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«Steadying the US rebalance to Asia The role of Australia, Japan and South Korea 77 Hayley Channer Given China’s rise and Asia’s economic ascent, ...»

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Steadying the US rebalance to Asia

The role of Australia, Japan and South Korea


Hayley Channer

Given China’s rise and Asia’s economic ascent, military growth and increasing trade flows, the US ‘pivot to Asia’ reflects

an appropriate policy response to changing global realities. The pivot (now called a ‘rebalance’) implies a shift in US

attention and resources in the military, diplomatic and economic spheres from the Middle East and Europe towards Asia.

The main goals of the rebalance are to bolster the current American-led order, enhance US access to Asian markets, reassure allies and encourage them to share more of the security burden.

In May 2014, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel highlighted American expectations of allies by stating that one of America’s key security goals was ‘enhancing the capabilities of our allies and partners to provide security for themselves and the [Asia–Pacific]’.1 In late 2013, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice reiterated this message: ‘We are urging our allies and partners to take greater responsibility for defending our common interests and values.’2 Immediately afterwards, Rice named Japan, South Korea and Australia, underscoring their centrality in US defence planning and perhaps placing them at the top of the list of ‘higher expectations’.

President Barack Obama meets Australian troops at the conclusion of his visit to RAAF Base Darwin, 17 November 2011. Photo courtesy Department of Defence.

November 2014 Steadying the US rebalance to Asia: the role of Australia, Japan and South Korea 2 Recent US official documents also reflect increasing expectations of allies. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review states that the US should make ‘greater efforts to coordinate our planning to optimize [our allies’ and partners’] contributions to their own security and to our many combined activities’.3 In addition, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, wrote in his chairman’s review, ‘We expect more from our allies even as their military power is mostly in decline, particularly relative to potential threats.’4 Compared to previous Quadrennial Defense Reviews that stressed the importance of reassuring allies and deepening cooperation with them to demonstrate US resolve, the latest version instead emphasises the contribution of allies.

Some American academics have been even more candid. In April 2014, Harvard’s Professor Stephen Walt wrote:

If China’s increased military power is really so alarming, why are countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia doing so little to bolster their own military capabilities? Either they aren’t as worried as they pretend, or they have become accustomed to assuming Uncle Sam will take care of them no matter what.5 Although US expectations in both official and unofficial circles have intensified, the Obama administration has been reluctant to explicitly state what more it wants allies to do. In addition, US proponents of the rebalance have been shuffled over the course of Obama’s two terms, causing the policy messaging to be unclear at times. This paper seeks to clear up the uncertainty surrounding US hopes and wishes of allies and to provide Australia with a fuller picture of the opportunities and challenges in our strategic alliance with the US.

Of the several US allies in Asia, this paper focuses on three: Japan, Australia and South Korea. How have they supported the US rebalance to date? And what additional contributions would the US like to see from them? Finally, where Australia is concerned, is it in our interests to further support the rebalance, and do we have the ability to provide additional backing? This paper aims to answer these important questions and provide policy recommendations for Australia.

Research for this paper included more than 30 interviews with US think-tank experts, academics, industry executives and Pentagon, State Department and Australian Government officials.

Recent allied contributions to the rebalance The rebalance is a multifaceted foreign policy. While its military aspect has attracted the most attention, it also includes economic and diplomatic–political dimensions. Individually, Japan, Australia and South Korea have contributed to almost all of those dimensions, to varying degrees.

Japan Japan’s most important contribution to the rebalance so far has been a political–military one, by reinterpreting its pacifist constitution and expanding the role of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF).

In July 2014, after more than a decade of failed attempts, Japan announced that it had dropped its ban on collective self-defence and could now come to the aid of allies and friends if they’re attacked.6 Voicing America’s strong support, Secretary Hagel noted that this would enable historic revisions of the US–Japan defence guidelines and increase opportunities for bilateral cooperation.7 The shift will improve Japan’s dynamism in a conflict and allow it to participate in more humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities, thereby deepening its contribution to regional peace and security. The move also symbolises Japan’s willingness to be a more active security partner of the US into the future.

–  –  –

amphibious vehicles.10 The Abe government’s expansion of the role and capabilities of the JSDF, and its political backing of the rebalance through public statements of support, have been its greatest contributions to the rebalance.

Australia Australia’s clearest contribution to the rebalance has also been military, as reflected in the hosting of a rotational deployment of US Marines through Darwin.11 In addition, under the new 25-year force posture agreement signed in August 2014, Australia will host US warplanes such as B-52 bombers and fighter jets out of RAAF Darwin and Tindal and provide enhanced access for US Navy ships, including nuclear submarines, to ports around Australia. Furthermore, Canberra has agreed to deepen military cooperation with the US on special forces operations and training, interoperability, space, cyber capabilities and ballistic missile defence. The US sees Australia’s intention to increase defence spending from 1.6% to 2% of GDP by 202312 as further support for the rebalance.

Australia has made a diplomatic–political contribution as well. Like Japan, we’ve backed the rebalance through statements of bipartisan political support for sustained US engagement in the region. The previous Labor government welcomed Obama’s announcements in the Australian Parliament in November 2011 and, more recently, Prime Minister Tony Abbott reiterated his government’s support, saying, ‘Asia needs America involved. The world wants America to succeed. The world needs America to succeed.’13 From an American perspective, Australia has lent additional diplomatic–political support by toughening its response to assertive Chinese behaviour. Our strong and immediate response to China’s November 2013 declaration of a new air defence identification zone, which covered territory claimed by Japan and South Korea, was greatly appreciated in Washington. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that Australia ‘opposes any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea’.14 American analysts see this as invaluable for showing that ‘what China does affects everyone in the region, not just the states it has territorial disputes with.’15 Australia’s tougher diplomatic tone in relation to China is seen as underscoring the rebalance.

