Sunday, July 14, 2013

U.S. Rebalancing: What Regional Support?

Background Briefing:
U.S. Rebalancing: What Regional
Carlyle A. Thayer
May 27, 2013
[client name deleted]
Could you provide an assessment of which Southeast Asian states are supporting the
U.S. policy of rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific?
ANSWER: Which nations in Southeast Asia are supporting the US rebalancing in a
material way?
The Philippines, which is starting from a very low base, has linked US rebalancing
with its own program of territorial defence and creating a minimal credible
deterrent. The Aquino Government has begun funding for the modernization of the
Armed Forces of the Philippines stalled since the mid-1990s. This may be viewed as
burden sharing within the context of the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty.
Manila must bring something to the table if it is going to expect US support vis-à-vis
China in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines has also agreed to increase the
scope of US naval and air rotations through its bases. There is also likely to be some
modest funding to construct facilities to support joint exercises.
Singapore is far ahead in providing the US with access. This predates the rebalancing
strategy. It includes most notably hosting up to four Littoral Combat Ships. The US
has a heavy schedule of naval and air visits.
Australia has given political and diplomatic support for the US policy of rebalancing.
Yet Australia has slashed defence spending to its lowest level since 1937 .The current
Government has announced plans to fund twelve new conventional submarines,
twelve Growler aircraft and up to 72 Joint Strike Fighters. But it is likely that the
Government will lose the September elections. Neither the present Government nor
Opposition have indicated where defence funding will come from except to say it is
linked to economic growth.
There has been no funding to upgrade port facilities to enable a marked increase in
US ship visits to Western Australia. There has been talk of stationing US drones or
other surveillance aircraft on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean; but there has
been no commitment to fund an upgrade of facilities to enable this to happen.
Australia gives priority to Indonesia because a potential adversary would have to
come through or over Indonesian waters and airspace or lodge in Indonesia before
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attacking Australia. This is a long-term strategic orientation dating back to the 1987 Defence White Paper with its stress on defending the “air-sea gap” around Australia.
Australia’s limited support is part of its own international defence cooperation effort, that is, it is designed to advance Australian influence. It may have collateral spillover effects on US rebalancing, Australia’s support for the Philippines is mainly aimed at building capacity to counter regional terrorist movements.
Whatever individual force modernization programs are underway (Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia) are generally unrelated to US rebalancing. Both countries are upgrading to develop new capabilities to meet new security challenges and perceived threats.
The Japan-Philippine relationship has more to do with China than US rebalancing. Strategic talks are one matter. Japanese material support is going to the Philippine Coast Guard. Japan is funding the ten patrol boats on offer through its Overseas Development Aid funds as soft loans. Japanese aid will improve the Philippines’ ability to contribute to maritime security.
The Philippines is purchasing naval patrol boats from South Korea and possibly frigates from Italy South Korean arms sales are purely a commercial matter.
My net assessment is that the countries mentioned above are willing to support an increased US rotational presence on their territories. With the exception of the Philippines, none of the current force modernizations programs should be viewed as directly contributing to the US rebalancing policy. Virtually all Southeast Asian nations want to see the US engaged in the region. A small handful are willing to offer political support in public. The real measure is the degree to which regional states participate in US-sponsored bilateral and multilateral military exercises. Many already do, such as CARAT (Cooperation and Readiness Afloat Training) Exercises, Cobra Gold and RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific).
Australia, Singapore and the Philippines are the states that have already committed themselves to burden sharing in support of regional security. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand play a quieter role.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “U.S. Rebalancing: What Regional Support?,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, May 27, 2013. All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer).
Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues to selected clients. It was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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