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What’s in a Name? Asia Policy “Pivots” to Rebalancing

Is America “pivoting” in Asia, or “rebalancing?” This is the kind of question that keeps bureaucrats writing long memos, but in the real world the labels are less important than the facts. In his recent speech at the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta adopted the term “rebalancing” to denote Washington’s enhanced engagement with the region, but the substance of the policy was unchanged from earlier discussions using the word ‘pivot’.

Over at the Lowy Interpreter, a blog connected to Australia’s premier strategic think tank and one that we check regularly at the stately Mead manor in glamorous Queens, David Brewster unpacks the meaning behind the policy, whatever label is used:

‘Rebalance’ doesn’t really signify the movement of resources from West Asia to the Pacific. The term signifies that, in the post-Afghanistan world, there will be a greater relative focus of US defence resources in the Asia Pacific as compared with other regions of the world. Much of that focus will be on the US Navy. For example, the current 50/50 split of naval resources between the US Pacific and Atlantic fleets will become 60/40 by 2020.

Brewster also identifies a qualitative change to U.S. policy. After engaging in two decade-long land wars in the Middle East and West Asia, American strategy is shifting away from boots on the ground and toward an offshore maritime role.

Third, Brewster points out that America is rebalancing not only toward Asia as a whole, but also within Asia. For obvious historical reasons, American forces in the region have been predominantly based in Japan and Korea. But that emphasis on the northwest Pacific is becoming increasingly redundant. Strategic policy is evolving in response to action in the southwest:

In recent months we have seen announcements of the relocation of 4500 US Marines to Guam, the rotation of Marines through Darwin, the basing of at least 4 Littoral Combat Ships (the US Navy’s new low-end frigates) in Singapore and the rotation of troops through the Philippines. At the same time, the number of US Marines in Okinawa has been reduced and further reductions are likely.

There is going to be a lot of controversy over this new policy in the United States and elsewhere. At Via Meadia, we think that while future administrations may tweak the policy in various ways and while policy will naturally shift in response to events, the broad outlines of America’s Pacific strategy are here to stay.  It’s useful to have the right words to describe the policy, but much more important to communicate a clear vision of what US policy in the Pacific does and doesn’t entail.

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  • thibaud

    An informative and helpful post – thanks for the link.

    “Rebalancing” appears to be a polite way of saying that our old alliance partners and bases in the North Atlantic and North Pacific will be less and less important to US strategy.

  • An

    The transfer of naval assets to the Pacific has been going on a lot longer than the current announcements by the Obama administration. Back in 2006, the Navy announced the transfer of SSNs (Nuclear Attack Submarines) from the Atlantic fleet to the Pacific fleet to the current 60/40 Pacific/Atlantic split. This was made public but done quietly.

  • Anthony

    “…but much more important to communicate a clear vision of what US policy in the Pacific does and doesn’t entail.” Has the above been elucidated or are terms rebalancing and pivot useful words masking strategies contemplated vis-a-vis China’s regional rise.

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