A European Take on the US Rebalance

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“Origins and Evolution of the US Rebalance toward Asia” edited by Hugo Meijer

Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 297 pp.

In Origins and Evolution, Hugo Meijer of King’s College, London and Sciences Po, Paris gathers a number of primarily Europe-based scholars to critically examine President Obama’s “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia. Unlike the previously reviewed Tangled Titans, Meijer and his fellow contributors go beyond the Sino-American focus and include a number of new actors in their analysis. This makes the book quite grand in scope.

origins.jpgComparing Origins and Evolution with Tangled Titans, the former does have a more continental feel to as it relies less on conventional theories of International Relations (Realism, Liberalism etc.) in favor of a more eclectic approach and concept analysis. This has strengths and weaknesses. On the upside, many of the articles of Origins and Evolution manage to stand out from the vast literature on the rebalance which is in itself an accomplishment. This is done by implementing non-traditional concepts in the political analyses; concepts which would have been misplaced in traditional “realist” or “liberal” studies. On the downside, some of the articles do loose themselves in insignificant conceptual discussions that a unrewarding for the reader.

Main arguments and structure

The book is divided into two main parts. The first four chapters explore the historical roots of the rebalance and – following the structure of most academic studies of the rebalance – its diplomatic, security and economic components. The overall argument of part I is that the rebalance is in many ways a continuation of the foreign policy of President George W. Bush and while it does represent a cumulative evolution in US strategy it should in no way be considered a revolution. This is not exactly the most mind-blowing conclusion which is why part II is definitely the more interesting of the two.

Part II presents six chapters covering the perceptions and reactions of different actors to the US rebalance. While the authors are hard pressed to present the entire foreign policy stance of important actors in the rather short chapters, they generally do manage to paint a clear and insightful images. This is, to my knowledge, the first attempt made at presenting the positions of players such as China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and EU/NATO in one volume.

Obama’s rebalance – strategic retcon?

One of my favorite chapters was Benjamin M. Jensen & Eric Y. Shibuya’s contribution on the security components of the rebalance. Rather than list the empirical developments announced and realized by the Obama administration (as is common among security analyses of the rebalance), the two argue that most of the components of the rebalance were actually planned or even launched before Obama entered into office. They use the term “retcon” which is a primarily literary concept for when authors change the contents of earlier parts of their stories to make it fit with newer elements. When translated into foreign policy retcon means “to link past actions to be consistent with current policy” and in the case of the rebalance “actions and considerations that predate the announcement were retconned and claimed as part of the policy”. This “lends a greater coherence than may actually exist” and “it gives a greater impression of rationality to US actions” (p. 81). I find this to be an innovative and rather unexplored facet of the rebalance and while it does not alter the significance of the American foreign policy readjustments towards Asia, it does put the Obama administrations presentation of the rebalance in a new light. One should perhaps be careful with labeling the rebalance an Obama invention.

Meanwhile in Beijing and Moscow

The two other most interesting chapters in Origins and Evolution were Mathieu Duchâtel & Emmanuel Puig’s chapter on China and Isabelle Facon’s chapter on Russia. Duchâtel & Puig investigate how the public debate in China has interpreted the rebalance and how the interpretation has changed over time. They argue that the rebalance was initially read as a containment strategy to keep China from challenging the US. However, this discourse has changed and today, the predominant view in China is that the US cannot contain China even if it wanted to. The chapter also argues that China’s primary response to the rebalance has been in ideological terms where they have tried to rebrand Sino-American relations as a “new type of great power relations” in order to neutralize “US-China competition and the negative consequences of the pivot for China’s room of maneuver in East Asia” (p. 142). Duchâtel & Puig’s chapter excels by going to Chinese sources which is often neglected in Western studies. This enables them to present a rare perspective.

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Isabelle Facon’s chapter on Russia presents another angle which has also been notoriously absent in most studies of the rebalance. She argues that Russia has in fact been conducting its own primarily economic rebalance toward “Greater Asia” (p. 253) and that America’s rebalance is likely to push Russia and China closer together. Nonetheless, the Russian presence in Asia remains “relatively thin” (p. 259), and the American rebalance could further limit Russia’s room for maneuvering in Asia. Furthermore, as a consequence of the ongoing Crimean conflict, the US is applying significant pressure on its allies not to get too close with Moscow. This only pushes Russia closer to China and has the unfortunate effect for Moscow of increasing Russian dependency on China which is already a concern of Vladimir Putin’s.

The weaker links

Some other chapters struggle to present interesting or convincing arguments. See Seng Tan’s chapter on diplomacy and multilateralism present a rather harsh critic of America’s commitment to multilateralism but does not provide much empirical support for the conclusion. Instead, Tan bases his claim on a handful of comments by American pundits and the fact that Obama missed out on some meetings in Asia-Pacific forums. His argument becomes something along the lines of, “The US has never really cared about multilateralism and therefore they still don’t care”.

Guillaume de Rougé’s chapter on the economic aspects of the rebalance also feel lacking and unclear. He proposes to use the concept “web of linkages” as the anchor of his analysis, but the concept is never defined and plays little role in his analysisr. However,  one the positive side, his chapter presents some interesting reflections on the nature of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its relation to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Yet, with the currently bleak prospects for the TPP and the benefit of hindsight, de Rougé’s predictions on the future of the TPP are probably already outdated.

As always with antologies

Origins and Evolution provides great new perspectives on Obama’s rebalance and was  to me a great source of material for my master’s thesis. It brings several new angles to the table and offers a new and refreshing take on the topic compared to the many analyses which are more American in style.

Unfortunately, just as with Tangled Titans, reading the entire Origins and Evolution involves its fair share of repetition as many of the authors draw on the same sources – especially in part I. Part II on the other hand presents vast new empirical material collected from original Asian sources and this is a great addition to the debate.

Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen

Photo c/o of http://www.kremlin.ru 

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