From Islamabad to Canberra, countries across the Asia-Pacific region have lately engaged in a variety of alliance-strengthening activities. This past couple of weeks, Pakistan and China have engaged in joint war games, with mock raids against militant profile targets composed of paratrooper exercises, helicopter skirmish simulations and a weather-aborted fighter assault. Elsewhere, the United States has been involved in numerous partnership building ventures, including a frantic attempt to address a recent drone raid against Pakistani military units and the emergence of terms for the stationing of thousands of U.S. Marines in Darwin, Australia.
But these partnerships raise some interesting questions. As I’ve noted before, China is moving closer to Pakistan. While the two countries don’t share any particular ideological similarities, they benefit from an amicable relationship that could lead to a more balanced continental power dynamic with a rising India. Industrial cooperation and joint government projects are booming, with the rapid collaborative development of everything from nuclear reactors to fighter jets linking the two countries and providing for a future in which friendly Beijing-Islamabad relations will require Indian policy strategists to be considerably more restrained in any conflict scenario calculations.
Meanwhile, the United States is in the business not just of building new relationships, but also of nurturing existing ones. Japan, Australia and the Philippines, longtime allies of the United States that strategically cooperate to maintain a peaceful and stable Asia-Pacific region, benefit from the presence of U.S. military assets and industrial relationships for defense procurement. However, the nuanced setup of America’s formal cooperative relationships lack the tactical depth that many policymakers desire.
Though the U.S. military presence in East Asia and the Pacific is aimed at maintaining the capacity to respond to any crises that threaten regional security, it largely exists as a complimentary addendum to the military capabilities of states in the neighborhood. In other words, the United States presence is part trip wire, part entry mechanism, acting as both a security hedge and a means for securing a beachhead of operability in conflict situations.
For example, although the U.S. military maintains a forward-stationed carrier group at Yokosuka, technological differences and the legislative restraints of Japan’s war renouncing post-war Constitution mean that indigenous fixed-wing aircraft would be unable to fly off of U.S. Navy vessels in an emergency. Considering the expansion of ballistic and aerial strike capabilities in China and elsewhere, this reduces the flexibility to respond in the wake of a conventional first strike, heightens the operational vulnerabilities of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, and forces the U.S. to act unilaterally in the defense of Japan.
So, could the effectiveness of the United States’ Asia-Pacific partnerships be boosted by renewed focus on joint military-industrial ventures, particularly as countries like Pakistan and China already seem to be heading this way? After all, from ballistic missile proliferation to the growth of new naval forces, there are clear threats to regional security that may require a coordinated response in the future.
The United States is just one of several options for defense procurement even for traditional allies like Japan and South Korea. Both of these countries are currently entertaining competitive bids for contracts on new fighters, and, while the products of companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are certainly strong candidates, contenders include planes from European consortiums and Russian enterprises.
So what could be the advantages of an American package deal? The use of U.S. hardware and integration with U.S. systems means quickly scalable capabilities in conflict scenarios. In peacetime, compatible systems for air combat units, naval platforms and anti-submarine/ballistic missile defense forces would mean that multilateral training programs and war games will be more effective. Similarly, common force structures would lead to reduced costs in terms of military production and deployment, particularly for the United States. In keeping of spirit of Adm. Mike Mullen’s 1,000-ship multilateral navy concept, forward deployed units could make use of bilateral joint-use agreements. Such interoperability could reduce the costs of maintaining an active regional presence for the United States by increasing the productive outflow of U.S. defense companies and through the sharing of some operational costs, as well as by improving the preparedness of regional partners through joint responsibility for maintaining force capabilities.
What will the future of security cooperation in East Asia and the Pacific look like? While the United States is clearly pushing hard to maintain the capabilities of its long-term partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region, it’s clear Washington’s influence over the details of defense establishments has waned since its days of a unilateral say in procurement matters. And, since it’s likely that the dramatic rise of China’s military will continue even as Western defense establishments need to be austere, it’s in the best interests of the United States to be pushing the idea of a grand package defense deal, something that would reduce costs, maintain a peaceably small footprint and yet improve the region’s balance of capabilities.
Christopher Whyte is a Washington DC area analyst and graduate student in Political Science in International Relations at George Mason University, Virginia.