This article was written by two Spring 2012 Participants in PSA’s Congressional Partnership Program. All CPP articles are produced by bipartisan groups of Democrat and Republican Hill Staff who were challenged to develop opinion pieces that reach consensus on critical national security and foreign affairs issues.
Over the past year the United States has launched an effort to “rebalance” its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region. While there are many policy issues that divide Republicans and Democrats, America’s role in actively shaping a more peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific is one issue that enjoys strong support amongst both parties. After a decade of focusing our time, energy, and resources on counterterrorism and the Middle East region, we welcome a strategic rebalancing of our efforts to a region that will play a leading role in defining the 21st Century. However, the elements of this new focus should not just focus on the “balance of power” in the region, but also take into account the “balance of alliances” the U.S. enjoys. Approaching the region using an alliance-centric lens can help the U.S. position itself to play a major role in ensuring the region’s continued prosperity and peace.
To be sure, U.S. interests remain significant in the broader Middle East and around the world, but the shift towards the Asia-Pacific reflects a broader rebalancing of the global landscape. The region includes fifty percent of the total global population; three nuclear-armed states; some of the largest and most technologically-proficient militaries; the world’s largest democracy as well as the most populous Muslim state; and is home to more than one trillion dollars of U.S. trade. Traditional power politics issues get the most attention, including instability on the Korean Peninsula and China’s growing assertiveness in disputed maritime territories. A vast array of tensions with interstate and intrastate implications such as terrorism, trafficking in narcotics and persons, piracy, persistent natural and manmade disasters, and regional energy insecurity, also consume the attention of governments in the region. These challenges threaten to undermine regional stability and demand strong U.S. presence and leadership.
Secretary Clinton has identified three dimensions of America’s engagement in the region that define America’s new “rebalanced” focus – security, economic, and common values. We turn our attention to the first element of security, which has thus far garnered a great deal of attention in both Washington and Asia. The balance of power in the region, and specifically the quantity and quality of America’s power projection platforms, has been hotly debated. Some of this criticism is valid: a careful review of the Administration’s plans shows that little new combat power will be added to the region before 2020. In fact, the Navy will not add a single attack submarine (SSN) or aircraft carrier (CVN) to the Pacific Fleet from now until 2020 (SSN inventory remains flat at 32, while CVNs will number 6). And the Air Force, for its part, has said that it is “growing by staying flat,” another way of saying that it is shrinking its force posture in other areas of the world to sustain the same presence in Asia-Pacific. If the United States expects to uphold its long-standing security commitments in the region, it will require more naval and aerospace capabilities (as well as space and cyber) that allow it to preserve a range of options for addressing People’s Liberation Army anti-access/area-denial capabilities.
If the U.S. intends to sustain an American-led, liberal international order in the region, it must also look to strengthening its long-standing alliances and emerging partnerships. These states are situated at critical geostrategic locations throughout maritime Asia—from Japan and the Republic of Korea in the north, south through Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, India, Australia, and New Zealand. Alliances and partnerships lend a variety of strategic, diplomatic, and economic benefits to the U.S. As such, the “balance of alliances” the United States maintains in Asia-Pacific should be considered just as vital as its military capabilities. In short, making and keeping friends in the region must be considered a vital pillar of America’s grand strategy.
In Japan and South Korea, the U.S. maintains a series of military bases that allows it to forward-deploy immense combat power while avoiding the tyranny of distance it faces when projecting power from its own shores. Of course, America’ overseas presence will sometimes create diplomatic strains, but on the whole, allies and friends continue to express their desire for the U.S. to remain in the region and actively work to facilitate it. Elected officials, military leaders, and ambassadors from the Asia-Pacific in Washington D.C. must work to articulate the value of the United States’ forward-deployed forces to regional security, while their U.S. counterparts must do the same in their respective capacities throughout the region.
In Singapore, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand the U.S. is working to expand its access to strategic ports and airfields to give it greater flexibility during a military or humanitarian crisis. Access to Cooperative Security Locations (CSL) in South East Asia, for instance, played a role in allowing U.S. forces to respond swiftly to the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami. CSLs also allow the U.S. to distribute its forces in the event of a crisis, giving strategists an affordable alternative to massing military forces at a few large bases in the region.
America’s allies in Asia-Pacific also maintain their own impressive military capabilities that allow them to take the lead or work alongside U.S. forces. Japan, for instance, has one of the most capable navies in the world that is well situated for conducting operations in its home waters or contributing to a bilateral or multilateral operation. For instance, the capabilities of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) were on full display as it worked in tandem with U.S. forces following the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. One goal for the U.S. in the decade ahead will be to continue to build the capacity of advanced states like Japan and Australia, emerging powers like India, and less-capable states like the Philippines, to strengthen their ability to operate independently or alongside regional partners.
There is also a great advantage for the U.S. to develop relationships with emerging regional maritime partners such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. These maritime states will play a central role in many of the territorial and navigation disputes the region is facing, as they sit astride the region’s key chokepoints. To address these and other challenges in Southeast Asia and the broader Pacific, the U.S. must not only work to strengthen its bilateral ties, but should also bolster the efforts of key multilateral fora, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and the East Asia Summit (EAS).
In the decades ahead, there will be perhaps no region more important to U.S. interests than the Asia-Pacific. As Washington “rebalances” its focus to the region, it must consider its balance of alliances alongside the quality and quantity of its own military capabilities. Efforts to expand old alliances, deepen strategic relationships, and develop new partnerships should therefore continue to be a driving force behind U.S. policymaking in the region.