By Tala Batangan, Reality of Aid – Asia Pacific

The revival of the “Pivot to Asia” strategy by the Biden administration signals the resurgence of the United States’ influence on the Asia Pacific region and its readiness to face the Chinese “threat”, with plans for an intensified military and economic presence to forward US interests. The Pivot to Asia strategy was originally conceptualized by the Obama administration, specifically by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The strategy entailed the “re-balance” of economic, diplomatic, and military assets from other states to the Asia Pacific region. With the American military’s focus on the Asia Pacific, tensions heightened among the states (between those who were US and non-US allies), and China responded with aggression. In its bid to outshine the US, China increased its military, economic and diplomatic activity in the region prompting multiple human rights violations as the two rivals vie for power in the region.

The Pivot to Asia strategy is heavily criticized by foreign policy analysts, think tanks, civil society organizations, and the media, with some even calling it “Obama’s biggest mistake.” The increased US military presence in the region during Obama’s term exerted undue pressure on governments in Asia Pacific to increase their military expenditure, dedicating a larger percentage of their national budgets to cater to arms procurement and funding of their armed forces. This also led to heightened tensions over maritime territories in the region. The Pivot to Asia strategy as a “mistake” is not confined to the field of foreign policy but had real, significant impacts on the peoples of the region. 

The Asia Pivot also catalyzed multiple scenarios of democratic backsliding, especially in Southeast Asia where the US insidiously brokered military agreements favoring its geopolitical interests. The increase in military aid from the US government and in military spending of recipient governments also meant that the budget allotted for other basic social services has been significantly reduced. Under the Pivot, the Obama administration also assigned a larger role to the private sector as contractors of “development” projects, in which consultations with local groups and communities were hardly conducted, proving ineffective in reducing poverty and inequality.

On the other hand, Trump’s “America First” foreign policy meant pursuing a protectionist stance in trade, backing out of trade agreements, and in foreign policy, pursuing bilateral ties instead of engaging multilateral organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and regional trade regimes such as the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). His policy for the region as detailed in the Indo-Pacific Strategy,  essentially shares the same goals of Obama’s Pivot to Asia, in terms of containing China’s influence through intensified US military assistance, and the promotion of private sector-led development in the region. This also included befriending like-minded leaders in the region, who, like Trump, have questionable human rights records.

While the US never abandoned its Pivot to Asia strategy, President Biden effectively declared its revival with the appointment of Kurt Campbell, the former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under Obama, to be his Senior Official for Asia. Campbell would likely pursue his Indo-Pacific Strategy, which would “sustain balance and legitimacy,” which included “the need for a balance of power, the need for an order that the region’s states recognize as legitimate and the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both.”

The 2020 presidential elections served as a chance for the country to steer its foreign policy in another direction and to improve the prevailing political climate. While President Biden is seen by Americans as the saving grace to Trump’s administration, the strategy that Campbell puts forth will only serve to forward US interests meant to thwart growing Chinese interests in the region, at the expense of the security, economy, and development of the Asia Pacific. 

Securitization of aid  

Kurt Campbell has noted that there is an imbalance of power in the region, tilting towards China, with its increasing military presence and growing economy.  In order to counter this imbalance, the US military will expand their influence in the region. In fact, last February 5, the US Department of Defense launched the Global Posture Review, which foreshadows US plans to further increase military presence in “strategic areas” of concern, including the Asia Pacific. By increasing US military presence in the Asia Pacific, the region serves as the battleground between the two superpowers — US and China. Growing conflicts in West Asia such as Yemen, Syria, and Palestine also present a worrying tug-of-war between the US, China, and Russia.

Increased military presence means more than just the deployment of troops, but as well as the provision of aid in the form of military assets, weapons and joint combat trainings. Starting 2014, US aid in the form of military assistance has been steadily increasing. Between 2018 and 2019, the Asia-Pacific region saw an increase of $110 million in the allocation of US aid for conflict, peace & security. This leads to the securitization of aid, with the allocation of a part of Official Development Assistance (ODA) originally meant to catalyze public development, to serve US defense interests instead. 

While the US argues that this aid will promote democracy and human rights in these countries, with their heightened influence comes the backsliding of democratic governments and the criminalizing of civic spaces. Under the Obama administration, the same strategy resulted in political instabilities in Southeast Asia. Military assistance provided to these governments increased the likelihood of a coup taking place, as witnessed in Thailand. In 2014, a coup was launched by the Thai military, which led to the imposition of martial law and an infringement on people’s rights, including the crackdown on protests.

The training provided by the US military to its allies has paved the way for human rights violations being committed by national armed forces and police officers. Under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program of the United States, countries like Thailand, Laos and the Philippines have witnessed their local armed forces commit extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and trafficking of women and children.

Pivoting for profit

To further their agenda in the region, the Asia Pivot would also entail the US to reaffirm their position in multilateral bodies, like international finance institutions (IFIs). The US is a major shareholder in IFIs such as the World Bank Group (WBG), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Asian Development Bank (ADB). Multilateral development banks present conditionalities to developing countries in the form of increasing the role of the private sector, deregulation of basic services and liberalization of various sectors. By strengthening their position in these IFIs, the US government will not only be able to promote their neoliberal agenda, but also counter China’s efforts to provide aid and development in the region through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

The BRI aims to bridge and connect the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa, for international cooperation and development. This initiative carries out its mission by brokering bilateral deals with developing countries and by cementing their position in “Southern-led” IFIs such as  the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB). As the founder and as a majority shareholder of both AIIB and NDB, China can influence the financing of development projects that will prove strategic for its geopolitical interests in the region. These projects also heavily employ the private sector in its implementation, which only leads to the accumulation of capital rather than the promotion of sustainable development for these countries. Furthermore, CSOs have criticized the initiative as “debt-trap diplomacy,” causing the inability of developing countries to pay debts, forcing them to apply for more loans or if worse comes to worst, give a part of its critical national assets as collateral.

Under the guise of development projects funded and implemented by IFIs through the strategic influence of US and China, both governments promote trade liberalization and public sector privatization, leading to the exploitation of resources, lack of social services and violation of rights of the marginalized and vulnerable. 

Concerted efforts to “contain” China

By increasing its ODA to developing countries in the form of infrastructure development and military assistance, the United States aims to strengthen its alliances with the states in the region. According to Campbell, partnerships will be made in the field of military deterrence, infrastructure investment, trade, and human rights. With the US allies in Europe and Asia, they will be signing new treaties and agreements in order to counter the Chinese “threat”. 

The plans for future partnerships regarding military assistance will entail going beyond the existing Quad of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. In this regard, it is likely that these states will be increasing aid in the form of military assistance to their other allies in the region. New coalitions for infrastructure investment, through multilateral institutions, will only contribute to the corporate capture of development. Strengthening the influence of IFIs in providing economic and social infrastructure will only serve donor governments’ neoliberal interests. 

Instead of rallying efforts to attend to the immediate concerns of the region, Biden’s Pivot to Asia strategy is set to worsen the already concerning conditions of the Asia Pacific. The region already faces dictatorial regimes, increasing levels of poverty, and continuing human rights violations in the face of the pandemic.

The Pivot to Asia strategy to increase military assistance and deployment serves to use the region as a strategic war theater to contain China’s growing influence, at the expense of human security. Furthermore, the strategy to assign a bigger role to IFIs over development and to strengthen US alliances that will promote their neoliberal objectives will undoubtedly lead to the further exploitation of the region’s resources. ##



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