Walking the Walk on the Asia Pivot

Walking the Walk on the Asia Pivot

Why you should care

The U.S. is promising to help keep Asia’s seas secure, but simmering disputes could still flare up, delaying shipments to your local store shelves and drawing America into a fight with China.

When Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Philippines and Vietnam right before Christmas, he did not arrive empty-handed. Goodies included increased U.S. funding for maritime security for both nations, as well as the Southeast Asian community as a whole.

The question of who controls the seas that border Southeast Asia in the east, west to island nations like Japan, the Philippines and Australia and up along China and the Korean peninsula has become a flashpoint of both regional and global significance. According to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, roughly $5.3 trillion (yes, trillion with a “T”) worth of traded goods pass through the South China Sea each year, a body of water that is now the subject of competing territorial claims between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. China, in particular, has become increasingly aggressive in asserting its claims, stirring up conflicts with nearly all of its neighbors.

President Obama on left with PM Shinawatra on right shaking hands

President Barack Obama greets Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand, November 2011

Source Pete Souza/White House

Recognizing that the balance of global economic power is shifting to the region, and wary of the rising geopolitical tensions, in 2011 the Obama administration announced plans to “pivot” to Asia, intensifying its role there after more than a decade of Middle East-centric foreign policy. The term “pivot” has since been ditched for “rebalancing” — a signal to allies in Europe and the Middle East that the country doesn’t plan to entirely abandon them.

Whatever you call it, the general consensus in foreign policy circles is that the administration’s follow-through in Asia has been underwhelming at best — especially on the security front. The United States has made a handful of moves to expand its troop presence in the region and continues to help arm allies and partners like South Korea, Japan and Australia with billions in weapons sales. But developing countries like Vietnam, Thailand or the Philippines — who can’t afford all the big-ticket American military equipment — haven’t seen much of a boost from Obama in terms of U.S. funding to strengthen their defenses against China’s increasingly assertive maritime policy and fast-growing navy.

Kerry’s December aid announcements look to be a first step in changing that. But if the dollar figures below are any indication, Asia still has a long way to go before it matches the Middle East as a U.S. security priority.

$5 million

The decline in total U.S. security assistance — which includes items like military training, funding for weapons purchases and counternarcotics and rule of law programs — to East Asia and the Pacific between fiscal years 2010 and 2012, the last year for which detailed federal government budget data is available.

$72.5 million

The amount of money the Obama administration requested in its fiscal 2014 budget to help Asian governments train their security forces and purchase equipment and weapons — a program formally known as “foreign military financing.”

$4.8 billion

The amount of money the Obama administration requested in the same budget for foreign military financing to the Middle East and North Africa. More than $3 billion is for Israel.

$40 million

The sum, over three years, that the U.S. will spend to help the Philippines bolster its maritime security capabilities, per Secretary Kerry’s announcement in Manila on Dec. 17. The figure would bump up U.S. spending on Philippines security aid by more than a third from the 2012 total.

$32.5 million

The initial amount Secretary Kerry committed in new maritime ”capacity building” funding for Southeast Asia during his stop in Hanoi on Dec 16. Among other things, the money will help pay for five fast patrol vessels for the Vietnamese Coast Guard in 2014, as well as new maritime law enforcement training courses provided by Thailand’s International Law Enforcement Academy for U.S. partners in the region. According to the State Department, the initial sum is part of ”planned region-wide funding support for maritime capacity building” that will exceed $156 million over the next two years.

In announcing the Southeast Asia maritime funding, Kerry said that ”peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us and for countries in the region. We are very concerned by and strongly opposed to coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims.”

Kerry on left sitting and Pres. Aquino on right. They are speaking to one another

President Benigno Aquino speaks with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Manila in 2013.

Source Getty

But pressed by an American reporter, Kerry tried to quash any notion that the latest U.S. spending in the region is directed at curbing China or responding to recent Chinese provocations.

”This maritime announcement has nothing to do with any recent announcements by any other country or any of the tensions in the region. It is simply not a response to those recent announcements,” Kerry insisted. “This is part of a gradual and deliberate expansion that has been planned for some period of time which we have been working on.”

It’s hard to picture Beijing buying that.

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