Thoughts on the future of the U.S. Rebalance to the Pacific

July 22, 2016

David Lai, Ph.D, Research Professor of Asian Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and Contributing Writer to the Stratbase-Albert del Rosario Institute

Professor Frederick J. GellertProfessor of Resource Management, Department of Command, Leadership, and Management (DCLM)School of Strategic Landpower (SSL)U.S. Army War College

In the two weeks from June 27 to July 9 we took great pleasure visiting the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore, meeting with policy think tanks and exchanging views with security and foreign policy analysts on the future of U.S. strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific. Our hosts have been gracious, open, and thoughtful. While it will take time for us to distill our learning, we offer a few initial reflections.

It’s all about China

In the Asia-Pacific region, it is all about China. International diplomatic challenges, military efforts, and economic opportunities center on China’s sheer size and proximity.  As the second largest economy in the world, China affects all aspects of international activity, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Even domestically, China has enormous influence in culture, history, and politics of neighboring nations.

China at the same time is also at the center of many contested political and security issues in this region, both near and far-term, the most controversial of which are the territorial disputes.  While China promises a peaceful development, it nevertheless has many unsettled problems with its neighbors and the region as a whole, some of which carry the risk of armed conflict.

The Obama Administration’s policy for a rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, implemented using 7 pillars of effort, included a call of “not about China.” For better or for worse, the Asia-Pacific centers on China, which cause reflection on the original policy narrative. Although that call may be out of consideration of sensitivity with China, it may have been overplayed and not in concert with the reality in Asia. Putting China as the centerpiece in the next phase of the U.S. rebalance seems prudent and offers an improvement to the policy implementation.

Balancing the Rebalance

The U.S. strategic rebalance started with a whole-of-government or the “DIME” (diplomacy, information, military, and economy) approach. Yet in its implementation, the military part has arguably become the most visible. In the next phase of rebalance, the United States should put more emphasis on economic component. However, economic and political conditions in the United States may negatively affect the means to lead in the economic area. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is still facing an uncertain fate in the U.S. Congress. Even if it gets through the Congress, it will still take a long time to make its impact. In the meantime, China’s Maritime Silk Road project, which goes through Southeast Asia, will likely be much more aggressive and effective in making economic impact in this region. The United States does not seem to have the advantage in this area but nevertheless should apply more economic effort for the long-term.

Preventing Unwarranted U.S.-China Contest in Southeast Asia

Though Chinese impact is large in the region, the United States remains highly influential as well, held in high esteem for quality products, financial safety, and economic opportunity. Asia-Pacific nations need the United States for opportunities uniquely hers and as a counter-weight to China. China’s record of recent military confrontations, diplomatic assertiveness, and economic challenges are balanced by United States regional activities and engagement with partner nations.

However, the region does not want to see China and the United States get on each other’s throats. After all, as a popular saying goes in this region, when elephants fight, or even make love, the grass get leveled.

From the Asia-Pacific perspective, the United States should increase its diplomatic efforts with China, making the “D” of the DIME more prominent. This is will increase the building of trust between the United States and China and reduce great-power tension in this region. This will take real effort among both country’s foreign services and political leaders and should have sufficient means and priority assigned to ensure success. The diplomatic negotiation between China and the United States that led to the adoption last March of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 that sanctions North Korea for nuclear provocations is an example of how increased diplomacy can lead to better U.S.-China relations.

Taking Destiny in Their Own Hands

A Vietnamese scholar stated bluntly that first and foremost is a strong and independent Vietnam. Given the difficult history of Vietnam, one can understand why he would make such a statement. More broadly, it is clear that each nation in the region wants cooperative engagement with their powerful neighbor China and their powerful partner the United States. But they want it on their own terms. The nations of the Indo-Asia-Pacific are modern states with emerging economies and big challenges. They deserve both respect and cooperation as they navigate challenges domestically and internationally. Each nation has unique challenges that can only be solved through domestic leadership, but can be aided by international cooperation.

Our time in the Philippines coincided with the assumption of the presidency by Rodrigo Duterte. The news was filled with the joyous dreams of a new president and at the same time the enormous internal challenges ahead. The Philippines wants to modernize its military capabilities as well as its national transportation system. Continuing terrorism in the south threatens safety and security. Economic development is uneven and slow. Drug addiction and trafficking sparked Duterte to vow a war on crime. In each of these areas, there are opportunities for both China and the United States to work with the Philippines and other nations. Solving these challenges is not only good for the affected countries, but also will ultimately aid the United States and China to solve their own challenges in these areas. The key will be to work with and for our partners to ensure the solutions are positive and long lasting. That is true international leadership as well as good business.

Ensuring our house is in order.

America’s power lies in her people and domestic capabilities. General peace and prosperity, financial stability, quality education, first rate innovation and products, and a strong military all combine to make the United States the diplomatic, cultural, and economic leader of the world. However, as one Chinese citizen pointed out, the U.S. is far from perfect. Burgeoning debt threatens financial leadership. Political divide hampers domestic and international progress. Aging infrastructure challenges economic development.

Unless the United States’ leaders can find ways to maintain internal strength, national and international power will surely falter. First among U.S. domestic challenges is the rising national debt. The “surest bet” America has to offer the Asia-Pacific nations is a strong financial system. If that system becomes more risky and uncertain, nations will be challenged in financial stability and support as they navigate much needed economic development. Additionally, economic strength and commercial vitality will provide the resources to tackle the challenges. As part of the United States new strategy for the Asia-Pacific, American leaders must ensure the means are available to support the ends and ways. Otherwise, the rebalance will be in words only, leaving partner nations to seek new help.

Our visit to the Southeast Asia region was very informative. Nothing beats seeing and hearing on the ground. The question to be answered for the future of the U.S. strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is not how to win all we can, but rather can we all win. Only positive, strong, and effective Chinese and American leadership can make that answer what we hope it will be.


Remarks delivered during the ADRi round table discussion entitled, “The Future of US Strategic Rebalance”, held on June 29, 2016 at the Rockwell Club.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army War College, the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

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