The U.S. pivot to Asia is more than simply rhetoric. It is already underway and especially visible in traditional balancing behaviour in the military sphere.

Last week the USS Freedom took up station in Singapore. She is the first of four new Littoral Combat Ships the United States plans to permanently deploy in the Malacca Straits. They represent one of the most tangible elements of the much-vaunted ‘Strategic Pivot to Asia.’ Although most visible in the military sphere it is increasingly evident in the political and economic realms as well. Furthermore, contrary to the recent emphasis upon the cooperative and integrative dimensions of the pivot, the U.S. is still very much engaged in traditional power balancing against China.

Image courtesy of James Evans, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of James Evans, © 2013, some rights reserved.

The pivot is nowhere fully defined but it is a broad reorientation of diplomatic, economic, and military resources and attention to the Asia-Pacific. The region increasingly holds the challenges and opportunities that will define the 21st Century, dubbed the ‘Asian Century.’  The region contains China, the United States’ most likely peer competitor and one whose booming economy, modernising military, increasing regional, and global engagement are drawing ever-growing attention from Washington. The region also contains high-tension and potentially large-scale military flashpoints including Taiwan and the Korean peninsula, as well as many on-going territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Given these flashpoints, long-term American standing commitments, drawdown of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the importance of the region to global trade, the logic behind the pivot is self-evident.

The current U.S. strategy to address China’s rise is a dual-track approach. On the one hand there is a hope that by enmeshing China in webs of economic interdependence the U.S. can make the costs of conflict sufficiently great as to reduce the likelihood of violence. Similarly, by increasing political and diplomatic engagement with China and increasing China’s role within regional and international multilateral institutions there is also a hope that China can be socialised into becoming a responsible international stakeholder. The increased political, diplomatic, and economic attention afforded to the region can be understood as part of this effort. In many ways so too can the military reorientation especially if viewed as a way to dampen regional disputes and maintain stability and freedom of navigation.

However, America’s strategy has another side to it. Many in the U.S. government would be at pains to say that it is not balancing China and is instead reorienting its resources to reflect changing priorities. If we cut through the rhetoric and look at actions, we can see that quite explicit balancing is nevertheless taking place. This is not just in the military sphere but can also be said to be occurring in the political and economic realms too.  America’s recently increased engagement with regional multilateral institutions both political and economic, can perhaps be seen as evidence of soft-power balancing against China’s own growing influence in such forums and in the region more generally.

China’s military modernisations and expansions have caused considerable disquiet in Washington. America worries that China’s economic might is becoming increasingly translatable into military might which could threaten US interests in the region. However, what is important to realise is that China’s modernisations are very area specific and extremely targeted, albeit at American aircraft carriers. China has adopted a so-called ‘area-denial’ strategy which seeks to push the U.S. military out beyond the first Island chain. China has watched U.S. military operations with interest over the last two decades and realised that seaborne power-projection alongside high-tech satellite communication and control systems are where American military power is particularly effective. If the U.S. should lose these advantages, for example by the sinking of carriers or destruction of satellites then its ability to project power will be severely diminished. For this reason China has been investing in: developing precision anti-ship (carrier-killer) missiles, anti-satellite systems, cyber-attack capabilities, increasing its submarine fleet, and modernising its air force. The net result of these specific modernisations is to deny the United States Navy access to the seas off China’s coastline and to the region more generally. China’s rationale for this strategy is simple. Given that most of China’s population, infrastructure and industry is located on the coast, China would be especially vulnerable to U.S. sea-launched airpower. Preventing America from intervening in a future Taiwan crisis is another reason. China has nevertheless upset the regional power balance. America’s ability to project power in the region has been undermined and the global hegemon wants its power asymmetry back.

It is therefore countering China’s upsetting of the regional power balance by re-orientating its military posture and developing ways to mitigate and overcome China’s new-found advantages. The most obvious development has been the creation in 2012 of the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), which is a strategy aimed at overcoming area denial capabilities. A new joint Air-Sea Battle Concept also features in the strategy. A reorientation of basing is also a central feature and several thousand U.S. troops are likely to be relocated from Japan and South Korea to Hawaii and Guam reducing their vulnerability to Chinese weaponry. A major upgrade and expansion of military facilities on the island of Guam is also intended not only to facilitate additional military assets but to demonstrate a symbolic commitment to the region. This commitment is also evident in America’s decision to protect the Navy from the upcoming defence cuts. This recognises that because the Asia-Pacific is a predominately maritime theatre the Navy will be the most required of the services.

The U.S. has also been enhancing the capabilities of its regional allies, most notably the Philippines, to whom it has been supplying ex-U.S. Coast Guard ships to boost the capabilities of the Philippines Navy. America is also developing agreements to station aerial surveillance assets as well as increasing the rotations of U.S. troops through the country.

The renewing of existing strategic partnerships such as those with the Philippines is an important element of balancing China as is the creation of new ones with Vietnam and India. Although this does not represent an official alliance or policy of encirclement it nevertheless sends a very clear message to the region about America’s renewed commitment.

The aforementioned deployment to Singapore can be seen as a balancing response to China’s attempt to push America out of the region. China’s greatest weakness is its reliance on imported oil. China’s economic growth and thereby the survival of the regime and the very stability of the country all rely upon this. This oil has to pass through the Malacca Strait which is a maritime chokepoint which Singapore sits astride. That the U.S. now has permanent and tailor-made littoral combat ships in this Strait is I hazard, no coincidence.  If the U.S. cuts China’s oil-lifeline then no amount of area denial will save her.

It should be stressed that the military reorientation is only one-part of a much broader shift towards the region. It is perhaps best to think of it as a hedge in case economic enmeshment and political engagement fail to socialise China. What is very clear though is that the U.S. is definitely balancing and countering China’s capabilities, and that the pivot is very much underway.