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Thursday, June 11, 2015
Turning the ‘Asia Pivot’ Into Reality, Wall Street Journal
Turning the ‘Asia Pivot’ Into Reality
By engaging interlocking groups of democratic countries, the U.S. can ensure its presence in Asia.
TRIANGLE DEFENSE: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last month at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.PHOTO: THEN CHIH WEY/ZUMA PRESS
On his recent tour through Asia, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carterhad a message for America’s allies and partners, as well as one for China. He promised to double down on America’s “pivot to Asia” while refusing to acknowledge Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. But his strategy of deeper engagement with Asian countries remains incomplete.
Speaking before the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Mr. Carter reaffirmed that Washington would not recognize China’s land-reclamation activities in the Spratly islands. This was coupled with a demand that all parties stop such actions. He made clear that U.S. military planes would continue to fly through the islands’ airspace and that U.S. Navy ships would continue to sail through waters claimed by the Chinese. Relying on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Obama administration has rightly refused to accept as legitimate land forms any man-made features built on top of reefs. The goal is to negate any legal protection for China’s 2,000 acres of new land.
Unfortunately, when pressed for specifics on how Washington would prevent China from building more islands or fortifying the ones already completed, Mr. Carter had few to offer. This raised concerns that, like his predecessors, Mr. Carter was offering little more than rhetoric, which so far has had no discernible deterrent effect on China. Asian nations realize that when Beijing feels strong enough to ignore American warnings, they have little hope of influencing China’s actions.
Yet later on in his tour of Asia Mr. Carter did offer some glimmers of how the U.S. would respond to China’s expansionism. In Vietnam, where he was feted by America’s erstwhile enemies, he promised to help Hanoi purchase American patrol vessels and generally expand defense trade. The two sides signed a Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations.
In New Delhi, Mr. Carter promoted greater defense-industrial cooperation. This included agreements to co-produce portable field generators and a protective suit for chemical-biological warfare, as part of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative.
Mr. Carter’s trip thus focused on one of Asia’s largest actors—India—and two smaller, though significant players—Vietnam and Singapore, where the U.S. Navy will be rotating some of its new littoral combat ships. The Obama administration should now link these two groups of states into a coherent whole.
On the one hand, America has firm relations with some of Asia’s leading countries, including treaty allies Australia, Japan and South Korea. Together with India, these countries could form a democratic, geographic community where Washington focuses on increasing their activity in Asia. This triangle of liberal states could help provide public goods such as expanded maritime patrolling, intelligence sharing and professional military education.
At the same time, Mr. Carter’s trip highlighted an inner triangle of Southeast Asian nations strategically located in the South China Sea. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam all can play an important role in helping ensure stability in some of the world’s most vital waterways. Some, like Singapore, already have a well-developed military. Most of the others continue to build up both their capabilities and their capacity.
These nations could all benefit from an enhanced relationship with the outer-triangle countries, thereby helping to create a community of interests in Asia. Be it military training, information sharing, joint patrolling or humanitarian actions, the two triangles of Asia should be encouraged to work more closely together. Building confidence among Asian states to effectively act together is itself a worthwhile goal. Except for Vietnam, all are liberal or liberalizing states, and being part of a larger liberal community may strengthen the commitment of countries like Malaysia to follow the democratic path.
It should become an explicit U.S. policy to try and integrate these two triangles. Asia’s more modernized and more capable nations should aim at taking the lead in responding to regional challenges, while the less capable or smaller ones should be constantly encouraged to build their capabilities and work together. It’s a way of making the pivot more concrete and more effective.
Ultimately, this concentric-triangles approach may help deter China from trying to unilaterally rewrite the rules of regional behavior in East Asia. It would also help ensure Asia’s continued prosperity and stability in the coming decades.
Mr. Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. and columnist for wsj.com, is writing a book on risk in Asia.