The Biden administration recently released three military policy documents – the Nuclear Posture Review, National Defense Strategy, and Missile Defense Review – that prioritize “defending the homeland, paced to the growing multi-domain threat posed by the People’s Republic of China.” While the Department of Defense iterates the importance of communication channels and arms control talks, the United States’ current militarized, zero-sum approach toward China is ultimately undermining security by causing environmental destruction in the Asia-Pacific region, fueling anti-Asian hate and xenophobic authoritarianism in the United States, and limiting the space for cooperation on issues such as nuclear risk reduction, climate change, and human rights, all while increasing the risk of military conflict.
U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region to contain China has increased militarization of Hawai’i, Guam, and other Asia-Pacific countries caught in the middle of this great-power competition. The Feminist Peace Initiative, led by MADRE, Women Cross DMZ, and Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, is working with Asia-Pacific grassroots organizers to raise awareness of how U.S. militarism undermines security in communities across the region. We advocate for the United States to abandon the patriarchal notion of security that sees violence as the solution for conflict and prioritize diplomacy and cooperation in order to address urgent threats such as climate change and environmental destruction.
Asia-Pacific Countries Caught in the Middle of Great-Power Competition
The annual U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercises are a significant example of how militarized policy toward China is harming local communities. This year, the exercises involved 25,000 military personnel, 38 warships, four submarines, and over 170 aircraft from countries including Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, and the Philippines. Hawai’i activists Kim Compoc and Joy Lehuanani Enomoto point out that RIMPAC exercises, headquartered at Pearl Harbor, have not only destroyed reef and marine habitats but also exposed women to increased violence. They write, “According to the Hawai‘i Commission on the Status of Women, women and gender minorities face heightened vulnerability for military violence and sex trafficking during times of increased demand that surges during RIMPAC.”
Similarly, in Okinawa, the U.S. military has “violated the basic human rights, safety, and security of the people of Okinawa with virtual impunity,” according to activists Kozue Akibayashi and Suzoyo Takazato. They report, “PFOS and PFAS, toxic materials with possible carcinogenicity used for fire extinguishers by the U.S military, [were] found outside the military bases and even in the drinking water. Troops have been arrested for drunk driving and crimes against the local population. Service members have committed sexual assaults.”
The axis of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy revolves around Guam, where the focus on military build-up has come at the expense of residents’’ land, health, and safety. Kenneth Gofigan Kuper, the director of the Pacific Center for Island Security, warns, “Guam will bear the burden of a double-edged spear,” as the construction of U.S. missile defense architecture on Guam not only impacts the country’s environment and economy, but also places Guam on the frontline of a conflict not of its own making. “Guam lives under a perpetual state of threat, even if just discursive,” Kuper writes.
Long-running security issues on the Korean Peninsula are also being exacerbated by China-U.S. tensions, according to a recently released report by Women Cross DMZ. Since the signing of the armistice in 1953 that halted but did not officially end the Korean War, the United States has maintained a large military presence in South Korea – ostensibly aimed at deterring North Korea but increasingly to encircle China. South Korea, which relies on the United States for security but also counts China as its largest trading partner, has been stuck in the middle, increasingly being forced to choose sides.
As a result, South Korea has significantly increased its military budget and capabilities, becoming the sixth largest military power in the world and tenth biggest defense spender, notes Youkyoung Ko, a representative of WILPF Korea. The massive arms race and regular joint military exercises held by the United States and South Korea exacerbate tensions with North Korea, “creating a dangerous situation in which even a small, possibly accidental incident can lead to the outbreak of another full-blown war.” Such a conflict has the potential to escalate into a much larger regional war with China because of provisions in the U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty and the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty of 1961.
Toward a New Definition of Security
Eliminating the risk of a potentially devastating war between the United States and China requires redefining security by recognizing how military-centered U.S. policies harm communities and make them less secure. Security has traditionally been defined through the lens of toxic masculinity – through control and domination via militarized violence, promoted through racist and xenophobic hate speech.
Elected officials in the United States, regardless of political party, pursue policies to appear tough on China while failing to address how such rhetoric and militarized policies impact communities at home and abroad, from rising hate crimes against Asian Americans to water contamination in communities of color. As Hawai’i activists Kim Compoc and Joy Lehuanani Enomoto write, “What twisted version of national security doesn’t include clean water? What kind of government poisons its own people, including its military families, then repeatedly lies about it?”
Militarized competition with China also makes it more difficult for the world’s two largest carbon-emitting countries – the United States and China – to collaborate on cutting their emissions, as great-power competition incentivizes military build-up at the cost of our planetary survival. Instead of focusing on competition, the U.S. and China must collaborate to dramatically reduce emissions in order to address climate change, which is the greatest security challenge to our planet and the respective nations.
The traditional security approach suggests militarism as a catch-all solution, feeding into the global patriarchy. Insistence on zero-sum games and great power competition hides the impacts of militarism on grassroots communities, and elevates violence and conflict as intrinsically powerful, while devaluing diplomacy and cooperation as feminine and, therefore, intrinsically weak. The Feminist Peace Initiative offers a peace framework rooted in justice, confronting historical harms caused by the U.S. security apparatus and redefining security as rooted in community well-being, which would define clean water, a healthy environment, and resilient communities as truly “secure.”
From Confrontation to Cooperation
The U.S. insistence on defining security through a great-power competition framework has driven an arms race, increasing the risk of catastrophic violence and nuclear Armageddon. Instead, the United States must prioritize diplomatic talks and cooperation with China to create greater regional peace and stability.
For example, as Women Cross DMZ argues in their report, China, the United States, and South Korea could work together to officially end the 70-year-old Korean War, which would provide a foundation upon which to eventually address North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. A peace-first approach would be a more effective way to reduce tensions and build trust rather than policies such as sanctions, isolation, and military threats, which have failed to achieve U.S. goals such as denuclearization and improved human rights.
The U.S. and China should also institute guardrails and communication mechanisms to prevent further military escalation and reduce nuclear risk. With both countries modernizing their nuclear arsenals, it is imperative to avoid a war that could cross the nuclear threshold.
The China-U.S. bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali was a small, but important, step taken by U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to strengthen communication and improve global stability for the sake of all our security. But we can’t rely on politicians alone. Including frontline communities and feminist peace leaders in foreign policymaking – voices traditionally left out of such conversations – would be another important step in improving peace and security and reducing the treat of war.
The traditional U.S. approach to security is not keeping us safe when geopolitical military dominance is considered more important than the health of our communities, and “beating” China is prioritized over collective solutions to transnational threats. It’s time for the U.S. government to examine the effects of its hardline policies on communities caught in the middle and back up its rhetoric on the importance of cooperation and communication by pivoting away from a zero-sum framework toward a feminist peace framework.