The US Pivot in Asia in 2013

When the 21st Asean and 7th East Asia Summits take place in Phnom Penh between Nov. 18 and 20, eyes will certainly be focused on the United States and China. However, rather than making grand pronouncements, both sides are expected to stick to the prescribed talking points. The year 2013 will not be one of change.

With his second and final term secured, President Obama will undoubtedly be focused on fixing the American economy. Although the Asian rebalancing strategy is unlikely to be affected, one can expect the US president to engage rather than confront China. With Syria and Iran (as well as a potential flare-up in Israel) to occupy his time, President Obama will seek to ensure that America’s pivot to Asia remains peaceful.

In Beijing, a similar strategy is probably in place: engagement rather than confrontation. Faced with declining economic growth (although 7.4 percent is still impressive by any account), China’s new president, Xi Jingping, will have his hands full addressing demographic changes, decreasing the gap between rich and poor, and responding to environmental concerns, among a host of other problems.

Of course, China will continue to press its claim over disputed territories, especially those in the South China Sea. It will continue to butt heads with the Philippines and Vietnam, shifting around its maritime force as a show of strength. It is not expected, though, that all of this will amount to much more than posturing. Beijing is perhaps acutely aware of the delicate nature in the South China Sea, and that overt, aggressive behavior could push many of the countries in the area into the arms of the US, thereby jeopardizing any hopes of bilateral settlements.

Neither the US nor China has the appetite for confrontation. The interdependent nature of both countries makes direct confrontation ill-advised and undesirable. Instead, both have reached out to develop and strengthen relationships with foreign partners in the hopes of expanding their influence (and shutting the other out).

Where China has begun establishing its presence in Africa, the US has returned to Asia as part of its rebalancing strategy.

Assembling partners

The United States has sought to include Asian countries in its strategy, partnering with countries like Vietnam in conducting joint naval exercises. No longer the US the only force at the front, it has hoped to assemble a coalition of willing nations to take part in its pivot--a challenge to be sure.

Asian countries are wary of being used as puppets by either the US or China, and so are hesitant to commit fully to either parties. History of US abandonment is not lost to Asian countries. One need only open a textbook and be reminded of South Vietnam, whose fate was as clear as day when the political winds changed in Washington, DC.

On the other hand, the fear of a culturally and militarily dominant China has prevented many Asian countries from joining Beijing.

Absent of either American or Chinese leadership, one would expect an Asian country to step up and assume the responsibility. Presently, though, no such country is ready and/or willing. Japan would at first appear to be a worthy candidate. However, history is not on its side. The last time Japan sought to “lead” Asia was through aggression during the World War II. War crimes perpetuated by Imperial Japan have not been forgotten.

Another worthy candidate is South Korea. However, they have shown little interest in doing so, focused as they are on North Korea. Singapore is too small, and Australia is too far removed. There is Indonesia although they are either or both not yet ready and/or willing.

It may also very well be that some of these countries are simply wary of standing out, choosing instead to stay hidden in the background or work collectively rather than individually.

It therefore falls upon the United States to lead from the front. It cannot lead from behind and expect its partners in the region to assume complete responsibility where matters of security are concerned. Conversely, Asian countries who have looked to America for support cannot expect the US to shoulder all of the responsibility.

Success of the US pivot will require regional countries to share some of the risk. If these Asian countries desire the US to balance against China then they too must commit resources, whether financial, military, and/or diplomatic. This is not to say that these countries must choose a side, that it must oppose China; however, the leaders of these countries must stake a claim.

Managing the future

Much like an aging athlete, the US can no longer perform at the same level. Although it remains competitive, it must adapt to changing circumstances. Perhaps, in time, the US will once again find its footing. For now, however, it must work with others to accomplish its goals.

Despite the trade imbalance between the US and China, it is the hope of the US that China would play a constructive role in Asia. Washington, of course, would like nothing more than to see the liberalization of Asian-Pacific economies so that American businesses may benefit. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) hopes to achieve as much.

Limitations, external and internal, will prevent both the US and China from taking on ambitious foreign policy objectives. What lies beyond 2013 is unknown, but for now and next year, one can expect a period of calm.

The US and China will seek to address domestic concerns while keeping up appearances on the world stage; while Asian countries must accept that they are party to any future conflict in the Western Pacific, regardless of their desires. Whether it is the US or China, these countries will find themselves faced with making a decision: will they take part in the American pivot, or will they acquiesce to an increasingly influential China? To abstain is not an option. Asian countries are best served to take this year and determine their future.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Canadian lawyer who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel)