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The Eagle and the Panda: An Owl's View from Southeast Asia

From: Asia Policy
Number 15, January 2013
pp. 26-30 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0009

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The United States' rebalancing to Asia, initially depicted as a "pivot" to the Pacific, is less a swing away from the Middle East and West Asia than a shift of U.S. focus to East Asia, following the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As noted by Singapore's ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee, "the U.S. is unlikely to turn its back to problems in the Middle East or on West Asia. Nor is 'return to Asia' an apt term, because the U.S. has never left Asia."1

From the military perspective, U.S. secretary of defense Leon Panetta observed at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2012 that after the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq and the drawdown of military forces from Europe, rebalancing will result in a shift from a 50:50 to a 60:40 ratio of U.S. naval forces in the Asia-Pacific and Europe.2 However, the Pacific is much larger than the Atlantic, and fiscal constraints will require a decline in overall U.S. military spending in the decade ahead. Rebalancing toward Asia may only mean that the United States maintains current levels of its military presence in Asia while significant declines occur in Europe.

The implications of rebalancing for the Asia-Pacific are likely to be multifaceted, spanning the diplomatic, economic, political, and security realms. From Singapore's perspective, rebalancing is a reaffirmation of the United States' long-standing interest in the region. Yet the focus of attention has shifted with different circumstances and administrations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has paid significant attention to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), engaging the group at its annual meetings and visiting every ASEAN member, while President Obama has attended the East Asia Summit, an ASEAN-centered initiative. Singapore is not alone among ASEAN members in welcoming U.S. rebalancing to Asia.

Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Singapore has emphasized the need for the United States to stay engaged with Asia and maintain a military presence in the western Pacific. When the United States was forced to leave its bases in Subic Bay and Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1992, Singapore facilitated the use of the country's air and naval facilities by the U.S. military, including the deployment of a naval logistics unit there. The conclusion of a bilateral strategic framework agreement in 2005 enabled the deployment of U.S. littoral combat ships in Singapore.

Singapore also participated in the U.S.-led coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and joined the U.S.-led naval task force in the Gulf of Aden, while assisting U.S. global deployments through the availability of equipment pre-positioned in Singapore. The close political and diplomatic ties maintained by Singapore with the United States have been highlighted by American observers as a quasi-alliance partnership. Policymakers in Singapore, however, do not regard such ties as mutually exclusive with the expansion of relationships with other rising powers in Asia, such as China.

Singapore has also maintained strong economic and trade linkages with the United States and emerged as its thirteenth-largest trading partner in 2010. Trade flows are greater than those between the United States and Italy, Indonesia, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, respectively. Singapore ranks as the tenth-largest export destination for the United States, while U.S. investments in Singapore exceed $100 billion and Singaporean investments in the United States are similarly growing. The U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA), concluded in 2003, acted as a precursor for the raft of FTAs that the United States is currently negotiating with Asia. Singapore and the United States have a shared interest in the early conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new-generation agreement promoting trade liberalization. But the emphasis on areas of U.S. advantage in intrusive "behind the border" liberalization affecting domestic policy in the participating states, the lack of attention to agriculture, and American domestic opposition to providing labor-intensive manufacturing with access to the U.S. market have led significant groups in Asia to question the level of Washington's commitment to the region.

While Japan has...

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