South Korea

South Korea’s support for the rebalance has been weak. This is partly due to its concerns about offending China, which sees the policy as the beginning of a creeping coalition of the US and its allies against its rise. South Korea relies on China for trade and hopes for Beijing’s backing in a reunification scenario with North Korea, but also relies on Washington for security. While Australia is in a similar position—being heavily dependent on China for trade and having the US as its main security guarantor—we don’t share Seoul’s unification concerns, have China for a neighbour or have territorial disputes with Beijing. Thus, Seoul has a much more complicated choice in how it supports the pivot, and that might explain why it’s been more balanced than Australia and Japan in its political rhetoric towards the US and China.

Since the announcement of the rebalance, South Korea hasn’t made a grand gesture of support akin to Australia’s hosting of US Marines or Japan’s expanded military role. However, it does host thousands of US troops and has reinforced its alliance with the US more broadly. In January 2014, Seoul increased its financial contribution to hosting American forces (a cost it has shared with the US since 1991); in February, it accepted another battalion of US troops; in March, it participated in the largest ever combined US–Korean marine exercise. In addition, President Park Geun-hye has supported the rebalance diplomatically by saying that ‘the Korea–US alliance … could reinforce President Obama’s strategy of rebalancing toward the Asia–Pacific’.16 Given South Korea’s concern about offending China, this should be considered a reasonably firm statement of support.

Overall, US allies, though willing to support the rebalance, have done so within their own unique contexts. Any further support will be similarly contingent on individual circumstances.

Steadying the US rebalance to Asia: the role of Australia, Japan and South Korea 4 New expectations of American allies Although the US has been publicly quiet on how it would like allies to support the rebalance, American officials and analysts privately articulate some clear views on additional contributions in four categories: military, economic, diplomatic–political and regional order-building.


The most commonly cited and vital contribution Japan could make is economic, by agreeing to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Through the partnership, the US is attempting to create a comprehensive regional free trade agreement that would accelerate global growth and create jobs.17 The 12 countries currently negotiating the pact represent 40% of the global economy, and the US and Japan account for around three-quarters of the group’s economic heft. Negotiations have stalled, partly because of Abe’s protection of Japan’s agricultural and automotive sectors. One US analyst has said, ‘Abe needs to make the tough decisions and upset some farmers … the TPP is a significant political and strategic framework … Japan can’t water it down.’18 Should Japan agree to the TPP, the view in Washington is that the rebalance would be substantially reinforced. Concluding the TPP would allow the US and other liberal economies to help shape the rules of the international trading system for the future and, to quote a US Government adviser, ‘change the balance in Asia’, which would in turn strengthen regional confidence in US leadership.

The second most common request was for Japan to again become an engine for economic growth and continue the process of Asian integration. For Japan to re-emerge as an economic powerhouse, Abe must implement his so-called ‘third arrow’ of ‘Abenomics’19: structural reform. While the first and second arrows of Abenomics—monetary easing and fiscal stimulus—have been pursued vigorously, the more difficult task of economic reform has yet to be tackled properly. Many in Washington believe that Japan will re-emerge as a regional and global leader and be able to promote shared values and interests once its economy lifts. The thinking is that it will make more of a military contribution to the rebalance by spending more on its defence. There’s some frustration in Washington over the perceived low level of Japanese defence spending. Although Tokyo plans to increase defence spending over the next five years, the projected amount will still equal only 1% of GDP. Japan’s history of capping defence spending at 1% of GDP concerns some in Washington who feel that it’s been free-riding on high American spending.

On the question of Japan’s potential military contribution to the rebalance, US experts split almost evenly into two camps: one (mainly officials) believes that Japan has been moving far too slowly in expanding the role of its defence forces and military capabilities; the other (mainly think-tank experts) believes that Japan is now moving too quickly and undermining regional stability in the process, producing more security trade-offs than benefits. Overall, Americans vigorously support Japan’s move towards a more normal military, but some are concerned about the context in which Abe is pursuing these changes. Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine in 2013 and inflammatory comments by some of his senior ministers have hampered efforts to build support for a more active and capable JSDF and larger regional role for Japan.

Aside from the context in which Abe is attempting to increase the role of the JSDF, there’s widespread support for Japan to:

• further integrate its ballistic missile defence with that of the US

• cooperate with the US and US allies on antisubmarine warfare, air combat patrol and minesweeping

• make more of its military technology available to other countries through exports

• share more SIGINT (signals intelligence) on North Korea with South Korea

• make better strategic use of its official development assistance (ODA), such as by funding infrastructure projects in countries that support US military cooperation.20

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factor for the rebalance, and one US official has said that ‘every day [Japan and South Korea] talk about the past is a lost day.’21 Americans believe that better bilateral relations between the two would allow them to address mutual security challenges more effectively and increase the possibilities for allied cooperation.

In regional order building, the US would like Japan to increase its ties with ASEAN (Malaysia and Indonesia in particular), further deepen its economic and political engagement with Southeast Asia and better coordinate its aid delivery with the US in regions such as Southeast Asia.


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