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Asia remains US' priority

Updated: 2014-04-19 07:32
By Chen Xiangyang ( China Daily)

Ukraine crisis won't force Washington to change 'rebalancing' to Asia-Pacific policy as it continues to focus on containing China

The impact of the Ukraine crisis on strategic international relations has started emerging. Many people are wondering whether it will influence the "pivot to Asia" policy of the United States.

The Ukraine crisis has indeed had an effect on the US' Asia-Pacific policy. Despite continuing its high-profile involvement in the Asia-Pacific, the US is perturbed because of its deep involvement in Ukraine. The US has used sanctions, its favorite non-military weapon, to browbeat Russia (for annexing the Crimea region of Ukraine). It is helping Ukraine's interim government in several ways, and has strengthened military support for its East European allies and consolidated NATO's collective defense. The US has terminated NATO's cooperation with Russia, too, and helped the European Union reduce its reliance on Russian oil and gas supplies.

But, at the same time, it has been negotiating with Russia. The US and Russian presidents have held several conversations over the phone and their foreign ministers have met quite a few times in an effort to strike a deal over Ukraine.

Amid all this, the US has strived to maintain its involvement in the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Eastern Europe. For the US, the importance of the Middle East has been declining because it is approaching "energy independence" and the significance of Eastern Europe in the short term is increasing because of the worsening Ukraine crisis. But the Asia-Pacific remains the "priority among priorities" for the US because its strategic value is "appreciating". Three factors prove this contention.

First, the US continues to strengthen its military presence in the Asia-Pacific. The Wall Street Journal recently published a report, "US Marines rebuilding capacity in Asia-Pacific", saying that, with tensions in East Asia escalating over maritime disputes, the US Marine Corps is reinforcing its presence in the region by upgrading its amphibious capabilities. The point to be noted is that the US Marines are consolidating their presence in the Asia-Pacific and trying to form a trilateral front with the Philippines and Japan to act as a deterrence against China at a time when the Pentagon is cutting its budget.

Second, even at this crucial moment in the Ukraine crisis, senior US military and political leaders continue to frequently visit the Asia-Pacific, using their military diplomacy to maintain their strategic superiority in the region. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel began his fourth Asia-Pacific trip in early April. And at the first "US-ASEAN Defense Forum" in Hawaii, where defense ministers of all 10 ASEAN member states were present, he highlighted the importance of "humanitarian assistance and disaster response", with The Los Angeles Times quoting Hagel as saying that there would be no let-up in the US' Asia-Pacific strategy.

That Hagel flew to Hawaii to meet with ASEAN defense ministers at a time when Russia was reportedly massing its border with Ukraine with troops shows that the Asia-Pacific is of foremost concern to the US.

Responding to some people's suggestion that given the Ukraine crisis, the US should go slow with its "pivot to Asia" policy or shift its strategic emphasis to Europe, Hagel said that such a change simply wouldn't happen. The reason: in the larger context and in the long term, the Asia-Pacific remains the most important region for the US.

Third, the US is getting deeply involved in the maritime disputes in East Asia by continuing to support its allies. There is reason to suspect that it was the US that instigated the Philippines to move the Permanent Court of Arbitration to resolve the latter's maritime dispute with China in the South China Sea. This can be seen as the US' attempt to help the Philippines seize part of China's Nansha Islands.

In the Diaoyu Islands dispute in the East China Sea, the US has been helping Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's militant stance by turning a blind eye to his rightist policy of revising the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation and increasing US-Japan joint military operations.

The impact of the Ukraine crisis is being felt on the ties of big powers, including changes in "principal contradictions". For example, it has heightened the contradictions between Russia and major Western powers. US-Russia contradictions have intensified while the contradictions between China and major Western powers have relatively eased, with Sino-US contradictions becoming less prominent.

The Ukraine crisis at best can only be a temporary strategic "distraction" for the US; it will neither contain nor postpone its "rebalancing" to the Asia-Pacific strategy at this point. At the most, it could adjust its approach to take advantage of the contradictions in the region.

The US will make greater use of its Asia-Pacific allies, especially Abe and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, both of whom have been stoking trouble and creating confusion. The US strategy is to use the maritime disputes between China and Japan, and China and the Philippines to "contain China" with the help of its neighbors.

The Ukraine crisis is still unfolding. And the extent of its impact on the "pivot to Asia" policy of the US hinges on the outcome of the ongoing standoff between Russia and Ukraine (and the US). But one thing is for sure, the Ukraine crisis will not compel the US to change its Asia-Pacific strategy, because it is a preset guideline of the Barack Obama administration, reflected again in the latest Quadrennial Defense Review.

The author is deputy director of Institute of World Political Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. www.chinausfocus.com

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