US and TPP: Losing balance in the rebalance

With the conclusion of talks for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), what had begun as a humble experiment between Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore in 2006 is now poised to free up trade in 40 per cent of the world economy.

Arguably, it would also bolster Washington's much-touted "pivot" or "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific, announced with much fanfare in 2011.

That's the good part. But if one examines the pivot's three pillars together - the TPP, engaged American diplomacy in the region and the military dimension - the rebalance doesn't inspire much confidence.

Firstly, the TPP will face much opposition in a sceptical Congress and among the increasingly crowded field of presidential candidates for next year. Even if the TPP could somehow be ratified, the other two elements - diplomacy and military - look wobbly.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that Washington is again being sucked into longstanding feuds in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

As Mr Aaron Connelly of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute argues, dysfunction and neglect in the US Congress have affected America’s Asia-Pacific Policy. The rebalance has also failed to deliver high-level attention from administration principals. While his predecessor, Mrs Hillary Clinton, spent much time in Asia, Mr John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, has focused his efforts in the Middle East and Europe. While his predecessor, Mrs Hillary Clinton, spent much time in Asia, Mr John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, has focused his efforts in the Middle East and Europe.

A farmer planting saplings in a rice field in Kagoshima prefecture, Japan. The TPP is now poised to free up trade in 40 per cent of the world economy. Arguably, it would also bolster Washington's much-touted "pivot" or "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific
A farmer planting saplings in a rice field in Kagoshima prefecture, Japan. The TPP is now poised to free up trade in 40 per cent of the world economy. Arguably, it would also bolster Washington's much-touted "pivot" or "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific. But if one examines the pivot's three pillars together - the TPP, engaged American diplomacy in the region and the military dimension - the rebalance doesn't inspire much confidence, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS

The military element of the rebalance - a plan to base 60 per cent of US Navy vessels in the Pacific - does not convince US allies and partners of Washington's staying power. A US Congressional Budget Office report noted that the US fleet would likely fall from 275 ships to somewhere around 208 to 251 ships, depending on annual shipbuilding budgets.

More importantly, China has also not taken the rebalance sitting down. From the onset, China viewed the TPP - with its so-called 21st century free trade elements, such as the protection of intellectual property rights - as a device that seeks to exclude Beijing.

China also sees the TPP and the US rebalance as American attempts at pseudo-containment. Hence, China has sought to create its own parallel universe of institutions to erode America's dominance in the Asia-Pacific.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping's "Asian security concept", where Asia's future is to be decided by Asians, Beijing has forged ahead with the One Belt, One Road initiative, the wildly successful Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Xiangshan Forum, which is seen to be the northern analogue to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue of defence ministers in Singapore.

America should not be too smug about its network of friends in Asia. In past years, Beijing has not shied away from using economic leverage to win friends and influence people.

South Korea is a classic example. While South Korea-US ties remain strong, Americans should not be too sanguine about Seoul's ability to stay out of China's orbit.

Last November, China warned Seoul that the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence system known as Thaad against North Korea would "harm China's security system". Seoul backed down. The presence of South Korean President Park Geun Hye at China's Sept 3 military parade to commemorate the end of World War II was seen as a visible "tilt" towards Beijing.

This hit home for me at a recent lunch with an Asian diplomat. To her, South-east Asia's wariness about China's recent bout of assertiveness is overdone. "Why are people in South-east Asia so worried about China's rise? The people in Korea have been under China's tutelage for a long time, and they have no problems," she said.

Another chink in Uncle Sam's armour is its refusal to join the AIIB - an entity that now boasts of US friends such as Australia, France, Germany, Israel and South Korea.

Most importantly, China's massive land reclamation in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea has cocked a snook at America's bid to remain the security guarantor for Asia-Pacific security.

Washington's open resistance to the reclamation aside, the fact remains that China's reclamation has changed the facts on the ground (or the high sea). The militarised reefs challenge a cherished American objective - freedom of navigation along sea lanes of communications.

To many Asians, the US rebalance and China's "Asian security concept" matter less than what they see as a potential accommodation between the two great powers in Asia - a so-called Group of 2 that would come at the expense of smaller powers in the region.

Years ago, a Chinese admiral offered his American counterpart a plan to carve up the Asia-Pacific. "You keep your aircraft carriers east of Hawaii. We'll keep ours west," the Chinese admiral was reported to have said.

Fears of a Group of 2 will not go away. Speaking to scholars and diplomats at a lunch in Singapore, a senior Chinese official vented her frustration over Asean's resistance to China's land reclamation in the South China Sea. "If they continue to trouble us on the issue, we'd go over their heads and carve up a deal with the US," she hissed.

She did not elaborate, but one could envisage a deal whereby the US refrains from sending military vessels close to the reclaimed features in the Spratlys in return for China pushing ahead with a formal Code of Conduct with Asean on the South China Sea dispute.

A Group of 2 will not emerge tomorrow. But if one looks at US-China accommodation on South Vietnam and Taiwan in past decades, it is a distinct possibility. Whenever great powers are in cahoots, smaller powers will bear the costs.

  • The writer is a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

An earlier version of this story said that: "As Mr Aaron Connelly of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute argues, dysfunction and neglect plague Washington's Asia-Pacific policy. " 
The writer has since clarified that the sentence should read, "As Mr Aaron Connelly of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute argues, dysfunction and neglect in the US Congress have affected America’s Asia-Pacific Policy. The rebalance has also failed to deliver high-level attention from administration principals. "

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2015, with the headline 'US and TPP: Losing balance in the rebalance'. Print Edition | Subscribe