The Pacific Pivot and Its Regional Consequences
By Walden Bello
(Conference on “North Korea and Beyond,” Center of Korean Studies, Binghamton University, April 25, 2014.)
President Obama is currently in East Asia on a much-publicized tour to tout his so-called “Pacifc Pivot” or “Rebalancing.” He is slated to visit Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia, the first three of which are crucial to the strategy.
The Pacific Pivot is a refocusing of US military strategy on the East Asian region. Its most prominently cited feature is the deployment of 60per cent of the US Navy’s strength to the area. Though the US denies it officially, the aim is the so-called Containment of China. Though the US also does not admit it, the Pivot actually represents a retreat from thecomprehensive global military dominance that the neoconservative faction of the US ruling class attempted under Bush. It is a feint, a maneuver to serve as a cover for a limited retreat from America’s disastrous intervention in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. It is an attempt by Washington toretreat to an area of imperial power projection that it sees as more manageablethan a Middle East that is running out of control.
Yet in one sense, the Pacific Pivot is not new. It is simply a return to a salient feature of the pre-9/11 global military posture of the George W. Bush administration articulated in the 2002 National Security Strategy Paper, which redefined China from being a “strategic partner” to a “strategic competitor.” The“Contain China” strategy was put on hold after 9/11, owing to Washington’s drive to win allies for its “War on Terror.” But while it is not new, there is an urgency to the containment strategy under Obama owing to developments in the intervening decade.
Smoke rather than Firepower
But aside from the deployment of 60 per cent of the US fleet, what does it mean in concrete terms in terms of US power projection capabilities? The key movements have been modest: the rotation of a Marine Corps battle group in Darwin, the relocation of the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to another site within Okinawa, the redeployment of 8000 US Marines from Okinawa to Guam and other sites in the Pacific, and the negotiation of an expanded US militarypresence in the Philippines.
Some analysts like John Feffer have called the Pacific Pivot more “smoke than firepower,” and that the thrust is not so much to add substantially to the US military power in the region but to get US allies like Japan to take more of the so-called burden of defines by strengthening their armed forces via, among other things, arms imports from theUS. As Feffer puts it, “In an age of economic austerity…the Pacific pivot amounts to a complicated dance in which the United States steps backward as we propel our allies forward. It might seem a penny-wise way of sharing the security burden, but the realignment is still woefully expensive. And “Asianizing” thePacific through arms exports and visiting forces agreements only helps to fuel what has emerged as the most significant arms race in the world today.”
Allies on the Forefront
Pushed by the US, Japan has increased its military spending for the first time in over a decade and has agreed to take a more active role in the supporting US allies like the Philippines via military aid. The US has added 800 troops to its 28,500 troops in Korea as part of the “rebalancing,” but, more significant, Korea has been steadily increasing its funding of US troops and bases there from $731 million in 2009 to $836 million in 2013.
In the Philippines, the US is finishing negotiations for locating a US base within a Philippine base. The arrangement flouts the Philippine constitution since it prohibits foreign bases in the country without a treaty, but it saves the US a lot of money since it will not have to pay rent to the Philippines nor will it incur the huge costs of maintaining fixed bases such as Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base, which the US turned over to the Philippines over 20 years ago. As Frank Chang of the Foreign Policy Research Institute writes, “For the United States, the…agreement helps demonstrate to the Philippines and the region its commitment to the Obama administration’s oft-mentioned pivot or rebalance to Asia and to do so without the expense of building or maintaining new military installations.” He adds, “It clearly offers the United States a cost-effective way to enhance its presence in Asia, something that Washington has wanted to do for a long time.”
So the main significance of the Pacific Pivotis not so much a substantial increase in US military deployments so far, but Washington’s allies taking on more of the burden of maintaining the US power projection capabilities either by increasing their arms imports from the US or heightening their own military deployments, as in the case of Japan, or providing the US with inexpensive basing facilities, like the Philippines. Now, whether it is a buildup by the USor its allies, the Pacific Pivot is destabilizing.
China’s Drive to Regional Hegemony
Le tme now move on China. China’s controversial moves in the Western Pacific have served as a convenient excuse for Washington’s reaffirmation of its presence in the region. In particular, Beijing’s claim of the whole South China Sea (now also called the West Philippine Sea) as Chinese territory hasallowed the United States to portray itself as indispensable for protecting the region’s smaller countries from Chinese hegemony. A one-time U.S. colony and ally, the Philippine government has been especially receptive to Washington’s siren call.
In2012, Beijing created “Sansha City” to “administer” the whole West Philippine Sea and the islands and terrestrial features it claims. Among these are the Spratly Islands, nine of which are claimed and occupied by the Philippines, along with Scarborough Shoal, Ayungin Shoal, Panganiban Reef, and Recto Bank, all of which are claimed by the Philippines. The Spratlys are about 370 kilometers (230 miles) from Palawan and some 1,609 kilometers (1,000 miles) from China. Scarborough Shoal is137 kilometers (85 miles) from the Philippine province of Zambales and 700 kilometers (434 miles) away from China.
