Asian security issues were prominent at this year’s annual security conference of the U.S. Army War College that I attended. U.S. experts considered sustaining U.S. engagement in East Asia especially important due to the rising power of China, North Korea’s threatening behavior, and the potential for further nuclear weapons proliferation in the region.
But the terms “Asian Pivot” and “back to Asia” were no longer in fashion, with the speakers emphasizing that the United States had never left Asia. Instead, they stressed the elements of continuity in the current administration’s strategy with those of its predecessor. The fact is that even before the recent announcement of the Pentagon’s new Asian orientation, the United States was quietly strengthening its forces in the region. For example, despite the ongoing commitments in the Middle East and Afghanistan, half of the U.S. Air Force’s top-of-the-line F-22 fighters are deployed in the Asia-Pacific region.
So what is the preferred description now, and what do we know about the likely direction of U.S. policy? The term now being used is “re-balancing,” which encompasses two separate processes – the U.S. military is rebalancing its global assets from other regions to Asia, as well as rebalancing within the Asia-Pacific region, reducing the concentration of forces from northeast Asia to a more widely distributed focus throughout the entire region.
As was evident from the diverse political backgrounds of the various speakers, a bipartisan consensus now exists among U.S. leaders regarding the key elements of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. These included recognition of the region’s growing importance in the world, the need to maintain a U.S. military presence in Asia, and the importance of avoiding a military clash with China through a combination of deterrence and defense measures.
Speakers praised the Obama administration for rectifying some early flaws in its policy toward China, and believed that the initial effort to avoid offending China only encouraged Beijing to elevate its demands. Now the administration sells arms to Taiwan and takes other steps Beijing dislikes because it expects that the Chinese will still cooperate with the United States whenever it’s in their interests. The Obama administration also takes care to tell Beijing in advance what we will do. Not only does this avoid embarrassing public surprises in the relationship, but our publicly declaring our plans in advance makes it difficult for us not to proceed that way regardless of Beijing’s reaction.
The lack of Chinese political and security transparency does, however, complicate issues by deepening uncertainties regarding China’s goals and means. Above all, it remains unclear how committed Chinese leaders are to maintaining freedom of access to the global commons. They appear to have a 17th century view of national sovereignty in a 21st century world, where leaders accept they must sacrifice some of their national freedom of action for the greater common good of international peace and prosperity.
The Obama administration has taken pains to stress that its new Asian strategy results from a variety of developments, especially the winding down of U.S. combat operations in the Middle East and the growing importance of Asia for the world economy and, consequently, U.S. economic wellbeing, and isn’t driven by the growth of China’s economic potential and military power. The speakers dismissed such observations as polite pretense since everyone knows the U.S. rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region is about China.
According to one analyst, even Chinese writers see the United States employing several tools to contain China, including military power, defense alliances, the trans-Pacific Partnership, and efforts to drive wedges between China and its neighbors through diplomacy and arms sales. Yet, the Chinese don’t believe the United States will succeed in achieving many of its core goals given such obstacles as the existence of a multipolar world, the inevitable persistence of its terrorism quagmire, enduring regional challenges in Iran and North Korea, its enduring economic weaknesses, strains on the U.S. defense budget, a wary Russia seeking to constrain U.S. global influence, and China’s own growing power, which means that Asian countries cannot afford to antagonize Beijing by joining a U.S.-led containment strategy. Given these natural counterbalancing factors, Chinese analysts argue that Beijing doesn’t need to directly confront the United States, but can focus inward on improving its internal situation and developing its military and other strengths while relying on a policy of engagement and hedging toward Washington.
Worries regarding North Korea were also common at the conference. The fear was that the United States and other countries have rewarded Pyongyang’s past bad behavior so often that they no longer fear the U.S. response. North Korean negotiators were, in this view, selling Americans the same concessions time and again as they continued to develop their nuclear and other potential power while waiting for the upcoming changes in leadership in Beijing and Moscow that might open new opportunities for them.
Relations between the United States and South Korea were generally considered excellent under the two current national governments. With U.S. support, South Korea under President Lee Myung-bak has made economic progress and achieved elevated international status by holding several major international conferences. But South Korea and perhaps the United States will soon have new presidents, which might result in a regression of the bilateral relationship to its traditionally troubled mean.
U.S. strategists still consider Japan the most important U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific region. These two countries have a relationship built on deep bilateral economic and security ties, as well as shared democratic values. The United States benefits tremendously from its military bases in Japan. Among other benefits, they provide a foundation for the strong security cooperation between the two countries, which wouldn’t be possible without the U.S. bases. However welcome, the new access agreements to the modest military facilities in the Philippines, Singapore, and Australia can’t compare in terms of military value with the large and permanent U.S. bases in Japan. Unfortunately, Japan is struggling economically and divided politically, which constrains its ability to play a major global security role as an international security provider and major foreign aid donor.
