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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123

United States: Obamas
Rebalancing Pass
Carlyle A. Thayer
March 19, 2017

[client name deleted]

The U.S. Administration has announced it is halting the Pacific rebalance policy. We
request your assessment of the implications of this decision for the Asia-Pacific
Q1. Why did the U.S. Administration announce the end of Obamas Pacific rebalance
effort at this time? Does President Trump feel greater pressure from China and
others? Why?
ANSWER: As I consistently argued last year, the U.S. policy of rebalancing towards the
Asia-Pacific had a shelf life until President Obamas term in office expired. No matter
who was elected president the term rebalance would be replaced by another brand
name to reflect the new presidents priorities.
It was the occasion of Rex Tillersons first visit to Asia as Secretary of State that the
question of the rebalance came up. Susan Thornton, the Assistant Secretary of State
for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, noted in response to a question that the term
rebalance was a word that was used to describe Asia policy in the last
administration. Thornton ventured that the new Trump Administration will have its
own formulation.
Jettisoning the term rebalance was not due to any pressure from China or any other
country. Trump has called for peace through strength by raising the defence budget
by 10 percent and by building up the U.S. Navy. At the moment, a newly appointed
deputy assistant to the president for national security strategy, Nadia Schadlow, has
been appointed to the National Security Council. She has been tasked with drawing
up the United States National Security Strategy as mandated by the U.S. Congress. It
is likely that by the time this document is issued the Trump Administration will have
coined a new term to describe its policy towards the Asia-Pacific.
Q2. Do you think the halting-over decision is a soft signal sent from the U.S. to China
before the April meeting between President Trump and Chinese Xi Jinping? Why?
What will the U.S. benefit from this decision in its relations with China at this time?
ANSWER: The Trump Administration will no longer use the terms rebalance or
pivot because they were adopted by the Obama Administration. This does not signal
any down grade in the U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific. The main concession that

Trump made to China was to reaffirm U.S. support for the One China Policy as a
precondition of his telephone call with President Xi Jinping. It is noticeable that Trump
has not called China a currency manipulator recently nor has Trump taken any action
to put a high tariff on Chinese goods coming into the U.S.
President Trump needs Chinas cooperation in dealing with North Korea, the biggest
security threat to U.S. interests at present in the Asia-Pacific. China insisted on an
informal summit at Mar-a-Lago to give Xi Jinping some flexibility. In other words, the
two leaders can exchange views and agree on what steps to take next without all the
formality of an official state visit. This summit will be only the first step.
President Trump will gain by this initiative because the world community and his
domestic audience will view his leadership in positive terms. Cooperation between
the United States and China is necessary for global and regional stability and security.
Q3. What will impact Asian nations, including U.S. allies (like South Korea, Japan,
Philippines, Thailand, Singapore), from this decision in your view?
ANSWER: It is clear that the Trump Administration is giving priority to alliance relations
in Northeast Asia with Japan and South Korea. This is necessary to deal with the North
Korean problem. The Trump Administration would like to see South Korea and Japan
patch up their differences over so-called comfort women and work effectively in a
trilateral framework with the United States.
Singapore will welcome Trumps policies of peace through strength as long as it
means the U.S. will remain engaged in promoting security and stability in East Asia. As
a trading nation, cooperative U.S.-China relations are vital for Singapores prosperity.
Although both Thailand and the Philippines are U.S. treaty allies, very little if anything
has been said by Trump Administration officials. President Trump has not spoken out
on human rights and the promotion of democracy, so both Thailand and the
Philippines can expect that relations will not deteriorate and that the status quo can
be changed slowly into amore positive directions. All of Philippine President Dutertes
indiscretions against the United States were directed at President Obama and his
administration. Given recent concerns by the Philippines over Chinese actions in the
Spratly islands it is likely the Duterte Administration would welcome some backing by
the United States.
Q4. How does this decision affect ASEAN and the South China Sea in your views?
ANSWER: It seems clear at this point that President Trump and his inner circle do not
value multilateral organisations such as the European Union and G20. They have not
commented on ASEAN. What we know of Trumps views make it likely that he will not
be as active as President Obama in attending many ASEAN leaders meetings and
summits. Proposed budget cuts to the State Department may mean that initiatives
launched by the Obama Administration may be wound back. It is difficult to see the
Trump Administration giving ASEAN anything more than political support in its
discussions with China on the South China Sea. After all, in Trumps worldview, what
does ASEAN bring to the table? Why should the U.S. stick its nose out for ASEAN?
Chinese actions in the South China Sea will become one of a number of issues between
the Washington and Beijing but will be lower down the list of priorities. At present the

Trump Administration has no strategy to deal with Chinese assertiveness and

militarization in the South China Sea. China will play a two-level game. First, China will
try to draw the U.S. into cooperating on global issues North Korea, ISIS terrorism,
economic and trade issues. On the second level China will try to convince the United
States that the South China Sea is a lower order issue best left to regional states.
Q5. What would ASEAN in general and Vietnam itself in particular do now and in the
near future following this decision?
ANSWER: ASEAN and its members, including Vietnam, need to work hard to convince
the Trump Administration that continued U.S. engagement political, diplomatic,
economic and defence/security is essential to regional peace and stability not only
for the sake of Southeast Asia but to balance China so Southeast Asian can retain its
autonomy and centrality.
While ASEAN must hope for the best, it must also work hard to make itself more
unified through strengthening regional community building. ASEAN must work harder
with all its dialogue partners to take up the slack resulting from the Trump
Administrations lack of focus on the region. ASEANs core members, including
Vietnam, need to promote new multi-nodal arrangements with Japan, India, Australia,
South Korea, New Zealand and Russia. Vietnam, for its part, needs to ensure that each
of its strategic and comprehensive partnerships function to the maximum extent
possible. In other words, until the Trump Administration decides on what it wants in
Asia-Pacific, regional states will have to take initiatives to meet current challenges.
Q6. What will the US do in the next couple of months in Asia-Pacific, ASEAN and South
China Sea regions after halting over the rebalance policy in your view?
ANSWER: Fundamental U.S. interests in Asia-Pacific, such as trade, investment,
alliance ties and security partnerships, will not change. Asia-Pacific will continue to be
more important due to its economic rise. The geography of the South China Sea will
not change for commercial and military ships and aircraft transiting from the Western
Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean or vice versa.
Over the next coming months, and longer, U.S. attention will be focused on halting
North Koreas nuclear testing and ballistic missile development, welding a tighter
trilateral alliance with Japan and South Korea, and improving the terms of trade with
The Trump Administration is required by Congress to submit a National Security
Strategy annually. This process is likely to take longer than the next couple of
months. As well, the U.S. Congress must approve the Trump Administrations budget.
Until the first process is completed the countries of Asia-Pacific will have to deal with
greater strategic uncertainty in their relations with Washington.
One key marker of U.S. intentions is what naval operations the U.S. Pacific Command
is authorized to carry out. Will the U.S. continue to carry out freedom of navigation
operational patrols and other military exercises in the South China Sea? Another
marker will be whether the Philippines allows the rotational presence of U.S. forces
through five bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

ASEAN will have to wait for its cycle of ministerial meetings to take place to see if U.S.
secretaries of defense and state turn up and what message they convey. The
Philippines, as ASEAN Chair, will have to work doubly hard to secure President Trumps
agreement to attend the annual leaders meeting. Vietnam, as host of APEC, will have
to work equally hard to secure Trumps agreement to attend the APEC Summit.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, United States: Obamas Rebalancing Pass,

Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, March 19, 2017. All background briefs are
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.