The U.S. Rebalance to Asia

by Andy Nguyen
January 15, 2015

The war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the nomination of a new U.S. secretary of defense, the Republican takeover of the Senate, and ongoing negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership all will have important strategic implications for the U.S rebalance to Asia in 2015.

By Andy Nguyen

January 15, 2015

2015 is a defining year for the U.S rebalance to Asia: the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the nomination of a new U.S. secretary of defense, the Republican takeover of the Senate, and ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations all have important strategic implications for the economic and military components of the rebalance.

Newly nominated secretary of defense Ashton Carter is expected to carry out the rebalance to Asia with full force. Carter was a strong advocate for the initiative during his tenure as deputy secretary of defense. At an event hosted by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) in October 2012, Carter declared, “We are not just talking the talk of rebalance—we are walking the walk. Even in a period of fiscal austerity, we can and will invest in a continued military presence and engagement for the Asia-Pacific region.” The conclusion of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan will give Carter more political capital, funds, and troops for the rebalance effort. If he is confirmed as secretary of defense, look for greater deployment of U.S. Army and Navy forces to Asia, increased cooperation with regional allies, and continued investment in military infrastructure and training in the region.

The military rebalance, however, faces obstacles on two fronts. First, regardless of Carter’s intentions, he will likely face the threat of budget cuts—known as sequestration—and will need to dissuade Congress from imposing a cap on defense spending. Second, U.S. involvement in the war against ISIS will further complicate matters. In December the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a new measure authorizing the use of military force against ISIS (though the United States had already been launching airstrikes against the militants). The measure, which prohibits the use of ground troops, was passed with a party-line vote by the then Democrat-controlled committee and permits the use of force for the next three years.

There has been much debate in Washington regarding the use of force against ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry advised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December that the measure, for strategic reasons, should not bar the use of ground troops. Many Republicans on the committee—including new chairman Senator Bob Corker—argued that the vote was rushed, and the measure will continue to be debated in early 2015. Although airstrikes against ISIS have already refocused some of Washington’s strategic attention back on the Middle East, a force authorization that permits the use of ground troops will do so with increased vigor. However, if airstrikes continue to be the dominant form of force projection against ISIS, the rebalance to Asia should not be severely affected.

Although the extent of the military rebalance to Asia depends on the level of U.S. involvement against ISIS, the economic rebalance will strengthen regardless. Trade promotion authority (TPA)—fast-track legislation that would allow the president to send an unamendable trade bill to Congress—is more likely to get passed in the new Senate. Republican leaders in the House have already pushed for more open trade, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is eager to work with President Obama on TPA, which could facilitate the passage of the TPP and other trade agreements. While Senate Republicans hold a majority (with 53 seats), the White House and Republicans still need moderate Democrats to support TPA, as over 60 votes are required to prevent a filibuster. With enough politicking from the president and Republicans, look for TPA to pass in early 2015 and for TPP negotiations to subsequently gain momentum. The TPP faces various obstacles on the Japanese side—such as domestic pressure in Japan to protect and exempt agricultural products like rice and sugar—and passing TPA will signal to Tokyo that an agreement would not stall in Congress.

Additionally, U.S. energy exports to Asia will likely increase in 2015. With Republicans and a number of moderate Democrats in favor of increased energy exports, the new Congress will likely reform export laws and approve new oil and gas pipelines. This month, for instance, Republican senators are working to advance a bill to authorize the Keystone XL Pipeline that would transport oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama, however, plans to veto the bill, arguing that the pipeline still needs to pass an extensive approval process. Although this debate is still playing out, the episode will foreshadow how effective the new Congress will be in 2015 with regard to energy policy. If the new Congress succeeds in reforming export laws, the United States will be able to export more of its abundant resources to energy-hungry Asia, thereby strengthening U.S.-Asia energy ties and contributing to the economic rebalance.