Do US military motives undermine credibility of the 'Asia pivot?'

U.S. Marines and sailors conduct an amphibious raid exercise with the Royal Malaysian Army as part of a series of bilateral military exercises between the U.S. Navy and the armed forces of Malaysia, Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries. Are U.S. aid policies being used to justify military presence in Asia-Pacific? Photo by: Jay C. Pugh / U.S. Navy / DVIDSHUB / CC BY

As U.S. policymakers still grapple with how to make the “pivot to Asia” a reality, some political leaders and activists in Asia-Pacific voice suspicion over the use of U.S. aid policies to justify the increased military presence in the region.

The pivot to Asia became a buzz concept after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in 2011 that shifting military and diplomatic priorities to Asia is vital to U.S. strategic interests. But some Asian experts struggle to buy into the idea of development assistance that is linked to ulterior, strategic U.S. motives in the region.

“I am suspicious that aid from the U.S. is being used to cover for and justify military expansion in the region to counter the influence of China,” Raymond Palatino, a former Philippine congressman, said Monday during a panel discussion hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

The Philippines certainly welcome U.S. aid, he added, especially in the areas of disaster relief, corruption and human rights — but Palatino is concerned about the “strings attached” to such assistance.

John Feffer, director of foreign policy and focus at the IPS, noted that Asian countries are increasing military spending and face pressure from the U.S. to buy its military equipment. Despite what is supposed to be a fair bidding process, he pointed out, Washington often uses aid as leverage.

“The U.S. basically says ‘we’re giving economic goodies, so you should choose us,’” Feffer said. “It’s not a level playing field. Aid is subordinate to military aspirations in the region, so it’s difficult for a country to accept humanitarian assistance, but beggars can’t be choosers.”

“It’s not altruistic,” he added. “The bottom line is we’re going head-to-head with China.”

For Ko You-kyoung, a prominent peace activist in South Korea, the United States is using economic pressure to implicate Asian countries in a Cold War-esque relationship with China.

Aid, though, has so far offered the U.S. an entry point into countries like Myanmar, where the U.S. Agency for International Development reopened its mission in 2012.

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About the author

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    Claire Luke

    Claire is a journalist passionate about all things development, with a particular interest in labor, having worked previously for the Indonesia-based International Labor Organization. She has experience reporting in Cambodia, Nicaragua and Burma, and is happy to be immersed in the action of D.C. Claire is a master's candidate in development economics at the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs and received her bachelor's degree in political philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross.