the US began to pay more attention to putting more pressure on China over Asia-Pacific issues.”

Thus, Chinese pronouncements on North Korea remain ambivalent. It is possible to read into them Beijing’s willingness to work with the US on the North Korea problem while at other times it is equally possible to interpret that unless Beijing gains greater clarity with regard to the US’ “rebalancing,” it won’t “abandon” Pyongyang. Interestingly, communist party newspaper Global Times featured a commentary on Friday on the eve of Kerry’s arrival in Beijing underscoring that “changing global geopolitics” manifest in the Northeast Asia and, therefore, North Korea “remains at the forefront of China’s geopolitics” even if the interests of the two countries “have never coincided.” The commentary argues that Pyongyang’s attitude toward China will “influence the strategic posture of Northeast Asia” and while Japan and South Korea provide strategic support to the US’ pivot to the Asia-Pacific, these countries visualize North Korea as “their shield.” Therefore, “abandoning North Korea is unlikely to become China’s diplomatic choice.”

Equally, Chinese newspapers have flashed on the front page on Friday Xi’s visit to the PLA base in Sanya, the disputed island in the South China Sea. (The visit took place on Tuesday.)

But then, Washington has also asserted emphatically this week that the US’ “rebalancing” policy is for the long haul. The major policy speech “The US Defence Rebalance to Asia” by the Deputy Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Monday was not exactly the “curtain-raiser” to Kerry’s visit that his Chinese hosts would have hoped for.

There was fire and brimstone in Carter’s voice. He dispelled the perceptions that the so-called sequester – “an artificial, self-inflicted political problem, not a structural problem” – will in any way affect the US’s standing as a global military power or the “rebalancing.”


Carter said, “The end of the war in Iraq and the reduction in Afghanistan allow us [US] to shift the great weight of effort from these wars to our stabilizing presence in the Asia-Pacific region.” The withdrawal from Afghanistan meant that US is “turning a strategic corner”, which in turn enables it to embark upon “a great strategic transition”.

He went on to detail the additional military build-up in the Asia-Pacific that Pentagon is preparing, which involves the re-deployment of naval surface combatants and eventually carriers as well as naval intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and processing, exploitations and dissemination capabilities, which the US Navy will be “releasing” as a result of the drawdown from Afghanistan. He mentioned:

  • EP_3 signals reconnaissance aircraft;
  • Firescout Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and several electronic surveillance aircraft;
  • Navy P-2s (maritime patrol aircraft);
  • Deployment of the 4th Forward Deployed Naval Force SSN to Guam.

Carter disclosed that 6 out of the ten US Navy destroyers that used to be permanently based in Rota, Spain, to provide ballistic missile defence to the European allies will be shifted to the Asia-Pacific. Again, the destroyers and amphibious ships deployed in humanitarian missions in various parts of the world will be re-deployed to the Asia-Pacific.

Alongside, the US Air Force will also shift its capacity from Afghanistan to the Asia-Pacific, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets like the MQ-9 Reaper, the U-2, and the Global Hawk, apart from B-1 bombers to augment the B-52 already deployed to Asia-pacific as well as the stealthy B-2.

Furthermore, there will be direct re-deployments directly from the US of other “space, cyber, tactical aircraft and bomber forces… including 60 percent of combat-coded F-22s.” As for the Army and Marine Corps, in addition to the 91000-strong force already assigned to the Asia-Pacific, another 60000 soldiers will be added using the assets in the CENTCOM area.

Carter wound up: “So, in reality, the Asia-Pacific region will soon see more of our Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Forces, now that they are coming home to the Pacific from Iraq and Afghanistan.” [Emphasis in original text.]

A fascinating part of Carter’s speech was the web of partnerships that the US is assembling in Asia, apart from the “forward presence” in Northeast Asia. He said, “In addition to strengthening our presence in Northeast Asia, we are enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region as well. In this regard, it’s important to underscore that we are not only rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific bit also within [sic] the Asia-Pacific, in recognition of the growing importance of Southeast Asia to the region as a whole.”

Curiously, Carter did not mention Russia even once. Could it be that the US disregards Russia as militarily consequential in Northeast Asia? As for India, on the contrary, Carter said India is “a key part of our rebalance, and more broadly, an emerging power that we believe will help determine the broader security and prosperity of the 21st century. Our security interests with India converge on maritime security and broader regional issues, including India’s ‘Look East’ policy. We also are working to deepen our defence cooperation – moving beyond purely defence trade towards technology sharing and co-production.”

To be sure, Kerry’s talks in Beijing will be keenly watched in Moscow and New Delhi. Major policy challenges lie ahead for Russia and India. The heart of the matter is that polemics can be deceptive when it comes to Sino-American relations. But specifics matter. And Carter brought in a lot of specifics.

He even underlined that the priority in the envisaged Pentagon budget will be for development of platforms and capabilities “that have direct applicability to the Asia-Pacific region” – such as the Virginia-class nuclear powered submarine with new payload module for cruise missiles, P-8 Maritime Surveillance Aircraft, anti-Submarine MH-60 helicopter, EA-18G electronic aircraft, Next Generation Jammer, fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter, the new stealth bomber, KC-46 tanker replacement and a host of ISR platforms.

The bottom line set for Kerry’s talks in Beijing is that the Obama administration intends to maintain, as Carter put it, the “pivotal role of US military power and military presence” in the Asia-Pacific for “decades to come.” 

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