Just as the history of the world was written in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of the 21st century will surely be written in the Asia-Pacific. Four decades of almost uninterrupted economic growth and the expansion of democratic governance has created a region of peace, prosperity, and integration that rivals almost any in history. The United States has been one of the greatest benefactors of Asia's success – we have gained access to new markets, formed deeper alliances to ensure stability, and seen the winds of democratic change sweep away ruthless autocrats.
But unnoticed by many is the fact that US military power and its alliances have underwritten the region's security for the last seven decades, creating a stable environment that continues to enable success. However, after passage of a budget act that slashed defence – and with more potentially on the way at the hands of the Congressionally-mandated Supercommittee – all this could change. Worse yet, just as the United States is choosing to dismantle its military, the People's Republic of China is continuing to modernize its military at a rapid pace. The result is an impending shift in the regional balance of power that is raising alarm amongst China’s neighbours and has called into question the United States’ long-term security commitments. In short, further defence cuts will imperil the future prosperity and stability of the Asia-Pacific.
Going forward, the United States will have two paramount interests in this region. First, it must preserve the free flow of trade. The region’s economic rise has made countries such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, and Singapore into major trading partners for the United States and the rest of the world. But just as goods in the United States are shipped from Pennsylvania to Virginia by truck, the geography of the Asia-Pacific means that even intra-regional trade must transit the maritime ‘highways’ that intersect the region’s seas and pass through important choke-points. Forty percent of world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca, for instance. Maintaining the ability to secure those shipping lanes and preserve freedom of navigation will remain critical for commercial and military vessels.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Second, stability in the region will continue to be a top priority for US statesman. A conflict in the Taiwan Strait or on the Korean Peninsula wouldn’t only put US military service members in harm’s way, but it would also cause major diplomatic and economic disruption in the region, possibly paralyzing global markets. Further, if states like South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, or Japan perceive the US is backing away from its security commitments, they may invest in nuclear weapons as a relatively cheap means of deterrence, setting off a round of nuclear proliferation that would leave the region and the international community in a far more dangerous position.
For its part, China insists it will pursue a course of ‘peaceful development’ that doesn’t seek to dominate its neighbours. While many hope China’s claims are true, the only verifiable metric we have to understand what the future might look like is the China’s growing military capabilities. Unfortunately, they don't paint a picture of benign intentions.
While the PLA is far from achieving parity with the United States, it is rapidly and consistently developing asymmetric capabilities – missiles, submarines, anti-satellite and cyber warfare capabilities – to counter the United States’ more sophisticated air and naval forces. Taking a page from their own philosopher of war Sun Tzu, Chinese strategists aim to achieve their objectives while avoiding conflict. Thus, China aims to acquire conventional capabilities sufficient to deter the United States from entering a conflict in the western Pacific Ocean, or, should one occur, to deny access to US forces operating from bases in Japan, South Korea, and Guam.