American pivot a fallacy

By Shen Dingli
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, May 4, 2012
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Changes in traditional security axes call for adjustments in US security strategies but it should not let allies lead it astray

Half a year after the United States put forward its strategy of "pivoting" to East Asia, Washington is watering down the significance of this term and has now picked the more traditional term of "balancing" when talking about East Asia.

The term pivoting was misleading. Pivoting is a movement around a fixed central axis. By pivoting, the White House intended to redistribute its defense resources globally, redeploying from Europe and Middle East to Asia. However, around which central axis was the US military going to pivot?

With the emergence of new powers around the world, a single security axis would no longer meet the needs of the US for global dominance. The US has to diversify its security resources globally to cope with all sorts of emerging challenges - either traditional challenges by state actors, or nontraditional challenges posed by non-state actors. Given the changing nature of these challenges, the US' traditional security axes are also changing.

In Europe, the US-UK security axis has for a long time been defined as a special transatlantic partnership, and therefore a pivot for the US in the region. However, with the disappearance of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the importance of Britain in Washington's strategic planning is declining and the US is becoming increasingly less dependent upon Britain in support of its military operations in Europe.

In the Middle East, the US-Israel security axis is also changing. For decades, the US has protected Israel in a biased way, which has resulted in frustration and resentment among other states in this region and beyond. The Sept 11, 2001 attack on the US was partly an outcome of this partiality and consequently brought a reassessment of its strategy toward the Middle East as well as the anti-terrorism campaign. The recent change in the Egyptian political landscape has further undermined Cairo's role in partnering with Washington to stabilize that part of the world.

In East Asia, the US-Japan security alliance has long served as a foundation for the US military in the region. However, the misdeeds of US servicemen in Japan has provoked persistent local opposition to the stationing of US troops, eroding public support for the Japanese government's accommodation of the US military presence on Okinawa, and therefore impairing the axis itself.

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the US regional security axes are all declining, forcing America to readjust from a few concentrated axes to more decentralized deployments. In this context, the White House's notion of "pivoting" has been an erroneous one.

If there is any real meaning in the US' "pivoting", it is the "pivoting-out" of Japan, by withdrawing 9,000 troops to other places such as Guam, Hawaii and Australia, all outside of East Asia. Part of the reason for this is to relocate US forces away from the rising missile threat around Japan, but the contemporary missile threat with precision guidance could well follow these re-based forces. So, even pivoting-out will not render much assistance to the US' aspiration for total dominance.

There has been speculation that the US' pivoting has been targeted at China, but there is no meaningful axes to pivot on for such a purpose, and if there is any pivoting in East Asia, it is pivoting out, rather in.

The US should not engage in dangerous games - either by provoking others unnecessarily and then inviting retaliation, or beefing up its allies' offensive capabilities. Otherwise, it will find its forces increasingly insecure in the region.

The US should stop selling weapons to Taiwan and should not commit to defending places that don't belong to Manila. The Philippines admitted, as recently as 1997, that Huangyan Island didn't belong to it. The US should not be drawn into muddy waters simply because its ally has its eyes on China's island.

The latest statement by a US high official that America will keep neutral on this question is to be encouraged. With such a cool-headed approach, the US will be able to persuade its ally to de-escalate any crisis.

It is understandable that the US, like any other country, wants to hedge against uncertainty. It is also true that despite China's best efforts, the US, which is eager to maintain global dominance, still has lingering concerns over China's growth.

But hedging should not become provocation, and defense should not become offense. The superpower should be an expert in the application of this reasoning.

The author is director of the Center for American Studies at the Shanghai-based Fudan University.

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