It’s no secret that despite protests to the contrary, the Asia-Pacific region has not always been a high priority on the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda. A series of crises in other parts of the world—the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and the possibility of a destabilised, Greece-less Eurozone for instance—have consumed much of the administration’s political capital. But in the midst of the Asia-Pacific’s evolving maritime security issues, chiefly the contested maritime claims in the South China Sea, the region has once again become a priority. Only things are different this time around: the United States is taking a more multilateral approach to the ‘pivot’ to Asia.
Before this point, the US ‘pivot’ to Asia’s most noticeable feature was the transfer of military assets to the Asia-Pacific. Around 3,000 US marines have been posted to Darwin, Northern Australia. Three US navy littoral combat ships have been posted to Singapore for use in the largely littoral Southeast Asian waters. In addition to its permanent presence, the US military has been enhancing its cooperation with the armed forces of twelve Southeast Asian states through war-games and exercises. When video footage of an American P-8 Poseidon being told to ‘leave immediately’ was made public, the footage began with the surveillance plane lifting off from the Philippines. Clear, a significant number of military assets have been transferred and are continuing to be transferred to the Asia-Pacific region.
Announcements and speeches over the past month suggest that the rebalance to Asia has shifted to a more multilateral approach which focuses more and more on alliance and institution building, rather than unilateral or bilateral actions. The best example of this is the US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter’s comments on April 6th in Arizona. Carter remarked that: “[Y]ou may not expect to hear this from a Secretary of Defense, but in terms of our rebalance in the broadest sense, passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier. It would deepen our alliances and partnerships abroad and underscore our lasting commitment to the Asia-Pacific. And it would help us promote a global order that reflects both our interests and our values.”
Carter’s point is that the United States cannot effectively rebalance towards Asia if that rebalance does not include stronger partnerships with Asian countries.
This attitude is likewise supported by Carter’s announcement of a new Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative during his speech at this years’ Shangri-La Dialogue. Details on this initiative are thin. The only figure Carter mentioned was a $425 million budget and the fact that the United States would be appointing a new defence advisor to the ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta. This appointment suggests that the United States intends to implement its new initiative by way of multilateral institutions.
That the initiative will be a multilateral approach also makes sense given the United States’ past history of capacity building endeavours amongst South East Asian states. In the same speech, Carter noted ‘we are partnering with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia to provide them with additional assets for maritime security and disaster relief operations.’ There is precedent aplenty for the United States to provide bilateral security assistance. The framing of the maritime security initiative announcement makes it sound like a bold new step, suggesting a break from precedent. Since it is clear that this initiative will not be purely unilateral, and since there is precedent for bilateral cooperation, one can conclude that the bulk of the Southeast Asian Maritime Security Initiative will be multilateral.
Traditionally, the United States has laboured to create a ‘hub and spokes’ security architecture in the Asia-Pacific. With the new emphasis on alliance-building, it seems like the United States is moving on from that model. Carter removed all remaining doubt on the matter by saying: “To expand the reach of our alliances, we are building unprecedented ‘trilateral’ cooperation – in other words, we’re networking our relationships. With Japan and Australia, for example, we’re cooperating to strengthen maritime security in Southeast Asia and explore defence technology cooperation. And with Japan and Korea, we’re building on a first-of-its-kind information-sharing arrangement that will help us collectively deter and respond to crises.”
When combined with the US mission to ASEAN’s new staff, it seems clear that the focus has shifted to a regional security architecture which is less centred on the United States.
Moreover, this approach is de-compartmentalising the United States’ various interests in the Asia-Pacific: multilateral security institutions are beginning to line up with multilateral economic institutions. The new shift towards multilateralism in the ‘pivot’ to Asia is accompanied by negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership between many of the United States’ allies in the region. Such overlapping institutionalisation strengthens both of the relevant international organisations through issue linkages and repeated interactions.
Nothing in this shift suggests that the United States will lessen the military facet of the rebalance, only that its multilateral engagement will grow relative to its military engagement. However, the United States is shifting to a new phase in the ‘pivot’ to Asia, a phase which will focus more on multilateral engagement than the previous phase. This change has been evidenced by several of Ash Carter’s speeches, as well as his announcement of a new Southeast Asian Maritime Security Initiative.