As U.S. influence in Asia falters, allies increasingly look to themselves

July 31, 2015
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force'S new helicopter destroyer DDH183 Izumo is seen before its launching ceremony in Yokohama

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s new helicopter destroyer DDH183 Izumo is seen before its launching ceremony in Yokohama, south of Tokyo August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

 Three years after the Obama administration announced its “pivot to Asia,” American allies in the region are looking somewhat unconvinced.

While no one disputes that managing China and its multiple neighborhood conflicts remains on Washington’s radar, this effort is often overshadowed by other priorities. In particular, the Middle East and confrontation with Russia — both historic preoccupations that had been expected to subside — keep on emerging at the top of the agenda.

The result is relatively simple. Those countries in Asia most worried by China — Japan, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia and others — are increasingly banding together. They worry they may need to be capable of taking matters into their own hands regardless of what the United States might do.

It’s a phenomenon that manifests itself in multiple different ways. Japan and Australia, for example, may collaborate on a new submarine — including sharing highly classified information. In another sign of new regional alliances forming, India has also invited Japan to take part in its “Malabar” naval war games, designed to showcase India’s naval strength in the Indian Ocean.

After Congress blocked President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal last month, Singapore’s foreign minister told an audience in Washington that the United States was losing its levers of power in the region.

“The choice is a very stark one,” K. Shanmugam said. “Do you want to be part of the region or do you want to be out of the region?”

The deal passed through Congress soon thereafter.

This is not, whatever critics might say, a world without American leadership. It’s more complicated than that — and America is still an important player.

Washington remains the dominant naval power in Asia even against the backdrop of a growing Chinese fleet. And, crucially, it remains without doubt the single-most important partner for each of its regional allies. Even India, historically dedicated to a “non-aligned” position between East and West, has moved much closer to Washington under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Malabar military exercises will also involve the United States.

But it is a world where American leadership is pulled in multiple different directions. The United States must deter both Russia and China from attacking its treaty allies — and so sparking a major war — without simultaneously antagonizing them so much that conflict becomes more likely.

Much of Washington’s military and diplomatic focus, meanwhile, remains on the Middle East: the war against Islamic State, the Iran deal and — for Secretary of State John Kerry in particular — the Israeli Palestinian peace process. These distractions are understandable and in many cases unavoidable — although Kerry in particular has a reputation for being not interested in Asia, which some analysts say has been harmful to relations. China, in contrast, remains resolutely focused on its immediate neighborhood.

And at the same time that America’s military dominance is being challenged by other powers, its own spending is beginning to slip.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, U.S. defense spending is now 20 percent below its peak in 2010 — although still 45 percent above its 2001 levels.

Asian countries, by contrast, have been on a major spending spree in recent years. Australia grew its defense budget by 6.7 percent in 2014 alone. South Korea and India saw their spending rise 2.3 and 1.8 percent. In January, Japan announced its largest defense budget since World War Two.

How closely these countries will coordinate their defenses — and how tightly the United States is wrapped into that system — remains to be seen. For China — whose 9.7 percent spending increase last year tops any other country in Asia — the greatest worry is that its potential enemies coalesce into a formal NATO-style structure, although this seems unlikely for now. More ad hoc relations, for example, between India and Vietnam or the Philippines and Japan, are growing by the year.

In Washington, some current and former officials, as well as analysts, worry that the United States may simply lose its ability to shape events in the region — while still risking being dragged into a conflict if one, or more, of its allies end up fighting China.

While few believe anyone in Beijing or elsewhere would wish for such a conflict, China has clearly signaled its intention to boost its clout in its immediate neighborhood. China’s various construction projects on disputed South China Sea islands — as well as an increasingly assertive posture by its naval and air forces in the region — will likely continue and intensify.

This trend goes well beyond China’s immediate neighborhood. From Sri Lanka to Afghanistan, analysts now talk of a “new great game” in South Asia as China jostles against India, in particular.

The Middle East, paradoxically, may provide some indication of how this could go. For all Washington’s ongoing focus on the region, many of its allies — particularly the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia — increasingly question its commitment there. They, too, are ramping up their defense spending: Saudi Arabia’s 17 percent increase last year was the greatest hike worldwide.

As a result, the United States has increasingly struggled to influence and control its allies in the region. The Saudi-led campaign against Iran-linked Houthi militia in Yemen, for example, seems out the West’s realm of influence. The same goes for the multiple regional powers backing different groups in Libya.

Asia’s confrontations will, for now, almost certainly remain bloodless and largely contained offshore and to the economic, business and cyberspace spheres.

