After more than a decade of war, the U.S. is shifting the strategic balance of its military forces from the Middle East and Central Asia and toward the Asia-Pacific region. The goal of the new defense strategy is to promote U.S. interests by helping to shape the norms and rules of the Asia-Pacific, particularly as China emerges as an ever-more influential regional power. In addition to a “pivot” of its defense resources, Washington is strengthening U.S. alliances and building deeper relationships with emerging partners through digital diplomacy.
Perhaps the strongest military aspect of the Asia-Pacific “strategic pivot” involves Australia and U.S. digital diplomacy efforts have followed. Twitter use by the U.S. Embassy in Canberra and other U.S. consulates in Australia demonstrates an effort to reinforce diplomatic and military ties with Australia and, moreover its key Asian partners. The embassy regularly tweets about U.S.-Australia maritime cooperation and often retweets posts related to maritime security from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet and others.
Australia is not the only partner to which the U.S. has been reaching out; India has been tapped as a potential counter to China’s economic and military rise in the region. Prior to hosting the third U.S.-India strategic dialogue, the embassy reposted this statement from the U.S. Pacific Command:
Tweets also focused on relations with adversaries. In light of North Korea’s missile launch plans in early April, the embassy retweeted the following message from the State Department:
The U.S. Embassy in Manila employs Twitter to create a better sense of legitimacy for U.S. military objectives but to a lesser extent than the U.S. embassy in Canberra. Most content on its Twitter page focuses on cultural and business activities in the U.S. and the Philippines as well as environmental initiatives in the host country. The embassy also spends time interacting with its impressive 24,789 followers and responding to visa inquiries. But at the same time, it makes sure to use Twitter as a platform to strengthen its security and strategic partnership with the Philippines. It frequently tweets and retweets messages related to deepening military ties between the two nations, especially after the U.S. announced its “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific.
Despite these positive interactions, U.S. Twitter diplomacy efforts in the region have not always been well received. Perhaps irked by the U.S.’s Pacific “pivot,” the Chinese government recently told the U.S. to stop tweeting about poor air quality in the country. China has long taken issue with the popular U.S. Embassy Twitter feed that tracks pollution in Beijing, but its past objections were raised quietly until the U.S. announced it intends to maintain and strengthen its military presence in region. In April 2012, a rotation of 200 U.S. Marines arrived in Darwin. The size of the rotation will gradually be expanded into a force of around 2,500 Marine Corps personnel. There also are plans for greater access by U.S. military aircraft to Royal Australian Air Force facilities and for the U.S. Navy to have greater access to Australia’s Indian Ocean navy base HMAS Sterling. Additionally, the Philippines and the U.S. are discussing new military cooperation options, including rotating U.S. troops more frequently into the country and staging more joint exercises.
Chinese censure of the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter feed does not come as a surprise, but it signals a growing diplomatic row that could be damaging to an already precarious U.S.-China relationship. The U.S. move toward the Asia-Pacific could reinforce China’s fear of encirclement and prompt further militarization of the region. Fears and misperceptions linger on both sides of the Pacific, but Twitter use can provide some transparency in diplomatic relations. If U.S. embassies across the Asia-Pacific can harness Twitter to build mutual trust and to promote active efforts in global problem-solving, it would encourage constructive Chinese behavior and provide confidence to regional leaders who wish to resist potential Chinese regional hegemony: a win-win solution.