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U.S. “Rebalancing” to Asia/Pacific Still a Priority

Amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula and a brewing dispute over Chinese hacking, the Pentagon insists that the Obama administration's "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region will not be derailed by defense cuts.

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Inter Press Service

Amidst growing tensions with North Korea and, to a lesser extent, China, the White House Monday insisted that its “re-balancing” toward the Asia/Pacific remained on track and that Washington is fully committed to its allies there, especially Japan and South Korea.

In a major policy address to the Asia Society in New York City, National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon offered an overview of U.S. strategy in the region, stressing that the “re-balancing” – sometimes referred to as the “pivot” – will be comprehensive, focusing at least as much attention on Washington’s economic role there as its military posture.

While much of the speech echoed previous administration policy statements, Donilon, President Barack Obama’s closest foreign policy aide, also announced new U.S. sanctions against the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea, a step that some analysts said could make trade by third countries with Pyongyang more difficult.

He did not explicitly link the move to recent North Korean threats to pre-emptively strike the U.S. and South Korea with nuclear weapons or to its announcement Monday that it will no longer abide by the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

But he suggested in the clearest terms to date that Washington would respond to any aggressive move by Pyongyang with military force.

“North Korea’s claims may be hyperbolic – but as to the policy of the United States, there should be no doubt: we will draw upon the full range of our capabilities to protect against, and to respond to, the threat posed to us and to our allies by North Korea,” he declared.

He also called on China to deepen its military-to-military dialogue with the U.S. and to take “serious steps” to end the hacking of U.S. government and private-business computer networks – a practice which he said “has become a key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments”.

His remarks on the latter subject, which included a call for the two countries to hold a “direct dialogue to establish acceptable norms of behaviour in cyberspace”, marked the first time a top-ranking U.S. official has accused China by name of carrying out such attacks many of which, according to a recent New York Times investigation, have been launched by a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit based in a 12-story Shanghai office tower. Beijing has strongly denied it is responsible.

“(T)his is not solely a national security concern or a concern of the U.S. government,” he said. “Increasingly, U.S. businesses are speaking out about the serious concerns about sophisticated, targeted theft of confidential business information and proprietary technologies through cyber intrusions emanating from China on an unprecedented scale. The international community cannot afford to tolerate such activity from any country.”

Donilon’s speech came amidst threats and counter-threats between North and South Korea in the wake of last month’s underground nuclear test by Pyongyang, the inauguration of the South’s new president, Park Geun-hye, and Monday’s launch of a major joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise which purportedly provoked the North’s announcement to renounce the 60-year-old armistice and disconnect its “hotline” with Seoul.

The rapid build-up in tensions between the two Koreas has reportedly spurred growing demands within the South to consider developing a nuclear weapon itself, just as renewed tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over a group of islands in the East China Sea has provoked a somewhat similar reaction in Japan.

The hawkish reactions in both Seoul and Tokyo – where doubts are growing about whether Washington can actually follow through on its military re-balancing when the Pentagon budget appears headed for decline – are clearly of concern to the Obama administration. Donilon went out of his way to reaffirm its goal of moving 60 percent of the U.S. naval fleet to the Asia-Pacific by 2020 and expanding radar and missile defence systems to protect U.S. allies from the “dangerous, destabilising behaviour of North Korea”.

“In these difficult fiscal times, I know that some have questioned whether this rebalance is sustainable,” he said. “But make no mistake: President Obama has clearly stated that we will maintain our security presence and engagement in the Asia-Pacific.”

In addition to reassuring Tokyo and Seoul, Monday’s speech also appeared intended in part to dispel any doubts about the region’s priority in its global strategy, particularly given Secretary of State John Kerry’s choice to make Europe and the Middle East the site of his maiden overseas tour and Obama’s decision to make his first second-term trip also to the Middle East.

“There have been a number of people in the region looking at Kerry’s trip and saying maybe they’re looking to re-balance the re-balance,” noted Alan Romberg, the head of East Asia programmes at the Stimson Center here.

In addition, the State Department’s top Asia strategist, former assistant secretary for Asian affairs Kurt Campbell, just stepped down, and no one has yet been nominated to take his place.

But Donilon noted that Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was one of the first foreign leaders to visit the White House this year and announced that Park would be coming to Washington for talks in May. Obama, he said, had determined that the U.S. will participate every year in the East Asia Summit at the head-of-state level.

Donilon also stressed the importance of Southeast Asia in the U.S. re-balancing effort and of including India, whose “look East” policies he praised, as an integral part of that strategy.

“The United States is not only re-balancing to the Asia-Pacific, we are re-balancing within Asia to recognise the growing importance of Southeast,” he said. “Just as we found that the United States was underweighted in East Asia, we found that the Untied States was especially underweighted in Southeast Asia. And we are correcting that,” he noted. He specifically cited Indonesia, like India, as a potential “global partner”.

In defining re-balancing, Donilon stressed that it will not mean “diminishing ties to important partners in any other region”, nor will it mean “containing China or seeking to dictate terms to Asia. And it isn’t just a matter of our military presence,” he insisted, noting the importance of Washington’s economic engagement, particularly through the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In addition to U.S. concerns about Chinese cyber-spying, Donilon stressed the importance of a mutual understanding between the militaries of the two nations, particularly as Beijing expands its presence in Asia, “drawing our forces into closer contact and raising the risk that an accident or miscalculation could destabilise the broader relationship.”

He also praised China’s cooperation at the U.N. Security Council in imposing new sanctions on North Korea, which depends almost exclusively on Beijing for its supply of fuel and other basic commodities.

Despite its support for those sanctions and its evident frustration with the North for engaging in provocations, such as last month’s nuclear test, Beijing has made clear that it will not use that dependence to risk the regime’s collapse.

While Donilon said Washington must co-operate closely with Beijing in dealing with Pyongyang, he stressed that “no country, including China, should conduct ‘business as usual’ with a North Korea that threatens its neighbours.”

Robert Manning, an Asia specialist at the Atlantic Council here, said the speech, while mainly a re-statement of policy, would “keep the momentum on Asia-Pacific” and came at a useful moment.

On China, he told IPS, he would have “liked to see more focus on the need for the U.S. and China to work out an understanding of our respective roles in East Asia”, in part because the “level of strategic distrust” between has appeared to be on the rise.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.

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