But whatever Washington does, its grasp on the region — like so many others — is slowly faltering. It may or may not be an Asian century — but in Asia at least, it will be regional powers that increasingly call the shots.

This piece appears courtesy of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more commentaries and information, visit www.projects21.com

11 comments

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The effect is not China but the cummulative policies of America herself.All countries,not only Asia have started feeling the doubt of the integrity of America with dual standard of some some time making friend and some time foe.Example.Vietnam,Cuba and even Russia and Iran.
All countries afraid of doing business with America!The reason?Sanctions.
Yes American face individually any country in the world but not if they are together.The lesson?From NATO/EU.
Forming new banks,changing currency is just the beginning.
Countries like India follow strict nonaligned policy,come what may to pay any price.(Not like Brazil)

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Gee, you mean our allies might actually have to pay to have their own military instead of thousands of American troops being killed in a war for them? Boo hoo. It’s about time these countries stepped up and defended THEMSELVES. There is absolutely no excuse for these countries to have let their military get into such pitiful states that they are in. The United States can not and simply will not be the world’s only military for our allies. They want to be part of an alliance they need to build there own stuff too.

Posted by RMillette | Report as abusive

“Influence.” That’s a loaded right-wing term. Who cares if we have “influence” in Asia. Do we need to be the world’s boss? If I go to a concert, do I need to influence the other audience members? If I go camping with my family, do I need to influence the nearby camps? The far camps?

Take care of America first. Quit worrying about influence. Influence comes from being a good strong country at home, and having something people want. It doesn’t come from patrolling the world or swinging stupid arms deals that end up giving nukes to Israel and Pakistan (that happened). Under the guise of “influence.”

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Awesome! Our first and foremost priority should be staying ahead of everyone else, but we can’t and we shouldn’t do EVERYTHING and protect EVERYONE alone.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

there is no more influence in Asia , period, we bonfired middle east, Asia refuses to be test ground for military sector industry

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

America has given amass of money to Pakistan and giving now!What for?To go to China for giving contracts for ports and infra structures and silk road.Taleban of Afghanistan believe Pakistan more than their own Government supported by America.
It seems America lacks in deeper study of Asian countries.Look at Burma is not coming into fold.So are Bungladesh and Shree Lanka with doldrums.Though India has nonaligned policy but is inclined towards Russia.And India has agreed for collective security under China.This is all because of the fear due to what America has done in Iraq, Libya,Ukraine etc..Look at Israel is going out of clutch of America.Certainly there are flaws in American foreign policy in time of both Bush and Obama.All this will reflect on trades and economics of America in the long run.To day there are news Ouzbekistan has cancelled security deal with America.America will have to learn how to live as friend than boss.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

I suggest to remain friend at least with India,America will have to consider terms for nuclear power plants which India bought despite higher price of America than Russia but still today America does not desist being a boss and does not agree.
More than any thing America will have to loosen its grip over UN.This is the one thing for most of the countries afraid of America and they only pretend or avoid important issues of the world.Say for example often going to world court to punish leaders.American influence on UN,world bank and world court has displeased many countries,not only Asia.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

I have often said here Ämerica is the world leader”.America need not to prove that.American technology and wealth and natural resources no one match.America need not look for any more money or resources.America has lever on any country for ever.Why then all these wars and killings?!!!!

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

The US needs to seriously rethink its global foreign policy.

China is touching the tip of the Middle-East through the Gwadar port close to Pakistani port of Gwadar.

India was expected to be coming to close to NATO. But BRICS have flung a brick into the works – in the light of an Indian becoming the first head of BRICS Bank headquartered in Shanghai. Sooner or later the world could be shanghaied by China with BRICS Bank.

Washington loading too many eggs in the Iranian basked through the nuke deal is akin to shooting oneself in the forehead – simply because Iranians – Shias are a mere 9% of Muslims the world over. The Sunnis – the rest hate Shias’ guts.

All these developments lead one to wonder as to whether the thinking heads in Langley have gone radioactive and hence bonkers.

Posted by TSVHari | Report as abusive

If other countries decide to fight their own wars, I don’t see the problem for us. We don’t have to be dragged anywhere. We can just leave.

Posted by Jim1648 | Report as abusive

You have to be magnanimous and fair minded to be a true leader. The US has been many decades at the fascist corporate profit game. There is no other country that should want to follow that. Besides, what is wrong with people having self determination of the political and diplomatic and military efforts needed to secure their own countries? Many of their enemies and allies have been made by their own hands. Really, US leadership was lost under Truman and his support of the fascist corporatism was the beginning of the end. We have not lead anything since but have been pursuing a non-invasive type of imperialism.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive