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When Barack Obama began his second term as US president in January 2013, he signalled that a “pivot” to Asia would be a central part of his legacy.
His officials briefed that the president would use a significant part of his time in the White House charting a strategy to underpin American presence in the Asia-Pacific region for the coming decades. Yet, one year on, the president’s Asia policy is looking a lot more uncertain.
The basic logic behind the “pivot” – the word given to the new focus on Asia by then secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2011 – was straightforward. Not only has Asia become the cockpit of the global economy, but the rise of China and its military build-up have raised tensions.
With the war in Iraq over and the conflict in Afghanistan winding down, the US realised it needed to raise its game in Asia if it were to maintain its influence in the region.
China’s announcement in December of an air defence identification zone covering the East China Sea and the way it assumed control of the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in 2012 indicated an intention to gain greater control over the seas that surround it – and in the process, squeeze the US navy further out into the Pacific Ocean.
“This is part of a broader Chinese strategy, to push steadily outwards without causing a conflict,” says Mike Green, former Asia director at the National Security Council.
As part of the pivot, the Pentagon announced that it would focus 60 per cent of its fleet and air force in the Asia-Pacific region and that it would start to train marines in northern Australia for the first time.
The administration has supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country trade negotiation involving countries on both sides of the Pacific that the US sees as a central strategy to bind its economy to many of Asia’s fast-growing markets. Based around its core alliances with Japan and South Korea, US strategy has tended to focus on northeast Asia. But with its engagement with Myanmar and Vietnam and its expanded relations with the Philippines, the US is trying to weave southeast Asia into its framework of regional alliances and partnerships.
American officials say these policies are not an effort to contain China, but to deter it from seeking to bully some of its neighbours or dominate the region. They insist they want the US and Chinese navies to operate in proximity in the western Pacific without coming to blows.
There may be no direct link between the new US strategy in Asia and defence deals, but the renewed focus on the region – and the tensions created by China’s rise – have coincided with some big aerospace contracts.
Despite cost overruns and intense criticism surrounding the project, Japan has placed an order for 42 F-35 stealth fighter jets. The aircraft are being built by a consortium led by Lockheed Martin, the biggest defence contractor by sales, and BAE. South Korea is also expected to finalise this year an order for 40 of the jets.
Yet budget cuts at the Pentagon have raised questions among Asian governments about the US ability to back up its military commitments.
The succession of crises in the Middle East continue to dominate the daily agendas of the administration’s senior policy makers.
US strategy towards the region is also being buffeted by some of the controversies over history involving Japan, its closest ally in the region.
China has objected strongly to what it views as the attempts by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to rewrite the country’s wartime history, which have added to the tensions in the region.
More worryingly for the US, the South Korean government is also angry at Mr Abe. The result is that America’s two biggest allies in Asia are barely talking to each other.