Washington’s Asia-Pacific Security Dilemma
BERLIN -- When President Barack Obama unveiled a new national defense strategy last week, which confirmed the United States’ intent to play a sustained role in shaping a rising Asia, he noted that “the tide of war is receding.” This observation will have done little to reassure a skeptical Beijing that the strategy is aimed at managing, as opposed to containing, the rise of China. Beijing will note with ire its bracketing, in one part of the strategic review, with Iran: a country with whom the United States has had no diplomatic relations for three decades and with whom the risk of conflict (even if by proxy), remains all too real.
Nor will it be pleased by the U.S. commitment to “invest in a long-term strategic partnership with India,” a country whose potential Beijing would prefer to see checked. Seen from Beijing, the administration’s repeated assurances that the United States does not view China as an adversary will be even harder to believe now. Nevertheless, as Beijing waits to discover the full details of the U.S. realignment and to calibrate its reaction accordingly, a few ironies are already clear. Firstly, despite the fanfare with which the announcement was made, it should be no surprise that Washington plans to pay close attention to Asia. In fact, the realignment reinforces an underlying trend of increased U.S. engagement with the Asia-Pacific region, which has been quietly gathering momentum since the 1990s. The wars that followed the 9/11 attacks may have constrained some of this focus, but the ultimate direction of U.S. defense policy has been clear for a while.
Likewise, the intention to cultivate India as a long-term strategic partner has roots stretching back across administrations long before Obama’s tenure. Secondly, the perception of increasingly “assertive” behavior by China in recent years has played its part in crystallizing a stronger U.S. response. The danger is that this in turn bolsters the position of hard-liners in Beijing, including elements of the military, thereby further increasing their influence in foreign and security policymaking. Thirdly, China’s bracketing with Iran as nations pursuing asymmetric means to counter U.S. power projection capabilities is likely to encourage Beijing to mistakenly identify common cause with Tehran. Indeed, a Global Times editorial the day after Obama’s announcement argued, “The U.S. strategic adjustment highlights Iran’s importance to China. Iran’s existence and its stance form a strong check against the U.S.”
And finally, as Washington complains about the pursuit of these asymmetric measures, its increased presence in the region is likely to make such activities even more attractive. China will continue to pour resources into access denial, focus on the development of longer-range capabilities, and continue their advances in electronic and cyber warfare. Yet, for the United States to retain its primacy in Asia whilst ensuring the rise of China within a rules-based international environment, there is no alternative other than pouring more resources into Asia. Ultimately, anyone judging China’s strategic intentions purely by observing the nature of its military build-up would not likely be persuaded by Beijing’s commitment to rise peacefully. For the many U.S. allies and partners in Asia struggling to manage the security implications of their burgeoning trade relations with China, this demonstration of U.S. commitment to the region provides significant reassurance.
At the same time, the strategy will also generate tensions with U.S. partners in Asia. More will be demanded of them, which will have financial implications and might require deft political handling domestically. Equally, as South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo has been quick to point out, the United States’ decreased appetite for boots on the ground does not sit easily with a military strategy that presently envisions the deployment of 690,000 American soldiers on the Korean Peninsula in the event of war. In the struggle to manage the consequences of China’s rise, U.S. military might and strategy will be crucial, but these will not be the only tools required.
While a more coherent diplomatic strategy for Asia appears to be emerging with, for example, U.S. participation in the East Asian Summit, U.S. trade policy in Asia remains woefully underdeveloped, the administration’s recent push on the Trans-Pacific Partnership notwithstanding. Ultimately, as intriguing as the consequences of this strategy may be for the broader region, for the moment at least, the Pentagon review remains just a paper. Even once key details are made clear, a lot can happen on the road between intent and reality.
Sarah Raine is a Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.