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How the U.S. Pivot Towards Asia is Exacerbating Tensions With China

Under the pivot strategy, the U.S. is set to commit several thousand troops to Asia in addition to the 320,000 troops already in the region.

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With newly re-elected President Barack Obama having chosen Southeast Asia as his first foreign destination, where he also attended the much-anticipated pan-Pacific East Asia Summit, the U.S. has underscored its commitment to its so-called strategic ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific region.

Months after the 2011 U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, President Obama signaled the formal launch of the pivot in a November speech to the Australian parliament: “As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”

The U.S. already has around 320,000 troops stationed in the region, as well as 50 percent of its formidable global naval assets. Under the pivot strategy, the U.S. is set to commit several thousand additional troops and increase its naval strength by another ten percent in the coming few years.

The Obama administration has repeatedly denied that the pivot is a containment strategy aimed at Beijing, arguing it is simply a logical ‘rebalancing’ towards the region in light of Asia’s stunning economic growth and the increasing importance of maintaining U.S. interests there.

However, more than two years into the so-called U.S. pivot, many strategic commentators across the Pacific have raised major questions as to its real intentions, actual impact, and practicability, given the United States’ deep fiscal constraints ahead of scheduled defence-spending cuts.

Reacting to lingering uncertainties over the U.S. strategy, China, which views the pivot as an act of provocation, as well as other countries in the region such as Vietnam, Philippines, and Japan, have stepped up their territorial claims in the Western Pacific – indirectly testing America’s resolve to uphold its strategic commitments.

In this sense, the pivot – purportedly to reinforce the United States’ role as an ‘anchor of stability and prosperity’ in the Pacific – has ironically contributed to greater uncertainty, turbulence, and belligerence vis-à-vis the festering maritime disputes.

In a recent op-ed for the Singapore-based daily The Straits Times, Barry Desker, the dean of the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), called for ‘mutual restraint’ by all disputing littoral states to ‘diffuse’ tensions, while contending that all parties are “guilty of occupying uninhabited islands and land features.”

And a recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says: “With tensions on the rise, Manila is eager to pursue closer military cooperation with the U.S., and Hanoi (as a strategic partner) is keen to carefully bring in and balance U.S. influence in the region.

“If these countries frame any U.S. assistance as being directed against China, it will be harder for the former to persuade the latter that it will not get involved in territorial disputes.”

The pivot can be traced as far back as the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton injected the U.S. into the centre of decades-long territorial disputes in the South China Sea by announcing that her country had a ‘national interest’ in the freedom of navigation across the Western Pacific, including the South China Sea.

As a result, allies such as Japan and the Philippines have repeatedly sought U.S. re-assurance vis-à-vis existing bilateral mutual defence treaties, especially in the event of military confrontation with China over disputed maritime features in the Western Pacific.

The Philippines and Vietnam are mired in bitter maritime disputes with China over a whole host of features in the Spratly and Paracel chains of islands in the South China Sea, while Japan is contesting China’s claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu chain of islands in the East China Sea.

Meanwhile, Washington’s allies in Northeast Asia, Japan and South Korea, are locked in a separate territorial dispute over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands in the Sea of Japan.

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