Australia was seen as an important military ally, with the potential to continue exporting security globally as well as within Asia. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard renewed the alliance in November 2011, when they announced an agreement to place 250 U.S. Marines in Darwin, marking the first stage of a rotation plan that will see as many as 2,500 U.S. Marines rotate through Darwin as well as other augmentations to the U.S. military presence in Australia.
But the Pentagon’s budget cuts may force Australia to change its grand strategy. Australians have traditionally relied on another great power for their protection as well as a means to minimize their defense spending. The United States has been playing this role since World War II. Likewise, the Australian Defense Force (ADF) is a niche force that requires the assistance of more senior coalition partners, now the U.S. military, on foreign missions, especially regarding the provision of enabler capabilities.
But the recent U.S. defense budget cuts are compelling Australia to assume more of its own security burdens at a time when Australia’s military budget is also under pressure. Possible tensions could arise if the U.S. and Australian militaries expect greater support from the other in the future since both are reducing their capabilities.
At the same time, China has become the largest trading partner of Australia, outpacing the United States. The China-Australia economic relationship is mutually beneficial since China gets raw materials and Australia gets manufactured goods. China isn’t a clear and present danger to Australia like Japan was in the 1930s, and Australians want to maintain good relations with Beijing.
Australia has traditionally aligned its defense policies with its larger trading partner, but China is an exception. Australians favor the United States retaining its position as global hegemon as they share Americans’ liberal democratic values. Furthermore, Australians believe they will prosper more in a U.S.-led liberal international economic order than under a Beijing-led system. Australia is geographically remote from the main centers of conflict, but is highly dependent on a benign global order. And Australia has participated in these missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on, not to counter a direct threat to Australia, but to support and strengthen its partnership with the United States and its allies.
And what does the future hold? The Pentagon’s rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region may also cause concern in Australia, since the new strategy could undermine Australia’s elite status as a unique U.S. ally in the region. Australia is becoming just one of many U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States might not always take Australia’s side in disputes among them.
With this in mind, military analysts at the conference also displayed an increased interest in ASEAN countries due to their growing economies and increasing desire to balance China’s rise with closer ties to the United States. Even so, U.S. strategists recognized that ASEAN countries want to avoid being in a position where they have to choose between China and United States. For this reason, they stressed the need to avoid an overly militarized approach toward the ASEAN region.
There was also considerable dissatisfaction with the course of the war in Afghanistan. The current U.S. counterinsurgency strategy can’t work until the government of Hamid Karzai performs more effectively at fighting the Taliban guerrillas. Unfortunately, the feeling was that the United States can’t just pack up and leave tomorrow because Americans will be remembered for the way in which they exit. A pullout that resulted in the massacre of pro-government civilians and the suppression of women’s rights simply wouldn’t be beneficial.
The problem of Pakistan also loomed large at the conference, both in its own right and in terms of the war in Afghanistan. It was difficult to see how the United States could prevail in Afghanistan as long as the Afghan Taliban found sanctuary inside Pakistan. Yet, Army strategists appreciate that, from Islamabad’s perspective, it was somewhat rational to work with these groups since they do help counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. In addition, Washington had treated Pakistan harshly in the past, such as by cutting off arms sales and military training in the 1970s and walking away from the Afghan Civil War in the 1990s.
U.S. strategists said they hoped to work more closely with India in the future. A bipartisan approach toward India had clearly emerged, with most U.S. strategists favoring stronger security ties with India. Unfortunately, India had yet to fully reciprocate American interest and were seen as struggling with their domestic problems – including economic inequality, corruption, political infighting, and the transition to a new generation of leaders – which has made it difficult for India to assume the more elevated global role desired by Washington.
All this said, despite the broad agreement on some key issues, there was an interesting note of discord, with some opposition to the Obama administration’s commitment to a nuclear-free world. Some feared that publicly endorsing a world without nuclear weapons was leading U.S. allies to question the credibility of U.S. extended nuclear guarantees. But they also recognized that the United States needed robust conventional and unconventional forces to give the Pentagon options to respond to various scenarios without leaning too heavily on nuclear weapons as deterrents.
Regardless, it’s clear that the diplomatic conversation has moved on from the grand statements heralding a U.S. “return” to a closer look at some of the nitty-gritty details of what it all really means.