Revisiting the Rebalance to the Pacific
Time for a Refresh?
Admiral Jonathan Greenert (ret.) looks back at the objectives of the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia and assesses its legacy a decade later. Are we rebalanced now? Or have we rebalanced, and the evolution of the regional environment in Asia necessitates revisiting the key elements of the concept?
Admiral Greenert is the John M. Shalikashvili Chair in National Security Studies at NBR.
In 2013, the Obama administration articulated a concept to build a network of like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific to enhance cooperation, strengthen the rules-based order, and address regional and global challenges. Implied and specific within this concept, originally called the “pivot to Asia” and eventually relabeled as “the rebalance to the Pacific,” were directives to realize such objectives through endeavors in diplomacy, force posture changes, economic initiatives, and a global public relations campaign. This effort was envisaged to shift U.S. foreign policy attention to the Indo-Pacific, given the reality that the majority of U.S. economic, military, technological, and diplomatic interests reside in the region.
Looking back at the objectives of the rebalance and examining the present situation in the Indo-Pacific, the initial promise of the Obama administration’s rebalancing efforts ultimately fell short of the stated goals. Yet the region is no less important for U.S. interests today than it was in 2013, if not more so. Therefore, the United States must revisit and revise this initiative to meet the threats of today and the future by clearly articulating what is required to succeed.
The Objectives of the Rebalance
The concept of rebalancing to the Indo-Pacific represented movement away from, but not the abandonment of, the Middle East as the center of U.S. foreign policy attention. In other words, the rebalance may have been an acknowledgment to focus more on the important and less on the urgent. Assessments of the United States’ global security force posture, diplomatic relationships, economic partnerships, and whole-of-government messaging thereby produced a framework for action to rebalance U.S. assets and capabilities to the Indo-Pacific from the Middle East and elsewhere. To establish benchmarks for this initiative, the Obama administration’s National Security Council approved a tangible list of military, policy, and diplomatic activities to complete by 2020.
These basic objectives emerged across a series of public policy pronouncements from the Obama administration. On the economic front, the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was “central” to the administration’s vision for revitalizing U.S. economic engagement and countering China’s growing economic clout in the region. To sustain U.S. security and diplomatic presence in the Indo-Pacific, the rebalance further aimed to modernize and leverage the strengths of U.S. regional alliances and partnerships. Threats emanating from China’s regional assertiveness and North Korea’s modernization of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs required the United States to “move beyond the ‘hub and spokes’ model of the past” and build a “networked” architecture among allies and partners. The rebalance also sought to reinvigorate U.S. regional diplomacy through bilateral engagement with existing and emerging partners, as well as through participation in regional organizations. By strengthening partnerships and exploring new relationships, the administration would demonstrate its commitment to comprehensive regional engagement. Moreover, participation in regional institutions would enhance Washington’s ability to ensure a free, open, and rules-based regional order across all realms. Although the initiative’s aspirations and objectives were promising and prescient, the administration’s ability to execute them met with varying degrees of success.
The TPP, perhaps the most significant trade and economic instrument associated with the rebalance, was proposed but unfortunately not concluded, as the United States withdrew from the agreement in the early days of the Trump administration. Nevertheless, the economic component of the rebalance witnessed the expansion of the United States’ Indo-Pacific operations under the Export-Import Bank, the National Export Initiative, and dialogues on trade and economics in bilateral and multilateral contexts in the region. Despite the incomplete implementation of the rebalance’s economic agenda, U.S. merchandise trade with Asia grew in the time period from 2008 to 2022, though notably at a faster rate with China than with other Asian nations.
Within the Department of Defense, plans, programs, and budgets were prepared to modernize forces in and allocate greater resources to the Indo-Pacific theater. These initiatives included moving forces into the Pacific theater; deploying, integrating, and modernizing more in-theater capabilities; increasing the scale and complexity of allied exercises; and improving the elements of command and control of U.S. and allied forces. More specifically, the administration aimed to home port 60% of the U.S. Navy fleet to the Pacific, increase the number of ships assigned to the Pacific Fleet outside U.S. territory by 30%, move more submarines to Hawaii and Guam, rotationally deploy more modern U.S. Air Force bombers to Guam, and establish U.S. Army Pacific as a four-star command while increasing the number of army forces based in the Pacific. Force posture improvements were also completed in coordination with alliance partners, including a revised agreement with Australia in 2014 that enabled U.S. bomber and Marine rotational deployments to Australia (Darwin), deployment of tactical aircraft to Okinawa, and the signing of the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014, which provided U.S. access to four airfields in the Philippines.
