Staying power

19 September 2012


The US is looking to cement its place in the Asia Pacific, a move which could lead to a more secure region, argues RUSSELL McGOLDRICK.

The Obama administration has always pushed its Asian credentials strongly. From a campaign to be the ‘Pacific President’, through to 2009, when Hillary Clinton announced that the US was “back in Asia,” there has been a strong emphasis on US engagement with Asia. More recently, US plans to ‘rebalance’ towards Asia foreshadow an enhanced military presence in the region. The US has announced plans to station 60 per cent of naval assets in the Pacific by 2020, and is significantly bolstering engagement with traditional and non-traditional partners and multilateral institutions. These moves have served as the catalyst for renewed debate on Asia’s future, and revealed some division in the region.

Traditional US allies such as Australia, Japan, and the Philippines welcome this shift in US posture. They argue the increased US presence is an enhancement to their bilateral relationships and regional security more broadly. Such countries are eager for opportunities to train with US forces, and enhance interoperability and understanding. They also argue that it benefits the region through the increasing acceptance of international norms, exemplified by Malaysia’s recently strengthened military export controls, and Myanmar’s liberalisation and opening.

The other side of the debate is exemplified by the Chinese position. The argument holds that the US is an extra-regional power. Asia’s massive economic expansion has demonstrated that it has matured beyond the need for such a security blanket, and regional issues should be resolved at the bilateral or regional level. In this light, the US presence is a destabilising remnant from the Cold War era that now increases the potential for miscalculation.

Most Asian countries avoid both sides of this debate. While they don’t necessarily welcome the increased US presence with open arms, they are keen to use it both for combined training opportunities, and as a hedging mechanism. Ultimately, each country has acted in their own self-interest, and none have put themselves in a position that may be prejudicial to them in the future.

Notwithstanding the reservations of some countries, the increased US presence is a net positive for Asia. America’s pragmatic foreign policy is now vastly different from the unilateral actions of George W Bush’s first term. There is little domestic appetite for foreign policy adventurism, and this is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, despite Presidential campaign rhetoric. Noting this, there are three broad reasons why the US rebalance will improve Asian security.

Firstly, the enhanced US presence will act as a deterrent to conflict and preserve the security of Asia’s commons. There can be little doubt that the American alliance system, and its accompanying strategic ambiguity, has prevented conflicts in the past. US allies are deterred from initiating conflict due to the ambiguous and conditional nature of the American security guarantee.
Conversely, potential adversaries are deterred from engaging US allies due to the risk of US involvement in any conflict. Given the number of territorial disputes in the Asian region, and the inevitable spill over effects of any conflict, the renewed US commitment to Asia is a positive outcome for the region and the world more broadly. While it may be unpopular with some countries, it is likely that the enhanced US presence will decrease the risk of conflict in disputes.

Secondly and closely related, a US rebalancing is good for Asia’s economic development, and serves as a disincentive for arms races. Many regional states, both developed and developing, structure their militaries around their ultimate trust in US security guarantees. If South Korea, Japan, or even Taiwan or the Philippines no longer trusted the US security umbrella, they would almost certainly divert spending towards defence, massively bolstering their capabilities, and risking a tit-for-tat regional arms race. With America’s renewed commitment to Asia, these countries, and the region more generally, can focus on their economic development and social issues, rather than increasing military spending.

Finally, a US rebalancing provides increased opportunities for military cooperation, with two key benefits. First, the risk of strategic miscalculation declines as various militaries understand each other’s doctrine, psyche, and equipment, and with strengthened personal relationships between key staff. Second, joint exercises provide both the US and regional militaries the opportunity to increase their capacity to undertake operations – particularly humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations which are often the focus of such exercises. The increased US presence in Australia has already served as the catalyst for the first trilateral Indonesia-Australia-US joint exercise to be undertaken next year.

All of these benefits can be achieved comparatively cheaply and with a minimal increase to the actual US footprint in Asia. Strategic -level assets will likely remain based in the US or in long-established Asian ports. The rotation of 2,500 marines in Darwin for example, won’t change the outcome of any war, but does serve as an important symbolic commitment to the region, and would prove valuable in a humanitarian assistance/disaster relief scenario. The US has incorporated flexibility into their rebalancing, and the US commitment can be tailored to meet changing strategic circumstances

The challenge for regional states is to build on these positives. The US has reassured traditional allies, and reached out to new partners; the benefits outlined above can be capitalised and built upon if all players are willing to work constructively and with a commitment to peace. History has shown us that it has happened before, and it can happen again. If this occurs, then all regional states can reap the benefits of a peaceful and prosperous Asia.

Russell McGoldrick holds a Masters in Strategic Affairs from theANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. He recently received a fellowship to attend the Global Emerging Voices Program in Europe as a representative of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. These are his personal views.

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