With the ending of the Iraq war and the coming end of major involvement in Afghanistan, it was only a matter of time before the US turned its attention to more pressing problems. It did so partially last week when US President Barack Obama released the Defense Strategic Guidance—a document that outlines military and strategic priorities in the years ahead.
To anyone who lives in Asia, the contents are not surprising. The US is likely to pay greater attention to East and South Asia. The extent of its involvement will depend on the amount of money available for the US military. The intent, however, is clear. The document—titled Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense—states that “US economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia.” It adds that “the US is also investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region”.
The rise of China, especially its military might, has alarmed most countries in the South China Sea littoral. Further west, India feels “encircled”. In East Asia, Japan and South Korea are nervous about North Korean intentions. In China there has been extensive commentary on the subject. It has been argued that the US is trying to contain China. So is this Containment 2.0? Not quite. A better description is rebalancing. The document clearly states that “the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region”. The problem lies elsewhere.
So far, all that East Asian countries have done is to express “alarm” at Chinese intentions: there has been little evidence of rebalancing. In the midst of this empty talk, Chinese military might has grown by leaps and bounds. The US re-appraisal of the situation comes in this strategic vacuum in East Asia. What is interesting is that most of these countries owe their prosperity to trade—something that requires open sea lanes and a host of other global commons. Yet they have expended little effort in countering the threat from China—which now claims a huge swathe of the South China Sea as its own.
Once again, the burden of securing these precious resources—which all countries in the world enjoy almost for free—has fallen on the US’ shoulders.
The “China threat”: for real or just a bogey? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org