The Department of State bolstered diplomatic engagement in the region to support the Department of Defense’s ongoing force posture adjustments. This included expanding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) country team’s size and regional activity, as well as increasing overall engagement with U.S. allies, partners, and other regional actors, including China. Expanded diplomatic outreach witnessed the strengthening of ties with existing allies and partners. These efforts included sending the first resident U.S. ambassador to ASEAN and hosting the U.S.-ASEAN summit in 2016, with a follow-on summit in 2022, as well as enhancing alliance relationships with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. They were accompanied by engagement with new partners active in the Indo-Pacific region, such as Malaysia, Singapore, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and New Zealand, through initiatives spanning trade, investment, maritime security, counterterrorism, climate change, global health, and cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
The Legacy of the Rebalance
A decade later, the basic principles underlying the genesis of the rebalance remain valid, if not more so. U.S. interests in the region have deepened, while the threats to U.S. security, economic, and technological interests are greater and more imminent. When the rebalance was initially conceptualized, China’s threats to Taiwan and freedom of navigation in and around the East and South China Seas, as well as North Korea’s nuclear threat in the region, were relatively nascent. In the subsequent decade, the threats have evolved and accelerated to become more complex and sophisticated. China’s whole-of-government pressure campaign against Taiwan has and will continue to test the resolve of the Taiwanese people and armed forces as well as the United States. China’s gray-zone operations in the East and South China Seas pose new challenges to U.S. alliance coordination with countries such as Japan and the Philippines by obfuscating the traditional concept of “armed conflict.” Likewise, Chinese influence operations and frequent employment of coercive economic practices against countries that China perceives as acting in ways contrary to its interests undermine the rules-based order.
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the “no-limits partnership” between Moscow and Beijing continues to challenge U.S. global leadership and heightens the risk of a crisis involving three of the world’s most capable nuclear powers. In North Korea, the Kim regime’s pursuit of an increasingly sophisticated nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal threatens the national security of U.S. treaty allies Japan and South Korea and poses challenges to alliance coordination and trilateral cooperation. North Korea’s continued development of these capabilities may also threaten the U.S. homeland, making the resolution of this problem an urgent task.
Collectively, the evolution and acceleration of these regional threats warrants that the basic concept of rebalancing U.S. attention and resources to the Indo-Pacific region be revisited, updated, and codified. As such, the mandate is clear for the United States to strengthen alliances and reassure allies, demonstrate the willingness to meet treaty obligations, nurture potential partners, and maintain economic, military, and technological advantages. Looking back and taking stock today, one ponders where we stand with regard to the purpose and intent of the rebalance. Did the United States achieve its objectives? Do they remain relevant and effective to deter and counter regional threats? In either case, the United States needs a framework for action that consists of clear, coherent, and measurable objectives.
Although administration statements trace important and useful activities associated with the rebalance to the Indo-Pacific, they also raise questions of how to measure the success of the policy. The Department of Defense established 2020 as the target for completing the rebalance. There were no other clearly published goals or milestones for the rebalance as a whole-of-government initiative to achieve. We are thus left to wonder whether the rebalance was completed as envisioned. With the subsequent emergence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, did the Obama administration become distracted by these urgent, albeit less important, threats at the expense of completing the rebalance? Furthermore, how have subsequent administrations approached the challenge of rebalancing to the Indo-Pacific in light of emerging challenges, and did they construe their efforts as an outgrowth of the rebalance or a separate initiative entirely?
Although the Trump administration labeled China as a “strategic competitor” and promised to “redouble our commitment to establish alliance and partnerships…pursue bilateral trade agreements…and maintain a forward military presence” in Asia, questions remain about whether these efforts built on the concept of the rebalance or were thought of in completely discrete terms. Discussions with security officials in the Trump administration revealed that many interpreted the rebalance concept to have not developed as a coherent plan and therefore the policies implemented were distinct in both origin and objective. In fact, most indicated no intent to pursue the rebalance as a policy or plan. Answers to queries regarding its status ranged from “completed” to “not relevant to this administration.” That said, certain measures, such as the Trump administration’s embrace of then prime minister Shinzo Abe’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), as well as the establishment of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation in 2019, supported the original goals of the rebalance, even if they were not characterized in those terms.
The Biden administration has labeled the Indo-Pacific as the “priority theater” and China as the “pacing challenge,” suggesting a degree of continuity with preceding administrations. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has required the United States to return attention and resources to Europe, the Biden administration appears committed to addressing the primary strategic challenge of competing with China.
