America’s ‘pivot to Asia’ finally shifts into gear

With Afghanistan in the rear-view mirror, the United States, Britain and Australia forming a new security arrangement and the US boosting forces and exercises in the region, the so-called “pivot to Asia” first conceived under the Barack Obama administration may finally be shifting into high gear under President Joe Biden.

Out is the general confusion of the Donald Trump presidency; in appears to be a much clearer and firmer policy towards China, whose bullying tactics in the South China Sea have some countries struggling to hold the middle ground.

“I think the Biden administration is committed internally to putting flesh on the pivot,” says one former State Department official, noting that the architect of the plan, Kurt Campbell, Obama’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, is now the National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.

The retired official says the September 23 signing of the AUKUS agreement between the three Western allies is the first tangible sign of Washington confronting China and moving away from its earlier fixation with the Middle East and Afghanistan.

That and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, involving the US, Australia, India and Japan, show Washington-led alliances quietly circumventing the conflicted 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in an effort to blunt Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea. 

But it has led to growing anxiety across Southeast Asia over what might come next. “ASEAN has to take a hard look at how it positions itself,” Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam vice-president Nguyen Sung Son told a recent discussion. “ASEAN centrality is etched in stone, so we know they are trying to get around it.”

For the moment, Washington is likely to move more slowly in North Asia, where the Japanese government is undergoing a leadership change and South Korea is engaged in the latest exchanges in its never-ending efforts to improve relations with North Korea.

The Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific (INDOPACOM) commander Admiral John Aquilino has reportedly called off a scheduled visit this month to Singapore, but diplomatic sources say they still expect him to make the US position clearer in a significant policy announcement in the coming days.

China’s defense strategy is perceived by American planners to be based on its submarine fleet and a growing naval surface-to-surface missile capability. In contrast, US strategy remains largely built around its carrier-based air superiority.

According to one senior US military officer, if the US can’t find closer bases for its aircraft, China will maintain an advantage over the shorter term. That’s why the Philippines could become a larger part of its calculations with the mercurial and China-friendly President Rodrigo Duterte ending his term next May.

The US currently has two Nimitz-class carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Ronald Reagan, and the powerfully armed helicopter carrier USS America, based out of Yokosuka and Sasebo, Japan, with a third carrier also assigned to the Western Pacific.

Only last week, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Chase and Huang Xueping, deputy director of China’s office for military co-operation, ended two days of talks stressing the need to keep communication channels open.

It was the first meeting between the two adversaries since President Biden took office in January, but the signing of AUKUS, under which Washington will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines, has done little to stem rising tensions in the region.

Nor has the overlapping presence in the South China Sea of the two carrier battle groups and mass intrusions by 145 Chinese J-6 and Su-30 fighters and nuclear-capable H-6 bombers into Taiwan’s air defense zone between October 1-4.

Indonesia also seemed powerless to deter a month-long incursion by a Chinese research ship and two Coast Guard ships into its economic exclusion zone in the North Natuna Sea which finally ended when the flotilla pulled out on September 28 without any formal protest from Jakarta.

US ambassador to Indonesia Sung Kim, whose brief also covers North Korea, took the opportunity last week to tell foreign reporters: “We object to any country taking expansionist, aggressive and excessive activities and behavior in our oceans.”

Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College, London, weighed in as well. “China can’t hide its power, but the last two years have been a masterclass in how to lose friends and fail to influence people,” he said. “Despite this, it will not change the reality that China is, and will continue to be, the great rising power of the region.”

Indonesia seeks to be even-handed in its dealings with the two superpowers, worried it will be forced to choose sides if the rivalry takes a serious turn. But like others in the region, its response to AUKUS was restrained and only focused on fears of nuclear proliferation and the possibility of a regional arms race.