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Asian security strategy: one hand not clapping

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In Brief

The whirlwind visit of President Barack Obama to Australia on the way to the East Asia Summit in Indonesia last November, many believe, forever changed the Asia Pacific strategic landscape with a re-assertion of American primacy and power in Asia.

What was the thinking behind the moves that Obama announced in Canberra and how will it shape Southeast Asia's strategic future?


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American power is already well entrenched in Asia and the Pacific. A modest elevation of American troop presence on rotation and training in northern Australia — one concrete outcome of the visit — will have at most a marginal impact on the immediate strategic landscape. But Mr Obama’s visit, and in particular his declaration to Australia’s Parliament that America is ‘all in’ in Asia and the Pacific, changed the tone of the contest for influence between America and China in the region and cast it in more confrontational terms.

In this week’s lead Geoffrey Wade suggests that ‘the Darwin deployment is only one part of a much larger regional strategy, placing US forces far enough from Chinese missiles to be comfortable, but still sufficiently near to maritime Southeast Asian allies to swiftly engage if necessary. The proposed stationing of the US Navy’s newest littoral combat ships in Singapore and the growing American naval and air force cooperation with Indonesia serve a similar function’.

Wade sees these moves as the beginning of a major increment to US-led East Asian security architecture, involving the creation of a Southeast sector to the ‘Offshore Asia’ security zone. He says that the Northeast American security zone is already entrenched, with US bases and facilities in mainland Japan, Okinawa, South Korea and Guam being equipped with over 80,000 service personnel and some of the world’s most advanced defence hardware. The concept of a maritime security umbrella in the Southeast sector of ‘Offshore Asia’ (including the maritime ASEAN states, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and some of the Pacific states) is now seen in Washington as key to maintaining a balance of power in East Asia, and achieving the US’s stated aim of preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon.

It might seem puzzling that the US would seek to create a security shield just for ‘Offshore Asia’ — the maritime Southeast Asian states and Australasia. One rationale, according to Wade, is that sea lanes in this region are vital to East Asian economic security, a critical choke point in the flow of Middle Eastern oil and Australian resources to Japan, Korea, and also to China. Maritime routes need to be kept open, ‘especially while the South China Sea disputes continues to fester and demand attention’. More straightforwardly, Wade claims, this new strategy is built on the reality that the US and its allies currently have overwhelming superiority in terms of maritime power. The US Pacific Fleet alone comprises 180 ships, nearly 2000 aircraft and 125,000 service personnel. If the US is to maintain influence and allies in East Asia then it needs to provide these countries with some persuasive evidence of its defence commitment and capacities. The ‘Offshore Asia’ security shield — utilising US ‘Air-Sea Battle’ forces — is a low-cost posture that might convince.

There is related hype among the region’s security community about Australia’s integration into a forward American military hub in Southeast Asia. It is, for the moment, just that: hype and hyperbole. That the Australian base has the advantage of having direct access to the Indian Ocean and, therefore, together with the substantial US naval, air and communications facilities in Diego Garcia, provides the US and its allies with unrivalled access to, and surveillance of, Indian Ocean maritime routes is one dimension of this hype. The reports that B-52 long-range strategic bombers, F/A-18 fighters, C-17 transport aircraft and aerial refuelling aircraft will be stationed at the Royal Australian Air Force Base at Tindal, about 320 kilometres southeast of Darwin is another. At another level altogether are reports suggesting that as part of the increased collaboration, Australia is preparing to purchase or lease Virginia-class nuclear submarines from the US. The antidote to this hype is to take a Bex and have a good lie down. Dreams for the so-called American pivot towards Asia need to be based on firmer fiscal and political stuff.

The mainland Southeast Asian states, as Wade argues, are increasingly embedded in tighter developmental and economic relations with China. In all of that the US is a big player. This is no Chinese imperial plot, as the incautious readers of Wade might conclude: it’s simply the product of the weight of Chinese economic growth interacting with the growth and development ambitions of the Southeast Asian mainland states. It is no different in fact from what is occurring with Japan, Korea, Indonesia or for that matter Australia. In mainland Southeast Asia, it has been promoted with the help of the Asian Development Bank (driven more by Japanese than Chinese agendas), through the creation of a Greater Mekong Subregion linking China and mainland Southeast Asia through economic corridors, which include a Chinese high-speed rail network linking mainland Southeast Asian capitals directly to Yunnan.

Unravelling these economic-security interests from political-security postures is not as easy as it might seem to the economically untutored defence strategist. Put simply, in this theatre, Chinese maritime security interests are legitimately and fundamentally interwoven with East Asian and all our economic security interests.

The complexity is reflected in the caution of Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa about the Canberra declaration, lest ‘these developments were to provoke reaction and counter reaction … a vicious circle or tensions and mistrust or distrust’, even the ‘innocent’ Indonesian suggestion that China might well be invited to join joint exercises at the Australian base. At APEC earlier in November Indonesia’s President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, observed that, while he welcomed America’s regional presence, it was no longer desirable for the region to be dominated by a sole superpower. ‘New power centres are growing rapidly and power relationships are changing and becoming fluid’, he said, calling for what he called a ‘dynamic equilibrium’.

Therein lies the crux of it. Playing one hand into ‘Offshore Asia’ security might be a reasonable first move. But it is certainly not a viable long-term security strategy. Whether that hand will serve the preservation of peace or contribute to future tensions in East Asia will assuredly depend also on whether another hand can be extended to China, one that provides reassurance of its role and interests in regional security.

Peter Drysdale is the Editor of the East Asia Forum.

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