Entrapment, Commitment and the Pivot to Asia

Huw Jones

Key to the Pivot is an enlarged US Navy presence in the Pacific, seen here exercising with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force. Photo source: United States Navy via Wikimedia Commons

In 1971 in an article entitled ‘The Big Influence of Small Allies’ for Foreign Policy, Robert Keohane outlined his concerns that the US’ smaller allies had disproportionate influence on American decision-making. This article was written at a time when the US, having committed itself to the defence of South East Asia against the spread of communism, now found itself in quagmire in Vietnam. In 2011, the Obama Administration outlined the ‘Pivot to Asia’ (also referred to now as the Rebalance), a new foreign policy direction anchored on a focus of US diplomatic, economic and military resources upon the Asia-Pacific region and upon deeper cooperation with US allies in the region. American policy makers have placed great stock on the latter, in ‘America’s Pacific Century’, one of the first public expressions of the Pivot, Hilary Clinton remarked that America’s alliances in the region were “the fulcrum for our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific.”. With allies having a vital role in the Pivot, it is necessary to assess whether the US has embarked on a policy that involves a mutually beneficial credible commitment to US allies in Asia, or if the US is entrapping itself by increasing the potential leverage that its partners can use to influence US policy.

The concerns that Keohane expressed in his article hint to the wider concept of entrapment. Snyder defines entrapment as a process by which an actor is drawn into a conflict over the interests of an ally that it does not necessarily share. Kim expands the concept by suggesting that entrapment comes under the umbrella of ‘entanglement’ whereby a state is made to aid an ally in an enterprise which has no benefit for the entangled party because of an existing alliance structure. Kim insists that entrapment differs from entanglement in that the former is the result of a policy initiative which does not exist within the boundaries of an existing alliance.

When considering the dangers of entrapment within the Pivot, perhaps the greatest risk comes from incidences where US allies in the region such as Japan and the Philippines have hotly contested territorial disputes with China. The risk here is that the US could find itself caught in these disputes should they escalate. In 2014, President Obama placed the US in such a position when he confirmed that the US-Japan Alliance did encompass the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (while remaining nuetral on the actual dispute), putting an end to a long record of ambiguity that the US had adopted over the status of the islands within the US-Japan Alliance. There is also the danger that these US allies may interpret this security guarantee as support in their disputes with China or use these guarantees to leverage support from the US. This was outlined by Logan as the ‘Georgia effect’ whereby an increased US military presence in the region, combined with security ties to states such as Japan and the Philippines might embolden them to take a stronger stance in their disputes with China, having taken US support as a given. Negative repercussions in this sense don’t necessarily come from the potential for entrapment. For example, in 2012, the Philippines berated the United States for not supporting the Philippines during the Scarborough Shoal incident, which had demonstrated to the Philippines the limitations of the US-Philippines alliance and but also damaged American credibility in the eyes of its ally.

Furthermore, since it was envisioned, a key objective in the Pivot has been ‘engagement’ with China. This engagement would involve bringing China into the regional order the US is attempting to reaffirm and ensuring that Beijing has a stake in upholding it. However, critics have argued that the US has skewed the balancing/engagement calculus in favour of the former. Indeed, as seen with US commitments to Japan over last year, as the US makes stronger commitments to its allies, it makes engagement with China increasingly difficult.

However strong the case for entrapment may be, there are also strong imperatives that drives the US to make these commitments. It is important to recall, for example, the role of US allies in the inception of the Pivot. They applied pressure upon the United States to reaffirm its leadership in Asia after the Bush Administration’s focus on the Middle East. It was upon the drawdown of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that the US was able to make military commitments to reinforce the diplomatic aspects of the Pivot. Indeed, the Pivot still remains under a great deal of scrutiny today in terms of its existence beyond rhetoric. In 2013, John Kerry, before taking up the role of Secretary of State, downplayed the immediate need for a military ‘ramp-up’ in the Asia-Pacific and upon assuming his role began to focus increasingly on the Middle East. The continued conflicts in Iraq and Eastern Ukraine, the latter of which has resulted in a renewed US to underwriting the security of Europe, not only places strain on American resources but also threatens the credibility of supposed US commitment to Asia. Despite this, several senior members of the American defence establishment have reaffirmed that the military aspect of the Pivot continues as planned despite these strategic upsets and the National Security Strategy 2015 the US is a Pacific power and reaffirms the need for American leadership in the region through cooperation with allies and partners in the region.

The above is the argument that the US must be prepared to credibly commit to the Asia-Pacific region and that the US must gain the confidence of its allies that it is doing just that. Observers such as Ross argue that the rise of nationalism within China and China’s growing (albeit modest in comparison to the US) military capability have driven US allies in the region to look to the US to guarantee their security in the face of what they perceive to be an increasingly assertive China. Therefore, when the US reaffirmed its security commitments to Japan, defied China’s formation of an ADIZ in 2013, and recently protested against China’s artificial island building in the South China Sea, it is arguably doing so to demonstrate its commitment to upholding the norms based system of the Pivot and reaffirming its commitment to its allies.

In conclusion, there are very real risks of entrapment which come from the US reaffirming its commitment to US allies in Asia and its deepening of existing security relationships with these allies. However, the stock that the Pivot places on multilateralism and a norms based regional order, means that making such commitments to US allies in Asia is necessary to ensuring the Pivot is translated from rhetoric to reality. However, what remains to be seen is whether the Washington can return the balance between potential entrapment from Tokyo and Manila with further engagement with Beijing.

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