The last few months have seen a series of provocative Chinese moves to dislodge the Philippine presence from some of these islands as part of what a Chinesegeneral has called the “Cabbage Strategy.” The thrust of the Cabbage Strategy,Major General Zhang Zhaozhong explained, was to surround Bajo de Masinloc,Ayungin Shoal, and other Philippine territories with a massive Chinese naval presence to starve Filipino detachments and prevent reinforcements from reaching them.
What China adduces as a legal basis for its aggressive moves is a note verbale that Beijing submitted to the United Nations on May 7, 2009. It unilaterally asserted China’s“indisputable sovereignty” over all the islands in the West Philippine Sea and their “adjacent waters/relevant waters.”
Accompanying the note was the infamous “Nine Dash Line” map demarcating China’s claims int he region. No official explanation for the nine-dash line was provided at that time or since, though there have been unofficial references to the islands and waters of the West Philippine Sea being ancestral Chinese territories, and to their inclusion in maps of the defunct Nationalist Chinese regime that date back to the late 1940s.
The Nine-Dash-Line not only claims for China the islands and other terrestrial features in the South China Sea but also asserts that the Philippines, and the four other claimants to all or part of the to South China Sea (Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam), are not entitled to their 200 Nautical Mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), since the whole area falls under China’s “indisputable sovereignty.” What most of the other claimants are left with are only the territorial waters that extend 12 nautical miles from their respective coasts.
But the South China Sea disputes go beyond the interests of the six claimant countries. For what China is saying with its nine-dash line is that a body of water that is 3.5 million square kilometers in size—which borders six states, and through which transits one third of the world’s shipping—is the equivalentof a domestic waterway like Lake Michigan in the United States. If allowed to stand, many analysts conclude that the nine-dash line claim will amount to one of the greatest maritime grabs in history.
With the exhaustion of all possible bilateral approaches to address theissue and to show its commitment to the use of peaceful methods to resolve its disagreements with China, the Philippines recently brought its case over Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal to the United Nations for international arbitration. The process would allow China, the Philippines and the otherclaimants to clarify their maritime entitlements under UNCLOS, paving the wayfor a truly peaceful and lasting settlement of the West Philippine Sea disputes.The five-member United Nations Arbitral Tribunal formally began the hearing on the Philippine petition last year. China, however, refuses to participate in the process, a clear indication that itrealizes that international law is not on its side.
Sothe big question is why is China behaving this way? China’s interest in the rich fisheries and oil and gas reserves of the South China Sea is longstanding.Its behavior, however, has grown more aggressive recently.
There are three theories about the mainsprings of the more assertive Chinese posture.The first says it stems from insecurity. China’s increasingly aggressive less from expansionist intent than from the insecurities brought about by high-speed growth followed by economic crisis. Long dependent for its legitimacy on delivering economic growth, China has recently experienced domestic troubles related to the global financial crisis that have left theCommunist Party leadership groping for a new ideological justification. It has found this in virulent nationalism.
The second theory, my view, is related to the first. It is that China is poised to make major changes in its domestic political economy from which new winners and new losers will emerge owing to the exhaustion of the old export-led development model. An aggressive, nationalist stance of pushing territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea and the Western Pacific, near Japan and Korea, would, in this view, be a way of containing centrifugal forces as the party carries out a comprehensive program of reform.
The third, most commonly accepted, theory is that China’s moves reflect the cold calculation of a confidently rising power. It aims to stake out a monopoly overt he fishing and energy resources of the West Philippine Sea in its bid tobecome a regional, and later a global, hegemon.
But whatever the source of its provocative posture, Beijing’s moves have alarmed its neighbors. The Philippines, as I noted earlier, is finalizing an agreement with Washington that will create US bases within Philippine bases. Vietnam, Washington’s old enemy, has stepped up military cooperation with the United States and has opened the old Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay to the US Navy for its repair and maintenance needs. While Vietnam has not formally called for a stronger US military presence owing to a desire not to antagonize China, they have unofficially promoted it. When I visited Hanoi a few years ago in my capacity as a member of the Philippine Congress, I was told by a Foreign Ministry official that as an old US ally, the Philippines must push the US to have a heightened military presence in the South China Sea.
At the meeting of its foreign ministers at the end of June, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reminded China of its “collective commitment under the  Declaration of Conduct [of Parties] to ensuring the resolutionof disputes by peaceful means in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), without resorting to the threat or use of force, while exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities.”