To this end, the administration has pursued greater theater integration of advanced military capability through legislation such as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, security initiatives such as a recent update to the EDCA with the Philippines that increased U.S. access to four additional sites, and the establishment of the Marine Littoral Regiment in Okinawa. The administration has also undertaken broader geopolitical efforts to strengthen networking among U.S. partners through the Quad, the AUKUS security agreement with Australia and the United Kingdom, the Japan–South Korea–United States trilateral, and NATO maritime deployments to Asia, as well as through the promotion of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. It thus appears that the Biden administration is doubling down on the promise to rebalance as well as encouraging allies and partners both in and outside the region to pay greater attention to regional challenges by increasing and strengthening their position.
The Future of the Rebalance
Nevertheless, questions remain: Are we rebalanced now? Or have we rebalanced, and the evolution of the regional environment in Asia necessitates revisiting the key elements of the concept? As mentioned, the Biden administration has pursued objectives aligned with the original tenets of the rebalance. However, one cannot determine where these actions fit into the strategy intended to rebalance the United States’ security assets to confront the challenges and threats of today as well as the future. Most importantly, the United States must address the question of whether its existing assets are sufficient to deter adversaries and safeguard the regional architecture, which has promoted peace, stability, and prosperity.
Regional countries have stepped to the fore to complete some of the most critical components of the rebalance. Following the withdrawal of the United States from the TPP, Japan maintained the momentum to form the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership with the remaining countries. Furthermore, it has since embedded itself within other regional economic agreements, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Meanwhile, with Japan facing greater coercive pressure from China’s gray-zone operations and North Korea’s provocations, its 2022 National Defense Strategy “dramatically transform[ed]” its postwar approach to national defense. Notable developments include acquiring counterstrike capabilities and increasing defense spending to 2% of GDP within five years, as well as enhancing core capabilities in cross-domain operations and improving resiliency.
After failed attempts by the Moon administration in Seoul to use dialogue and economic inducements to moderate North Korea’s most problematic behavior, the Yoon administration has adopted a “3D strategy” of deterrence, dissuasion, and dialogue to shape Pyongyang’s decision-making calculus. Most recently, President Yoon Suk-yeol advanced several proposals, including developing an indigenous nuclear weapons program, to enhance deterrence vis-à-vis North Korea, suggesting a lack of strategic alignment in Washington’s and Seoul’s approaches and a desire for South Korea to have more options at its disposal in the event of a crisis. Although the recently announced Washington Declaration features the establishment of a new Nuclear Consultative Group with South Korea to increase cooperative decision-making on nuclear deterrence, the collective implications of the incomplete nature of the rebalance have forced regional actors to assume greater roles and responsibilities, signaling waning confidence in U.S. commitments and presence.
Observation, research, and liaison with theater security officials indicate that more must be done to make ready the Indo-Pacific theater and the resources and capabilities located there to deter, and if need be counter, China and North Korea. Despite the list of activities to improve the in-theater collective security posture, U.S. force structure capacity still looks similar to 2013 and might be only capable of addressing the threats present at that time. Are the capability improvements with this same force commensurate with the evolving threat? Will it be an effective deterrent? In other words, should we revise the rebalance to the Indo-Pacific to meet the threats of 2023 and beyond?
The answer is that we must. Current defense leaders often refer to “the campaign” and the need to be “campaigning.” Since 2013, there has been considerable activity, across the government, to rebalance to the Indo-Pacific. What is needed is a coherent and synchronized articulation of how this activity, along with well-defined current and future endeavors and touchpoints, is essential to executing a successful U.S. campaign of rebalancing. In view of the current dynamic and evolving global security environment, it would reassure the American public to know that there has been a coordinated whole-of-government campaign—spanning the spectrum of security, diplomacy, trade, and technology—underway in the Indo-Pacific designed to confront and deter China.
Jonathan W. Greenert holds the John M. Shalikashvili Chair in National Security Studies at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR). Prior to joining NBR, Admiral Greenert served as the 30th chief of naval operations from 2011 to 2015.
 Although there remains no singular document stating the objective of completing the rebalance by 2020, the various initiatives advanced under the rebalance coalesced around a time frame of completion by 2020. See Terri Moon Cronk, “Pacom Commander: Rebalance to Asia-Pacific ‘Being Realized,’” U.S. Department of Defense, February 25, 2016; Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the U.S. Government: Fiscal Year 2017 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2016), 79–80; Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom, ‘‘U.S. Third Fleet Expands East Asia Role as Tensions Rise with China,’’ Reuters, June 15, 2016; and U.S. Department of Defense, Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy (Washington, D.C., July 2015), 22.
 White House, National Security Strategy (Washington, D.C., October 2022), 20; and Jim Garamone, “Defense Official Says Indo-Pacific Is the Priority Theater; China Is DOD’s Pacing Challenge,” U.S. Department of Defense, March 9, 2022.