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Interview with Zack Cooper

Image credit: CSIS

Image credit: CSIS

In this interview – part of European Geostrategy’s now long-running interview series – Luis Simón discusses the United States’ responses to Indo-Pacific geopolitical changes in the context of reassuring various Asian allies like Japan and South Korea; the changing American global military presence; and European interests in the Indian Ocean region with Zack Cooper, a fellow with the Japan Chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.


LS: In late 2011, the Obama administration announced the so-called United States’ (US) ‘pivot’ towards the Asia-Pacific region, later renamed ‘rebalance’. The main motivation was to ensure China’s rise would not disrupt the existing, rules-based international system and to reassure America’s allies in Asia. However, ever since it was announced, the ‘rebalance’ has faced a number of obstacles, including, chiefly defence budgetary cuts and on-going instability in the broader Middle East (think Syria or Mali). Most recently, the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s increasing assertiveness in Eastern Europe represent yet another challenge to Washington’s attempt to rebalance its strategic attention and resources towards the Asia-Pacific. Yet, the rebalance theme continues to feature prominently in most US foreign and defence policy rhetoric. To what extent is all that rhetoric backed by actions?

ZC: In my view, President Obama’s main mission in Asia is to demonstrate that the rebalance is real. As you suggest, although many experts agreed with the initial rebalance strategy, questions have been raised about its implementation. With tensions in the East and South China Seas and continuing concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, I think these questions are only logical.

Although some believe that critics of the rebalance’s implementation have been overly negative, I want to focus here on regional perceptions of the rebalance, which I think have grown increasingly pessimistic.

Some of this apprehension arose as the US underwent changes in its rebalance policies, which I think can be divided into three different phases. In the first phase, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton laid out the initial objectives of the rebalance in late 2011. Mr. Obama’s initial statement of the rebalance came in Australia, where he described an enhanced US focus on the Asia-Pacific region. Mrs. Clinton provided the details of this strategy in a Foreign Policy article in which she used the term ‘pivot’. Adding to the Obama and Clinton statements were strong speeches by Secretaries of Defence Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, committing the US to an enhanced presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

In this first year of the rebalance, the US consistently highlighted four American objectives: security, prosperity, values and international order. On security, there was a consistent focus on strengthening US alliances, military posture and capabilities in Asia. On prosperity, the administration reinvigorated negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. On values, the administration reached out to Burma and sought to encourage good governance elsewhere. And in terms of international order, the US made efforts to strengthen the Association of East Asian Nations and other critical regional institutions. I would argue that these efforts were generally welcomed both by experts in Washington and leaders in Asian capitals.

Unfortunately, in my view, the second year of the rebalance was marked by hesitation. In late 2012 and early 2013, there were major political changes, not only in Asia, but in the US as well. Leadership changes occurred in Japan, South Korea, China and elsewhere, bringing Prime Minister Abe, President Park and President Xi to power. These leaders had different objectives and leadership styles than their predecessors, so US policymakers rightfully took some time to assess their new counterparts. Meanwhile, there was a presidential election in the US and although Mr. Obama remained in office, his foreign policy team changed dramatically. This team faced not only new leadership in Asia, but also political gridlock in Washington resulting in sequestration.

I would argue that the result was a transition period in US Asia policy. American leaders shifted their focus to improving relations with China by adopting the ‘new model of major power relations’ and taking steps to avoid antagonising Chinese leaders. On the administration’s four main rebalance objectives, however, the US appeared to lose ground in 2013. On security, the US watched as tensions between China and its neighbours grew, with China announcing an East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone in late 2013. On prosperity, the US administration chose not to seek Trade Promotion Authority before the mid-term elections, calling into question the administration’s ability to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress, if a trade agreement is successfully negotiated. And in terms of values and international order, many grew concerned when the US appeared to give way to challenges to democracy, human rights, and international norms in Syria and Ukraine. Thus, as 2013 ended, observers in Asian capitals and some in Washington started to question the implementation of the US rebalance to Asia.

I hope, however, that 2014 will signal a new beginning for the rebalance, a focus on implementation of the initial strategy. With a forthcoming National Security Strategy and a recently released Quadrennial Defence Review, this is the time for the administration to take implementation seriously. Indeed, there are signs of a positive change. Mr. Obama’s latest visit to the region appears to have been productive, as were recent trips by Mr. Hagel and Mr. Kerry. Recent statements by White House, State Department, and Pentagon officials (particularly Evan Medeiros, Daniel Russel, and Admiral Samuel Locklear, respectively) sent reassuring signals to US allies. It is my hope that these recent speeches and upcoming trips signal a new effort to provide more details on the specific efforts being made to implement the rebalance.

LS: If successful, the Asian rebalance would result in a reduction of US foreign policy attention and military commitment to other parts of the world.  The fact that US military spending keeps being reduced is not particularly reassuring in this regard. What does this mean for Europe and the transatlantic relationship? 

ZC: Despite limits to the US defence budget, Washington can maintain robust and capable forces in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere as it implements the rebalance to Asia. There is no doubt that more limited US defence budgets are going to impact US military posture, force structure, and strategy. However, with US forces departing Afghanistan, Washington has an opportunity to shift from a force focused on today to one focused on meeting tomorrow’s challenges. Modernisation of the US military should benefit US allies in both Asia and Europe. To the extent that allies and partners in both regions are seeking similar capabilities (such as missile defence, cyber capabilities, etc.), there may even be opportunities to use the US rebalance to help strengthen European defence capabilities.

Overall, however, Europe needs to start preparing to bear more of the burden of its own defence or to accept more risk in that regard. With few North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies even near the two percent floor for defence spending (and many moving closer to one percent), it will be hard to incentivise continued high levels of US spending on European defence. To the extent that European states can demonstrate that they remain committed to ensuring security on the continent, it will help to encourage the US to prioritise European deployments. As we have witnessed with Russia, Europe will need to be prepared to respond firmly and rapidly to foreign aggression on the continent, with the US at its side.

LS: Finally, in what ways can Europe and the transatlantic relationship help enhance security and prosperity in Asia and the broader Indian Ocean region?

ZC: First of all, if there is anything that we have learned in recent weeks, it is that Europe’s top security priorities are at home. Continued decreases in spending by NATO allies are not likely to neither deter Russian aggression nor encourage increased US investment in European defence.

Nevertheless, Europe has an important role to play in the Asian security environment. Let me suggest four ways that Europe can work together with the US and partners in Asia to enhance Asian security and prosperity. First, European states can work together with the US and with Asian partners to jointly develop, field, and in some cases operate military capabilities. We at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies are calling this a ‘federated approach’, which could help to increase capability and capacity in both Europe and Asia. Second, Europe can continue efforts to forge the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. This pact will not only improve global economic prosperity, but can help to encourage both the US and Asian partners to make progress on critical trade and economic reforms. Third, Europe continues to be a leader on global norms and it is critical that European states continue to promote democracy, human rights, and good governance throughout Asia. Finally, Europe must actively encourage an international order that is open, peaceful and rules-based. Without active European involvement, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to convince China that it is a welcome member of the international community and that the global rules-based system benefits not just the US, but all members of the international community.

Surely, Europe’s focus in the coming weeks and months will be on Eurasia rather than the Asia-Pacific, but I hope that will not distract European leaders from the important role they have to play farther east.

LS: Thank you for answering these questions.

Vol. 6, No. 35 (2014)


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