U.S.-China sparring is worrisome enough, but there is a third source of destabilisation in the region: Japan. Right-wing elements there, including the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have taken advantage of China’s moves in the West Philippine Sea and Japan’s dispute with Beijing over the deserted Senkaku Islands to push for a more aggressive military posture. Under Abe, Japan has pushed for a bigger role in the military configuration in the Pacific, advancing the doctrine of “collective defense,” which means Japan will go the aid of the USand other allies of Japan in the event of conflict in the Western Pacific. Abe, who is, incidentally the grandson of former Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, an acquitted Class A War Criminal, has also called for the abolition or amendment of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which currently prohibits war as an instrument offoreign policy and prevents Japan from having offensive military capabilities.
The ostensible aim is to counter China’s rise. But the strategic objective is to have a foreign and military policy more independent from the United States, which has managedTokyo’s external security affairs ever since Japan’s defeat during the Second World War. As Abe’s allies put it,they want a Japan that is once again a “normal” nation, that has shed its“semisovereign” status.
Many of Japan’s neighbors are convinced that a Japan more independent from the United States will develop nuclear weapons. They fear the prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan that has shed its post-war pacifism and not yet carried out the national soul searching that in Germany embedded responsibility for the atrocities of the Nazi regime in the national consciousness. This failure to institutionalize and internalize war guilt is what allowed the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, to make his shocking statement two years ago that the estimated 200,000 Korean, Chinese, and Filipino “comfortwomen“—women captured and forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops in the Second World War—were “necessary” for Japanese troop morale.
Even more scandalous was Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last December, the first visit of a Prime Minister in six years. Yasukuni Shrine, the home of Japan’s war dead, includes among those interred14 convicted war criminals, and Japan’s neighbors have long condemned the ritual visit of Japanese leaders to Yasukuni as a sign of the country’s unrepentant attitude for its conduct during WorldWar II.
Abe’s perceived repudiation or minimizing of Japan’s war guilt has alienated not only China but South Korea. The relations between the two pillars of Washington’s Pivot strategy have become so bad that President Obama felt compelled to hold a trilateral meeting with Abe and South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in late March. Paradoxically, the Pivot strategy, with Japan’s heightened role in it, may in fact be strainingrather than consolidating political and military relations among some USallies.
Strategic Dilemma for South Korea
In this connection, let me just focus on some of the implications of the Pivot for the two Koreas:
The first is that, with Japan becoming more assertive and less repentant, South Korea would be less willing to participate in a multilateraleffort to pressure North Korea on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Second, the US will find it much harder now to enlist Chinese support to retard North Korea’s nuclear and missile efforts, and we all know hat it there is only one country that North Korea listens to and that is China.
Third, with China being now so central to South Korea as a consumer market, a source of components, an investment area, and a constraint on North Korean behavior, South Korea will feel quite ambivalent filling the good solid ally role that the US wants it to play. South Korean attitudes toward China have also been changing, with a 2002 poll showing that 86 per cent of younger generation Korean opinion leaders wanting to see Korea-China relations strengthened.
So rather than make a definitive statement, I would like to pose a question t: isn’t Obama’s Pacific Pivot creating a something close to astrategic dilemma for South Korea’s elites?
To return to the regional picture, China’s aggressive territorial claims, Washington’s “pivot,” and Japan’s opportunistic moves add up to a volatile brew. Many observers note that the Asia Pacific military-political situation is becoming like that of Europe at the end of the 19th century, with the emergence of a similarconfiguration of balance of power politics. It is a useful reminder that while that fragile balancing might have worked for a time, it eventually ended up int he conflagration that was the First World War. None of the key players in East Asia today may want war. But neither did any of the Great Powers on theeve of the First World War. The problem is that in a situation of fiercerivalry among powers that hate one another, an incident like a ship collision—intended or unintended–may trigger an uncontrollable chain of events that may result in a regional war, or worse.
Let me end with some words on the alternative. The only viable ealternative to the balance of power strategy that is now pushed by the US,Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines is a collective security arrangement. This would include China, Japan, the two Koreas, and the ASEAN countries. This was the direction that the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was heading towards in the 1990’s, despite the opposition of the United States. The Clinton administration, which saw itself as the sole guardian of regional peace and security, tried very hard to undermine this process, calling the ARF a “talk shop.” Unfortunately, the Asian financial crisis in 1997, by pulling the rung from under the credibility of ASEAN, dissipated the momentum of the ARF.
It will be difficult, but I feel strongly that we in the region must once again pick up the ARF project of creating a mulilateral body with a set of rules adhered to by every participating government to ensure regional peace and security. The alternative is a future where crisis will follow upon crisis as the positive dynamics of the region towards towards trade, cooperation, andpeaceful engagement gets subordinated to superpower conflict.
*Representative of Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the House of Representatives of the Philippines.
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