In a major security policy speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue at Singapore on June 2 this year, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled plans to shift the bulk of the US naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia. Panetta said: “By 2020, the navy will re-posture its forces from today’s roughly 50/50 percent spilt between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about 60/40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships, and submarines.” The objective would be to “rapidly project military power if needed to meet” the US security commitments in the region, despite China’s fast- growing military might. The US also planned to expand military exercises in the Pacific and to conduct increased port visits over a wider area extending to the Indian Ocean. The announcement came in the wake of the issuance of the new US defence strategy by President Barack Obama in January 2012, calling for a rebalancing of the US military toward the Asia-Pacific region or the US “pivot” towards Asia as it is commonly described now.
The shift in focus to Asia comes amid increasing concern at the Pentagon over China’s strategic goals, as it begins to field a new generation of weapons that could prevent the US naval and air forces from projecting power into the Far East. In other words, while the US wants to keep the strategic option to project its military power close to China’s shores far away from its own territory, it finds China’s plans to develop capabilities for defending its economic and security interests, even in areas close to its territory as a matter of concern!
Strange as it may sound, the position adopted by the US on matters relating to the Asia-Pacific region is not entirely unfamiliar in international politics, which is governed by considerations of realpolitik or power politics, rather than international morality. It is the US global military superiority and its ability to project its power into the remote corners of the world, which enable it to assert its positions on issues of interest to it in the far-flung areas of the world. In many a case, weaker nations have no choice, but to acquiesce in the position dictated by the US. However, the situation relating to China is neither that simple, nor that easy to handle for the US.
China with a population of 1.3 billion has already emerged as the second largest economy in the world in nominal dollar terms and may surpass the US economy in purchasing power parity terms within the next five years if the present trends continue. Even in nominal dollar terms, it may overtake the US economy by 2025. Although the US still remains the most powerful nation in the world, both militarily and economically, the situation is rapidly changing due to China’s meteoric economic rise. In fact, in economic terms the world is no longer unipolar. It has now assumed a multipolar character where decisions on important international economic issues must be taken through consultations among major economic powers as symbolised by G-20. The US has already lost the ability to dictate to the rest of the world on international economic issues, even though it still wields considerable clout because of the size of its economy, its technological advancement and the dynamism of its entrepreneurs.
As the relative position of other centres of economic power improves further, the US dominance on the global economic scene will continue to decline necessitating adjustments in international economic relations. Considering the fact that the second and third largest economies in the world are in Asia as are many of the fast developing economies like South Korea, India and Indonesia, it would be reasonable to assume that Asia will become the centre of gravity of the global economy in the near future. Countries will have to reorient their economic policies to take into account this massive global economic transformation. So the US has no choice, but to accord a high priority to the Asia-Pacific region in its economic calculations and in the formulation of its economic strategy.
It is inevitable that China’s fast-growing economic strength would lead to a steady increase in its military might to protect its expanding economic and security interests. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s defence expenditure rose from $30 billion in 2000 to almost $120 billion in 2010. In 2012, China’s defence expenditure is expected to be $160 billion as against $750 billion in the case of the US. China’s defence spending may overtake America’s after 2035 if the present trends continue. Despite the planned cuts in defence spending amounting to $500 billion over the next 10 years, the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region will increase because of the switch in priorities announced by the Obama administration. It should be obvious, therefore, that China is in no position to pose any credible security threat to the US in the foreseeable future.
It appears that the main focus of China’s military strategy for the time being is to deter the American aircraft-carriers and aircraft from operating freely within what is known as the “first island chain”, including areas close to China’s shores in case of outbreak of hostilities. In particular, it would like to have the capability to take military action, if ever Taiwan declares independence and to repel any external (read US) force of intervention. China is, therefore, investing heavily in “asymmetric capabilities” to blunt America’s still formidable capacity to project power in the region. China’s military strategy is accordingly defensive in character.
On the other hand, the main purpose of the announced shift in US priorities towards the Asia-Pacific region is to maintain its ability to project power in areas in which its access and freedom to operate are challenged so as to “credibly deter potential adversaries (read China) and to prevent them from achieving their objectives.” America is also strengthening its alliances with Australia, Japan and South Korea to contain China. For the same purpose, it is contributing to the economic and military build up of India. It is also trying to take advantage of the sensitivities of member states of ASEAN, regarding the rapid growth of China’s military power and the territorial disputes in South China Sea between China and some of the ASEAN states to drum up opposition to China in the region. Although the US policymakers continue to deny it, it appears that the US is in fact engaged in a well-calculated strategy to contain and encircle China.
If this is true, it would be a grave mistake. Historically speaking, the rise of new great powers has been accompanied by a period of tensions and wars when the existing great powers resisted the required adjustments in the international order. A conflict between China and the US would not be in the interest of either one of them. Instead it would be much more preferable for them to bring about the necessary transformation of the global order peacefully. The onus for the adjustments in international order lies more on the US, rather than on China. The US resistance to such a peaceful transition would condemn the Asia-Pacific region to a prolonged era of conflicts and wars. As Henry Kissinger pointed out in an article in the March-April 2012 issue of the Foreign Affairs: “China and the United States will not necessarily transcend the ordinary operation of great-power rivalry. But they owe it to themselves, and the world, to make an effort to do so.”
n The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.