No rebalance necessary: The essential continuity of U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific

The recent Order from Chaos interview with U.S. Army Pacific Commander General Vincent Brooks is not just a useful perspective on the Asia-Pacific from an official responsible for the conduct of American policy. It is also an implicit but important response to ongoing discussions about the Obama administration’s approach policy toward Asia. The tenor of the public commentary has been that the administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” marked a major shift in U.S. global policy, that its focus was military only, and that its goal was to contain China. General Brooks corrects those misimpressions.

First of all, he implicitly emphasized the continuity in U.S.-Asia policy. At least since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the United States has protected its own security by fostering security in the East Asian region. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once said, “we are an Asian power.” The key to this approach is presence: forward deployment of our military forces; a significant tempo of regional diplomatic activity (including helping Asian countries resolve disputes that they can’t resolve themselves); and promoting an agenda of political reform where it is appropriate. For six decades, therefore, Washington has worked to create and sustain the context in which Asian nations formulate their own policies. This is a challenging task. On the one hand, it requires Washington to deploy a mix of methods: deterrence, reassurance, partnering, and sometimes the use of force. On the other, the region itself is complex, combining a vestige of the Cold War (Korean peninsula), the twin dynamics of globalization, and regional economic integration, weak states, global issues like climate change, and now the revival of China as a great power. In the current context, the basic strategy that has served the United States well needs adjustment, and that is what the Obama administration’s rebalance was all about. But it is not a new strategy.

Second, to counter those who think that the rebalance is all about containing China, General Brooks takes a balanced approach to that country’s military modernization. He looks less at the amount of money China spends on defense than what it buys with that money. As he said, “The only capabilities that concern us [are those that make] China . . . capable of changing the status quo without coordination.” (By the way, when it comes to China’s military budgets, it has been basically flat in real terms and has consumed a fairly constant share of gross domestic product and government spending).

Third, General Brooks is still quite serious about the new security challenge that China poses East Asia. The areas of greatest concern are the waters of the East China Sea and the South China Sea. As China seeks to expand its security perimeter eastward and southward, there is the potential for clashes with the coast guards, fishing fleets, and navies of other countries, including the United States Navy. But General Brooks has an interesting approach to dealing with the real challenge that China poses: he emphasizes the importance of engaging China, and particularly the Chinese military. Not all of the issues that divide the two countries can be handled simply through dialogue and other tools of engagement but some can—factual misunderstandings, differences over how to achieve goals that we have in common, or failures of implementation. In each of these, dialogue can be very productive in narrowing differences. Even the management of conflicts of interest requires that Washington and Beijing talk to each other.

Finally, what General Brooks did not say was that the future success of the enduring American strategy in Asia depends on the renewed commitment of U.S. political leaders and the American public to it. This isn’t just a question of budgets, but the strategy cannot be sustained without robust funding. Maintaining forward military deployment costs a lot, and the possible resumption of sequestration is relevant here. Although the benefits of the U.S. presence in Asia are hard to calculate and impossible to quantify, they are substantial. If that presence is reduced, it will affect the calculations of allies and adversaries alike.