Dominic Huntley explores the discrepancy between words and action in US policy in Asia.
United States policy in Asia is fraught with an increasing discrepancy between American words and American actions. The US continues to proclaim its commitment to Asia without putting its money where its mouth is, relying instead on the winds of inertia to carry it forward.
The ‘rebalance’ to Asia in 2012 and subsequent assurances made to their Asian allies has been the Americans main response to the shifting balance of power in the Western Pacific.
President Obama has made many lofty proclamations, such as in 2014 at the University of Queensland where he claimed that the US was a ‘Pacific Power’ and that it would have ‘…lasting influence in the region’. His potential successor Hilary Clinton has been equally enthusiastic, describing the 21st century as America’s “Pacific Century”.
The truth however is that their material commitments have been tokenistic at best, doing nothing to actually reverse the changing balance of power in Asia while leaving a very wide, very open door for the Americans to walk back through if needed.
The ‘Freedom of Navigation Operations’ (FONOPs) that the US has been conducting in the South China Sea are a clear example of tokenism infecting American policy. These operations create the illusion of opposing Chinese island-building in the sea, brazenly and boldly driving ships through Chinese-claimed territorial seas.
The reality of course is that none of these FONOPs have actually prevented the Chinese from building more islands, let alone convinced them to retreat from those already built. Nor do these actions reverse the redistribution of power or reduce regional concerns about China, the actual problem.
The Americans have in part on the impressive imagery of their military forces to sell their case. Formations such as a carrier-battle group look impressive, and sailing one through any given body of water implies commitment and power. In the past this was sufficient to overawe countries like China.
The issue today is that while they look as impressive as ever, what these US forces can do simply by existing is much diminished.
Many American (and Australian) defence experts have been quick to argue that America remains far ahead of Chinese air and maritime capabilities. There are numerous reports which confirm this, such as a 2015 RAND report, ‘The US-China Military Scorecard’. It highlights the relative decline of US forces, but still concedes the continued dominance of the US overall.
This does not translate into actual policy, however. The fact that there are a variety of policies that America could implement does not mean they necessarily are. History shows that just having capabilities does not translate into easy success.
The US is also increasingly constrained by domestic problems. Economic issues from the Great Recession and preceding decades of middle-class stagnation have given rise to powerful anti-status quo actors in US politics, in particular Bernie Sanders and most infamously, Donald Trump. These otherwise polar opposites share skepticism of foreign alliances. Meanwhile mainstream politicians like Hillary Clinton will have to deal with a constrained budget.
Other issues also compete for US attention. Problems in the Middle-East have once again pulled America back into the quagmire, while Putin’s Russia is increasingly problematic in Europe. One of the many unique burdens America bears is its truly global commitment.
Fortunately, America is not actually about to leave Asia altogether. There is a world of difference between doing a job badly and actually quitting – or being fired for that matter. China is able to challenge the US, but cannot actually force it out.
Indeed, China actually attempting to force the US out of Asia would probably do just the opposite. The US is able to be complacent so long as it feels the challenge from China is not serious. An undeniably serious challenge would demolish this belief, and demand that the US react energetically. Like a lazy employee, the threat of being fired is an excellent motivator.
Unfortunately, like a lazy employee who is not imminently threatened with dismissal, the US shows no signs of improving its work ethic. The US loves to talk the talk, and has talked so much that it seems to believe it is walking the walk.
At this rate, it is just going to talk itself off its perch.
Dominic Huntley is a fourth year Asia Pacific Security studies and International Relations student at the Australian National University.