Features | Security | East Asia

The Right US Pacific Strategy?

It’s been a tumultuous year for the US in the Pacific. Policymakers need to remember China sees things differently from them.

By Gail Harris for

For much of the past couple of decades, the Persian Gulf region has been seen as the US national security policy hot spot. But in recent months especially a series of events have underscored how quickly this is changing. And these events beg an important question—is the United States’ security strategy moving quickly enough to keep up?

Trouble on the Korean Peninsula is nothing new, but relations between North and South Korea have continued to deteriorate in the aftermath of the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors lost their lives. South Korea says an investigation proves the vessel was sunk by a North Korean torpedo, although Pyongyang has dismissed the incident as ‘a conspiratorial farce and charade orchestrated by the US imperialists and the south Korean puppet forces.’

Indeed, North Korea has continued to ratchet up the rhetoric. In June, it accused the US of taking ‘various types of heavy weapons’ into the demilitarized zone around Panmunjom and called the incident a ‘premeditated provocation aimed to spark off a serious military conflict.’ The same day, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry referred to recently declassified US documents referencing a planned nuclear attack by the US against North Korea in 1969 in the aftermath of an incident involving a US EC-121 military aircraft and suggested there’d been no change in US policy.

Last month, North Korea reportedly went as far as to threaten to use nuclear weapons in response to joint US/South Korea exercises in the Sea of Japan, while this month its forces fired 110 artillery rounds into the Yellow Sea in response to another South Korean exercise. Although were no reports of the shells striking targets, North Korea had still made its point—Seoul is within range of North Korea’s artillery and it wouldn’t need to resort to nuclear weapons to wreck havoc on its neighbour if it decided to do so.

But it’s the United States’ increasingly turbulent ties with China that have been stealing most of the headlines.

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During a press conference given while attending a regional security conference in Vietnam in July, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton emphasized the US had a ‘deepening engagement with Southeast Asia.’ And, in remarks that angered China, Clinton addressed territorial conflicts over the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Arguing that the US didn’t take sides in the dispute, she went on to say that it supported freedom of navigation and suggested the competing parties should ‘pursue their territorial claims and accompanying rights to maritime space in accordance with the UN Convention  on the Law of the Sea.’

The comments earned an angry response from China, whose foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, stated, ‘The seemingly impartial remarks were in effect an attack on China and were designed to give the international community a wrong impression that the situation in the South China Sea is a cause for grave concern.’

Yet even before this, there were tensions in the relationship. Earlier this year, for example, there was the high-profile spat with China over the Obama administration’s decision to sell arms to Taiwan. Additionally, the United States has started to raise concerns over China’s military build-up in the region, with Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen stating as recently as June that: ‘Their heavy investments of late in modern expeditionary, maritime and air capabilities seems oddly out of step with their stated goal of territorial defence. Every nation has a right to defend itself and to spend as it sees fit for that purpose, but a gap as wide as what seems to be forming between China’s stated intent and its military programs leaves me more than curious about the end result.  Indeed, I have moved from being curious to being genuinely concerned.’

But it’s not just traditional strategic rivals that have been posing a headache for US policymakers. Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was forced to resign in June after only eight months in office, largely over public dissatisfaction over broken campaign promises to remove a US military base from Okinawa; the base relocation issue is still unresolved. Is the US-Japan security alliance cracking just as it celebrates its 50th year, with many Japanese apparently growing weary of what Hatoyama described as ‘subservience’ to the United States?

These are vital issues for the United States in a part of the world that houses two of the top three economies (Japan and China) in the world and 5 of its top 10 trading partners. Indeed, even as conflicts have raged in the Persian Gulf, the US has still maintained one-fifth of its military force (approximately 250,000 personnel) in the Asia-Pacific region, while the Strait of Malacca remains, according to US policymakers, ‘one of the world’s most strategic waterways with over 60,000 ships transiting annually, carrying half of the world’s oil and 90 percent of the oil imported by China, Japan and South Korea.’

But while the security situation in the Pacific region continues to evolve, there’s been little change in the forward deployed locations of the US military since the end of the Cold War (aside from US forces being moved out of the Philippines at the request of their government in the 1990s). The US maintains 28,000 troops in South Korea and 36,000 ashore and 11,000 afloat on ships in Japan—troop dispositions that are remnants of World War II, the Korean War and Cold War policies.

Of course, recent developments have underscored why the US would keep so many troops stationed in South Korea. But what about the 47,000 US military personnel in Japan? 

