The United States’ medium- to long-term engagement throughout Asia, especially Southeast Asia, continues to be questioned by Asian nations. Clearly, the choices that the United States makes today have consequences for the future, as do the policies of Asian countries regarding the United States. Yet while many Asian nations obviously value the public goods and security commitments that the United States brings to Asia, questions remain over just how long the US can continue to do so.
At the Shangri-La dialogue held in Singapore at the weekend, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates outlined plans for more US cooperation throughout Southeast Asia. These initiatives range from deployment of US Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore as part of the US-Singapore Strategic Framework Agreement, to plans that include increased port calls, naval exercises, and multilateral cooperation with allies and partners throughout the region.
At the same venue, Gates explicitly explained the four principles for international interaction that the United States envisions for the region, and which bear repeating now: Free and open commerce; rule of law and the rights and responsibilities of nations therein; open access to the global commons of sea, air, space, and cyberspace; and peaceful resolution of conflict.
The plethora of Asian states that welcome, and interact with, the United States military presence throughout Asia is impressive. Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Vietnam and even Mongolia all look to increased US military presence and/or cooperation to quietly hedge against possible Chinese domination throughout the region. Unfortunately, there are a number of troublesome questions concerning the capacity of the United States to remain a dominant military force throughout the region, taking into consideration its recent economic woes, projected domestic budget retrenchment, and other overseas military commitments.
The question that these friends and allies of the United States should ask themselves is over the structure of the international order that they wish for the future. This was an easy question for many during the Cold War: Did they want the system of Kennedy, Mao or Stalin at an economic and societal level.
Today, things aren’t so clear, not least because China’s intentions for its role on the global stage, and more importantly for its military in the Asia-Pacific region, remain unclear. Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie, also attending the Shangri-La dialogue, maintained that China is committed to regional peace and stability, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and stability in the South China Sea.
But one can’t help but wonder if these pronouncements from Liang are somewhat akin to Hans Christian Anderson’s fable ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ In that tale, the Emperor and his courtiers believe his non-existent clothes are real, and expect his loyal subjects to also do so without question. It’s only when the King goes out on a public parade that a young boy states the obvious in his exclamation ‘But he hasn’t got anything on.’
In some ways, Chinese public diplomacy surrounding its ‘peaceful and harmonious’ rise is similar to this fairy tale. The evidence speaks for itself, with the South China Sea being the most explicit example. Vietnam and the Philippines have both accused China within the past few weeks of aggressive behaviour that violates their interests and which is against the spirit of the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. Chinese claims over this waterway have persistently been a regional bone of contention, with no resolution yet in sight, but regional concern growing.
Other examples are tied to the lack of transparency over Chinese military programmes. To date, no Chinese National Defence publication has discussed plans for deployment of an aircraft carrier, development of stealth aircraft, the anti-satellite missile test in 2007, or the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles. (The Chinese domestic media, meanwhile, continues to report on these developments). Other examples include China’s unilateral economic and other support of North Korea, amidst what continues to a very tense and unstable situation.
From the perspective of the United States, it’s abundantly clear that the Asia-Pacific region is of paramount importance in terms of its trade and economic well-being. The US military presence that actively supports peace and stability throughout the region, in terms of deterrence and humanitarian assistance, is a public good that all benefit from. The clear US policy of continuing to engage throughout the region, and its involvement in regional institutions, bodes well for everyone.
However, although the US military commitment to the region remains steadfast, ongoing economic restructuring within the United States means a debate over the future US role in the Asia-Pacific is taking place. In true democratic fashion, it isn’t yet resolved, but it’s an issue that clearly isn’t being ignored either by the American people or US policy makers.
In the meantime, Asian states wondering how best support and engage with the United States would do well to keep in mind Gates’ four points: trade, rule of law, open access and the pursuit of peaceful resolution of conflicts.