By Stuart Grudgings
KUALA LUMPUR Oct 6 When then U.S. Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton declared two years ago "We are back to
stay" as a power in Asia, the most dramatic symbol of the policy
shift was the planned deployment of 2,500 U.S. Marines in
northern Australia, primed to respond to any regional conflict.
At this point in time, however, there is not a single U.S.
Marine in the tropical northern city of Darwin, according to the
Australian defence ministry. Two hundred Marines just finished
their six-month tour and will not be replaced until next year,
when 1,150 Marines are due to arrive.
The original goal of stationing 2,500 Marines there by 2017
remains in place, but the lack of a U.S. presence there two
years after the policy was announced underlines questions about
Washington's commitment to the strategic "pivot" to Asia.
President Barack Obama's cancellation of a trip this week to
four Asian nations and two regional summits due to the U.S.
government shutdown has raised further doubts over a policy
aimed at re-invigorating U.S. military and economic influence in
the fast-growing region, while balancing a rising China.
While U.S. and Asian diplomats downplayed the impact of
Obama's no-show, the image of a dysfunctional, distracted
Washington adds to perceptions that China has in some ways
outflanked the U.S. pivot.
"It's symptomatic of the concern in Asia over the
sustainability of the American commitment," said Carl Baker,
director of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies in Hawaii.
As embarrassed U.S. officials announced the cancellations
last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Indonesia
announcing a raft of deals worth about $30 billion and then in
Malaysia to announce a "comprehensive strategic partnership",
including an upgrade in military ties.
He was en route to this week's Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bali and the East Asia Summit in
Brunei, where Obama will no longer be able to press his
signature trade pact or use personal diplomacy to support allies
concerned at China's assertive maritime expansion.
Since 2011, China has consolidated its position as the
largest trade partner with most Asian countries and its direct
investments in the region are surging, albeit from a much lower
base than Europe, Japan and the United States. Smaller countries
such as Laos and Cambodia have been drawn so strongly into
China's economic orbit that they have been called "client
states" of Beijing, supporting its stance in regional disputes.
Leveraging its commercial ties, China is also expanding its
diplomatic, political and military influence more broadly in the
region, though its efforts are handicapped by lingering maritime
tensions with Japan, the Philippines and several other nations.
"For countries not closely allied with the U.S., Obama's
no-show will reinforce their policy of bandwagoning with China,"
wrote Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defence
Force Academy in Canberra.
China, for instance, has been the biggest trade partner of
the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
since 2009, and its direct investments are surging, bringing
with them increased economic and diplomatic influence.
Chinese companies invested $4.42 billion in Southeast Asia
in 2012, up 52 percent on the previous year, according to
Chinese state media citing the China-ASEAN Business Council.
Investments into neighbouring Vietnam rocketed 147 percent.
China is demonstrating that it can deploy forces far beyond
its coastal waters on patrols where they conduct complex battle
exercises, according to Japanese and Western naval experts.
Chinese shipyards are turning out new nuclear and conventional
submarines, destroyers, missile-armed patrol boats and surface
ships at a higher rate than any other country.
Operating from increasingly modern ports, including a new
naval base in the south of Hainan island, its warships are
patrolling more regularly, in bigger numbers and further from
the mainland in what is the most sweeping shift in Asia's
maritime power balance since the demise of the Soviet navy.
China's military diplomacy with Southeast Asia is rapidly
evolving as it takes steps to promote what Beijing describes as
its "peaceful rise".
The Chinese navy's hospital ship Peace Ark recently treated
hundreds of patients on a swing last month through Myanmar,
Cambodia and Indonesia - its first such mission across Southeast
Asia. Its naval vessels returning from regular international
anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden have made calls in
Southeast Asian ports, including Singapore and Vietnam.
Still, analysts and diplomats say Beijing has a long way to
go to catch up with not just the long-dominant United States,
but other regional military powers such as Australia, Japan and
"China has come late to the party," said Richard Bitzinger,
a military analyst at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of
NOT A PATCHY PIVOT
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, one of
Washington's most key allies in the region, said it was
disappointing Obama would not be visiting Asia.
"Obviously we prefer a U.S. government which is working to
one which is not. And we prefer a U.S. President who is able to
travel to fulfill his international duties to one who is
preoccupied with his domestic preoccupations," Lee said after
arriving in Bali.
"It is a very great disappointment to us President Obama is
unable to visit."
U.S. officials dismissed the notion that Obama's no-show
would imply any weakening of the U.S. commitment to the region.
Just last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary
of State John Kerry were in South Korea and Japan to reaffirm
the U.S. military commitment to the two key allies, and Kerry
will fill in for Obama at the two Asian summits.
"The bottom line is that the United States of America is not
going to change one iota the fundamental direction of the policy
under this president," Kerry said on Saturday.
"I think everybody in the region understands. Everybody sees
this (the cancellation of the visit) as a moment in politics -
an unfortunate moment - but they see it for what it is."
The United States has ramped up military funding and
assistance to its close ally the Philippines, expanded military
exercises with other nations and increased regional port visits.
From only 50 ship visits in 2010, nearly 90 ships have
visited the Philippines since January this year alone.
Washington has stationed surveillance planes there and
promised up to $30 million in support for building and operating
coastal radar stations, all aimed at improving its ally's
ability to counter China's naval encroachment in the disputed
South China Sea that has alarmed several Asian nations.
But talks to establish a framework agreement on a regular
rotational U.S. military presence in the Philippines have yet to
bear fruit, and are unlikely to have been helped by Obama's
cancellation of his planned visit to Manila.
For the Darwin deployment, a U.S. Senate Committee said in
April that it would cost $1.6 billion to build lodgings for the
Marines, but the Australian government last month called for
only a first-stage A$12 million ($11.3 million) tender to
construct new quarters at existing Australian barracks for
around 350 marines.
The economic leg of the pivot, negotiations for the U.S.-led
Trans-Pacific Partnership, has grown to 12 nations. But the
complex three-year-old talks, which seek unprecedented access to
domestic markets, are facing resistance in many countries and
are unlikely to completed soon.
A final deal would have to be approved by the U.S. Congress,
raising the prospect of domestic politics again obstructing Asia
"Even if the administration could push through some
agreement on the TPP, it's very unlikely there is going to be
legislative success getting that through based on the acrimony
that exists," said the CSIS's Baker.
"...On the commercial side (of the pivot), there seems to be
more rhetoric than action."