America's Pacific Logic
April 5, 2012 | 0859 GMT
The Obama administration "pivot" to the Pacific, formally announced by
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last November and reiterated more
recently by the president himself, might appear like a reassertion of
America's imperial tendencies just at the time when Washington should be
concentrating on the domestic economy. But in fact, the pivot was almost
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, signaling communism's defeat in Europe,
security experts talked about a shift in diplomatic and military energies to
the Pacific. But Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led to a
decadelong preoccupation with the Middle East, with the U.S. Army leading a
land war against Iraq in 1991 and the Navy and Air Force operating no-fly
zones for years thereafter. Then came 9/11, and the Bush administration's
initiation of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a response. Finally, the
ending of both those conflicts is in sight, and the United States, rather
than return to quasi-isolationism as it has done with deleterious effect
after other ground wars in its history, is attempting to pivot its focus to
the geographical heart of the global economy: the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The Indian Ocean is the world's energy interstate, across which passes crude
oil and natural gas from the Arabian Peninsula and Iranian Plateau to the
burgeoning, middle-class urban sprawls of East Asia. Though we live in a jet
and information age, 90 percent of all commercial goods that travel from one
continent to another do so by container ship, and half of those goods in
terms of global tonnage -- and one-third in terms of monetary value --
traverse the South China Sea, which connects the Indian Ocean with the
Western Pacific. Moreover, the supposedly energy-rich South China Sea is the
economic hub of world commerce, where international sea routes coalesce. And
it is the U.S. Navy and Air Force, more than any other institutions, that
have kept those sea lines of communication secure, thus allowing for
post-Cold War globalization in the first place. This is the real public good
that the United States provides the world.
But now a new challenge looms for the United States: a rising China as
demonstrated by the totality of its power -- its geographical proximity to
the South China Sea and environs; its economic heft, making it the largest
trading partner of most if not all of the littoral nations (despite economic
troubles in China itself); and its expanding submarine fleet. Beijing has
been buying smart, investing in subs, ballistic missiles, and space and
cyber warfare as part of a general defense build-up. China has no intention
of going to war with the United States, but it does seek to impede in time
of crisis U.S. military access to the South China Sea and the rest of
maritime Asia. From my travels I have seen that this has led to the use of
the term "Finlandization" throughout Southeast Asia, whereby China, through
the combination of its economic and military power, will undermine the
sovereignty of countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and
Singapore, all of which are de facto or de jure U.S. allies.
The country that is the biggest target for China is Vietnam, whose seaboard
forms the western edge of the South China Sea and whose economically dynamic
population of 87 million makes it a future maritime Turkey, a midlevel power
in its own right. If China can "Finlandize" Vietnam, Beijing will in
practical terms capture the South China Sea. This explains Washington's
increasing military and interest in Hanoi. Whereas Vietnam and other
littoral countries claim parts of the South China Sea, China cites a
"historic" nine-dashed line that encompasses almost the entire sea itself.
Governmental and policy elites in Beijing recognize the need to compromise
on the "cow's tongue," as the nine-dashed line is called, but nationalistic
elements in China won't let them, at least not yet. The Chinese are simply
unable to psychologically divorce their claims on the nearby South China Sea
from the territorial depredations directed against China by the West in the
19th and early 20th centuries. To Chinese officials, the South China Sea
represents blue national soil.
Of course, American diplomacy has been active on these matters for years,
but U.S. diplomats would lack credibility if they were not backed by a
robust military presence in the future. This is what the pivot is all about:
The United States does not intend to desert maritime Asia in its hour of
need. As one high-ranking diplomat of a South China Sea country told me, if
the United States were to withdraw an aircraft carrier strike group from the
region it would be a "game-changer," ushering the region toward
Additionally, China is helping to build state-of-the-art port facilities all
along the Indian Ocean, on the other side of the Malacca Strait from the
South China Sea, in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Kenya.
These projects all have specific commercial motives promoted by individual
Chinese companies, and in some cases, such as Gwadar in Pakistan, are in the
middle of politically unstable areas, making their use problematic. But this
is how most empires begin -- as speculative-commercial and policing
ventures. The Venetian empire in the Mediterranean began as an attempt to
suppress piracy along the Adriatic coast, something Chinese warships are
doing near the Horn of Africa. Then there were the purely commercial
ventures of the British and Dutch East India companies in their early days,
which led to full-fledged imperial domains.
A profound socio-economic crisis in China itself -- something that by no
means can be ruled out -- might have the effect of slowing this
quasi-imperial rise. But that hasn't happened quite yet, and in the
meantime, the United States is forced to react to China's growing military
and commercial capabilities.
But the change in U.S. policy focus is not literally about containing China.
"Containment" is a word of Cold War vintage related to holding ground
against the Soviet Union, a country with which the United States had a
one-dimensional, hostile relationship. The tens of thousands of American
students and corporate executives in Beijing attest to the rich,
multi-dimensional relationship the United States enjoys with China. China is
so much freer than the former Soviet Union that to glibly state that China
is "not a democracy" is to miss the point of China's rise entirely.
China is an altogether dynamic society that is naturally expanding its
military and economic reach in the Indo-Pacific region much as the United
States expanded in the Atlantic and Greater Caribbean following the Civil
War. But the rise of any new great power needs to be managed, especially as
it is accompanied by the rise of Indian, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Singaporean
and Australian sea power, even as Japan and South Korea modernize their sea
and air fleets with the latest combat systems. Make no mistake, the
Indo-Pacific is in the midst of an arms race that complicates the security
of the region's sea lanes.
Were the United States not now to turn to the Indo-Pacific, it would risk a
multipolar military order arising up alongside an already existent
multipolar economic and political order. Multipolar military systems are
more unstable than unipolar and bipolar ones because there are more points
of interactions and thus more opportunities for miscalculations, as each
country seeks to readjust the balance of power in its own favor. U.S.
military power in the Indo-Pacific is needed not only to manage the peaceful
rise of China but also to stabilize a region witnessing the growth of
indigenous civil-military post-industrial complexes.
If American power was diminished, China, India and other powers would be far
more aggressive toward each other than they are now, for they all benefit
from the secure sea lines of communication provided by the U. S. Navy and
Clinton's diplomatic overture to Myanmar and President Barack Obama's plan
to rotate 2,500 Marines through Australia are symbolic of the political and
military effort to distribute U.S. power throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Myanmar could simply continue as a satellite of Beijing were Clinton not to
do as she has. Australia, a country of only 23 million inhabitants, will
spend $279 billion over the next two decades on submarines, fighter jets and
other hardware. This is not militarism, but the reasonable response of a
nation at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific oceans in order to
account for its own defense in the face of rapidly changing power dynamics.
Australia might even become the premier alliance partner for the United
States in the Anglosphere in the 21st century, much as Britain, whose
defense budget is plummeting, was in the 20th century.
The pivot is as yet an aspiration, not a declaration, since it assumes that
events in the Middle East will permit U.S. officials the luxury of shifting
assets elsewhere. But events in the Middle East never permit as such. Still,
if the United States can at least avoid further land engagements in the
Middle East, expect the pivot to set the tone for America's Asia policy for
years to come, much as President Richard Nixon's trip to China did for Asia
policy in decades past.
America's Pacific Logic | Stratfor
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Received on Thu Apr 05 2012 - 07:10:35 EDT