For previous administrations, US security goals in the region have revolved around providing a secure environment to allow economic expansion in the region. An examination of policy statements and documents of senior national security officials of the Obama national security team show this trend continues and there appear to be no major changes in Asia-Pacific strategy from previous recent administrations.

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The Obama administration claimed in its latest National Strategy document that it planned to continue to deepen and update alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand to reflect the dynamism of the region and the strategic trends of the 21st century, while modernizing its security relationships with both countries to face evolving global security challenges.

But if the administration is serious about updating its relationships, it will need also to indicate it can respond flexibly to the changing dynamics of the region. For example, the headquarters of US Forces in Japan, along with the air and naval headquarters, are located on the main island of Honshu (and without nearly the controversy of the forces stationed in Okinawa). This raises the question of whether US policymakers should consider backing down on this issue—a move that would undoubtedly do much to ease any strains in ties between the two.

The South Korean alliance, too, has been in need of updating. Already, plans are in motion for US Forces stationed in and near Seoul to be relocated to Pyeongtaek, approximately 40 miles south of Seoul, while 37 US military installations and thousands of acres of land are in the process of being returned to South Korea. This follows 2005 negotiations over the issue of war time control after the then South Korean president indicated the time had come for Seoul to take responsibility for its own defence.

But while maintenance of US alliances is vital, the issue that continues to loom largest is China’s rise and specifically the question: Should China’s military build-up be seen as a military threat to the US or as genuinely designed for defensive purposes? 

Concern about US military intervention over Taiwan remains a significant point of contention and has been a major factor driving the direction of Chinese military modernization efforts. Chinese worries over potential US intervention were underscored with its inability to counter two carrier battle groups President Clinton dispatched to operate in the Taiwan Strait when the US intervened in the 1996 crisis there. That incident, coupled with the success of the US forces during the first Gulf War, was a wakeup call to Chinese military strategists. 

But even if the Taiwan issue was somehow resolved, the recent debate over the South China Sea highlights the potential for US and Chinese interests to clash elsewhere in the region. After all, Chinese strategists now also believe in order to protect their economic development they must maintain the security of their sea lines of communication, something that requires a navy capable of operating well beyond coastal waters. 

According to a Naval Intelligence study last year, ‘many Chinese Scholars and PLA(N) strategists now advocate a new strategy for the 21st century, termed “distant sea defence.”  This new strategy would not bound operations geographically, but rather be defined according to China’s maritime needs.’

The potential ramifications of this strategy were highlighted in an excellent piece by James Kraska that ran in The Diplomat in May detailing incidents of the Chinese Navy throwing its weight around.

All of this has made US defence analysts nervous, especially since most of the Chinese naval modernization, which will include developing the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile (think aircraft carrier buster), appears aimed at defeating a US-style threat. Additionally, the Chinese have developed a very potent cyber warfare capability and would almost certainly bring such a capability to bear in a fight.

All this said, there are at least some glimmers of hope for peaceful resolution of problems in the region. On June 29, for example, China and Taiwan signed a historic free trade agreement that will deepen economic ties and hopefully lessen the likelihood of a military conflict. Additionally, in a White Paper published in January 2009, China talked about contributing to international security to foster ‘a security environment conducive to China’s peaceful development.’The country’s participation in anti-piracy operations off of Somalia is a positive example of what this may entail.

Arguably, the biggest challenge for the United States in trying to ensure peaceful ties with China will be to accept the simple fact that the Chinese military doesn’t necessarily think like the United States.

US analysts have expressed disbelief in Chinese claims that its military is defensive in nature. Yet seen from the Chinese perspective, this could well be the case. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had one of the largest navies in the world, yet its mission was essentially defensive in nature with two primary missions—protecting its ballistic missile submarines so they would be able to launch nuclear ballistic missiles if a conflict went nuclear, and defending the homeland against aircraft carrier attacks. From their perspective, these were indeed defensive operations. 

With this in mind, it seems quite likely that China is approaching its military modernisation with much the same kind of mindset. A miscalculation in a region so vital to each nation’s interests could easily lead to a crisis. Each side has too much to lose to allow that to happen. But an open mind on both sides would go a long way to making sure it doesn’t.


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Captain Gail Harris is a former US naval officer and was the highest-ranking African American female in the United States Navy upon her retirement in December 2001. She was also the first female and African American to lead the Intelligence Department for Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron in Rota, Spain—the largest US Navy aviation squadron.