Today, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released an interesting report on the long-term security environment in the Asia-Pacific region. The report, which was commissioned by the U.S. government, is a regional strategic net assessment looking out twenty-five to thirty years.
The authors approach this task by identifying a range of possible futures that could emerge during this time period, the possible drivers for them, and what this means for U.S. policy moving forward. The four main variables the report identifies that shape these futures are: domestic political and social stability; defense spending and military capabilities; national and transnational objectives, military doctrines, and approaches to the use of force; and interstate bilateral and multilateral relationships.
They then identify five different future scenarios for the security environment in the Asia-Pacific, characterized by differing degrees of conflict and convergence with a range of military balances, political, military and economic alignments, and patterns of multistate association. The most probable one – “Status Quo Redux” – is essentially a variant of the current environment which has a mix of cooperative and competitive features. While there would be cooperation and engagement among the United States, China and other actors on certain issues, suspicions and uncertainties would persist between Washington and Beijing about long-term intentions and constrained economic and political competition would continue.
But the authors also caution that darker scenarios could lie ahead absent a clearer determination of U.S. and Chinese long term interests, the development of a genuine U.S.-China strategic dialogue, and the crafting of bilateral and multilateral security assurances. For instance, the second scenario of an “Asia-Pacific Cold War” could result, characterized by deepening regional bipolarization and militarization and worsening U.S.-China strategic and economic rivalry. The three other scenarios are characterized as being less likely, including a “Pacific Asia-Pacific” with reduced tension and increased U.S.-China and regional cooperation, as well as “Asian Hot Wars” characterized by episodic but fairly frequent military conflict in critical hotspots involving major losses of life.
What does this mean for the United States? To chart out recommendations for U.S. policymakers, the authors begin by noting the strategic risks and opportunities that the evolving security environment presents. The primary risk is movement towards the conflictual side of “Status Quo Redux” due to an uncertain pattern of economic, political and military multipolarity and a divergence in opinion concerning the proper distribution of power. There are also other risks, including Washington being embroiled in third-party disputes, domestic instability and regime collapse in North Korea, and U.S. miscalculations in response to a more assertive China. But there are \opportunities that could serve to restrain many of these strategic risks, including common support for sustaining economic growth, enduring American strength, and collaboration in addressing transnational threats. For the authors, the key for Washington will be to try to minimize the risks and maximize the opportunities by shaping developments in several areas, including: security assurances to reduce the propensity for zero-sum strategic rivalry; understandings between the U.S. and China about national objectives, military doctrines, and use of force in “hot spots”; and cooperation on issues of common interest such as terrorism and climate change.
The authors then move to provide specific recommendations on how Washington should approach this security environment and what kinds of policies it should adopt. As a starting point, they suggest that U.S. agencies work to identify America’s long term primary, secondary and tertiary interests. The report cautions that simply relying on a selective, reactive and incremental approach – or “muddling through” – on the assumption of continued American military predominance and political leadership across the region “will likely prove inadequate or misplaced, especially over the long term.” A more strategic, active and sustained approach is needed, and it must start now. They also propose other measures, which include expanding the current U.S.-China strategic dialogue; coordinating a joint maritime force for defending sea lines of communication (SLOC) involving the United States, China and Asian states; and establishing a new forum for the discussion of energy security issues.
The report also more generally suggests three alternative military-political approaches that Washington could adopt in reaction to the evolving Asia-Pacific security environment. The first approach – which one might term a “robust approach” – would require Washington and its allies to maintain strong U.S. freedom of action and the ability to prevail in conflicts through a robust operational concept based on a heavy forward presence and stressing deterrence over reassurance of China, while at the same time pursuing cooperation with China and (especially) other Asian nations. The second – a “balanced approach” – would be a more limited and calibrated offense/defense-oriented strategy designed to preserve key military advantages in certain areas and with a more equal emphasis on deterrence and reassurance with respect to Beijing. A third and last – a “defensive approach” – would be a primarily defensive posture, aiming to move toward a more genuinely balanced regional power structure and defuse future crises through mutual accommodation and multilateral security structures.
The ambitious report does have a few limitations. While strategic assessments like these are useful to give one a clear sense of the big picture, in reality the devil is often in the details, particularly with the increasing importance of ‘gray-zone scenarios’ which makes things messy. The report correctly notes that U.S. actions will heavily influence the direction of the security environment, but at times this seems to be taken a bit too far. There is little indication, for instance, about how a joint maritime force for defending SLOCs and a new energy security forum might be received in the region or integrated into existing multilateral structures, which are largely driven by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). And while the U.S.-China relationship is undoubtedly important and the report does consider other major players in the Asia-Pacific as well, the scenarios and recommendations do seem a bit-China heavy.
These criticisms should not detract from the report’s immense value as one of the few studies out there that lay out Asia’s alternative futures in detail, with insights from prominent commentators. You can read the full report here.