June 1 (Bloomberg) -- After Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had upbraided China for pressing its territorial claims against its neighbors, listed U.S. arms sales to Asia, and highlighted the American military presence in the region, a participant at a security forum in Singapore questioned the U.S. commitment to its rebalancing strategy.
“My litany of moving assets and posture and what we’ve been doing in the past couple of years go right to your question,” Hagel said at the annual Shangri-La security dialogue. “So I’m not sure what further we can do to indicate” the U.S. is standing by its promises, Hagel said. The U.S. rebalance, he said, is “a reality that’s happened and happening and will continue to happen.”
The question and Hagel’s response speak to the continuing doubts in Asia about the U.S. policy for an economic and strategic rebalancing to the region, as China ratchets up pressure on smaller neighbors like Vietnam and the Philippines over disputed territories, Japan tightens its military posture in the face of a dispute over islands with China and other countries voice concerns the tensions may lead to an accidental conflict.
To reassure allies in the region that the U.S. shift toward Asia is serious, President Barack Obama must first sell the strategy at home, said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney who asked Hagel why Obama hadn’t mentioned the strategy in his foreign policy speech at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, last week.
“My question really went to the political underpinnings of the rebalance strategy,” Fullilove said in an interview in Singapore. Although Obama first outlined his administration’s “deliberate and strategic decision” to focus attention on the Asia-Pacific in a speech to the Australian Parliament in Canberra in 2011, Obama has never explained the strategy to his domestic audience, he said.
“To me if it’s a serious strategic doctrine it needs to have domestic underpinnings, that weight you get from talking about it in the state of the union or the West Point speech,” Fullilove said.
While the military aspect of the U.S. rebalance is “real, it’s not overwhelming,” Fullilove said. The economic aspects of the rebalance, the centerpiece of which is the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, is far from being concluded and may not happen until the end of Obama’s second term, he said. “Asia is looking to see how seriously Obama fights” to seek approval for the agreement with Congress, he said.
Asian nations historically have tended to worry about the lack of U.S. attention to the region and that was exacerbated in the early years of President George W. Bush’s administration when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fully occupied America’s attention, a senior U.S. official said.
Concerns about a lack of U.S. attention have surfaced because officials including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who were architects of the rebalancing strategy, have left the administration, said the U.S. official, who asked not to be named, citing a policy of keeping conversations between government officials private.
Countries in the region will probably continue to doubt the U.S.’ commitment until the 12-nation TPP is concluded, the official said. The TPP, an agreement that would cover an area with about $28 trillion in annual economic output, does not include China.
“We wonder whether the United States is able to have a sustained engagement in the region, given its many priorities and given the state of domestic politics within the United States,” Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Thailand’s Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs, told the Singapore forum yesterday.
“We’re also a little bit concerned, I think, with the emphasis on alliances and the military dimension of the strategic rebalancing because that implies, that gives an appearance of containment.”
Thailand’s military seized power on May 22 after six months of political turmoil, the nation’s 12th coup in eight decades.
As allies expressed doubts about the long-term U.S. strategy, Hagel’s comments in Singapore that China “has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” drew criticism from Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army.
“You were very candid this morning,” Wang told Hagel in a meeting yesterday. While Hagel’s remarks had exceeded “our expectations” the charges were “groundless,” Wang said.
Later, Wang told China Central Television that “Hagel’s speech went overboard,” according to a summary posted on the CCTV website. Hagel had “openly pointed his finger at China on a very public occasion at an important forum,” Wang said.
Wang also criticized Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe has accused China of trying to change the status quo on islands in the East China Sea by force, and in a speech at the forum May 30 set out his policy to broaden the role of Japan’s defense force to be able to come to the aid of allies.
“I feel they’re echoing each other and sang a duet,” Wang said of Hagel and Abe. “We can see from the Shangri-La Dialogue this year, it’s Japan and the U.S. who stirred up conflict.”
Sharp rhetoric and aggressive actions over South China Sea territory is setting the stage for accidents, said Malaysia Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.
“Inflamed rhetoric and mutual recrimination will not do any country any good,” Hishammuddin told the forum in Singapore. World War I, he said, “was started by sheer accident. That we must avoid for our region as the world focuses in this area.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Gopal Ratnam in Singapore at email@example.com