SPEAKING FREELY US pivot risks Asia-Pacific cold war
By Ninan Koshy
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While growing up, I thought certain things in life were not for sale - that no amount of money could buy them. These included a democratic country and its national interest and its highest offices, the reputation of internationally admired men and women, Nobel laureates, institutions of higher learning and on and on.
In his introduction to the Pentagon document, President Barack Obama explains what the pivot is all about: it is "to preserve the
global leadership" of the US and "to maintain military superiority".
Here we examine some of the implications of the imperial pivot.
In the report, there is a new definition of the Asia-Pacific. The Strategic Guidance document maps the region as "the arc extending from Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia". In her Foreign Policy article "America's Pacific Century" (November 2011), then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defined the Asia-Pacific as "stretching from the Indian Subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas, the region spans two oceans - the Pacific and the Indian - that are increasingly linked by shipping and strategy".
There is a new element here: the inclusion of the coastal areas of South Asia. South Asia has often been considered as a distinct strategic sub-region of Asia. Increasing strategic rivalry between China and India also serves to bring that Asian sub-region into a larger Asia-wide strategic dynamic. Afghanistan is officially listed by the US under South Asia and Afghanistan is a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). So Af-Pak also has a place in the US's "Asia-Pacific".
The pivot strategy announces the beginning of a new cold war. If the theater of the "old" Cold War was Europe, the new theater is the Asia-Pacific. If US's enemy in Europe was the Soviet Union, in the Asia-Pacific it is China. As General Martin Dempsey Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff put it, "the US military will be obliged to overtly confront China as it faced down the Soviet Union" In fact, implicit in the pivot is a long drawn out cold war between the US and China which promises to be more intense in strategic brinkmanship than the earlier cold war between the West and the Soviet Union and its allies.
It is only natural that the US Asia "pivot" has prompted Chinese anxiety about US containment. One might inquire on what is exactly about "rising China" that is being counterbalanced with such an increased military presence in the Asia-Pacific.
"The US is not putting a military presence in the region to be an impartial or fair mediator but to pursue its own interest and that of its allies which are competing against China for ownership of resource-rich islands (including oil)", as Michael McGrahee pointed out in the New York Times Examiner.
The pivot is basically about a new military strategy
The main underlying rationale of the military dimension of the pivot is the need to assert US military primacy in the Asia-Pacific region and "rebalance" the Chinese build up. The core element of the military dimension of the pivot is the formulation and the implementation of the Air-Sea Battle Concept.
The Concept was officially announced in spring 2011 by then-secretary of defense, Robert Gates. The Joint Operational Concept (JOC) document has clarified the main military aim of the concept: "to improve integration of air, land, naval, space and cyberspace forces to provide combatant commanders the capabilities needed to deter and if necessary to defeat an adversary employing sophisticated anti-access area-denial capabilities".
It is working on translating the Air-Sea Battle Concept by linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans which in effect will mean US military presence over a broader region.
The pivot is mainly, if not solely, about China
Although the Obama administration officials have often stated that these moves are not aimed at any one particular country, the Strategic Guidance document says, they are at least in part on an underlying balance of military capability and presence. "Over the long-term China's emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the US economy and our security in a variety of ways….The growth of China's military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intention in order to avoid causing friction in the region". This is a rather strange statement as if there was clarity about US's strategic intention.
"The new developments from the US side are about one thing; containing China's military rise and the tectonic shifts associated with it", as Willy Lam points out in Beijing laces up the foreign policy gloves, Asia Times Online, June 28, 2012.
The pivot to the Pacific is seen by some in China in starker terms as focused on dividing China from its neighbors and keeping China's military in check. Such an impression may strengthen the hands of the China's military, which has long been suspicious of US intentions in the region.
There has been a fundamental contradiction in US's China policy. It wants cooperation with China and so pursues engagement. At the same time in response to China's growing military might, it wants to restrain it by a policy of containment. Aaron Friedburg has coined the new neologism "congagement" to capture the contradictory nature of US strategy towards China.
The pivot has long-term consequences
"The expansion has come at a price for the region's people" Joseph Gerson points out in a Foreign Policy in Focus article "Reinforcing Washington's Asia-Pacific Hegemony".
In Southeast Asia, the Obama administration upped the military ante by responding to China's assertive or even aggressive claims in the South China Sea. Reinforcing Philippines claims to the "West Philippines Sea" the Pentagon has also increased weapons sales to the country and explored the return of military bases. The pivot also means a strengthening of the US military's relationship with Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, and now with Myanmar.
The January 2012 Pentagon document on Strategic Guidance lists a significant role for India in the strategy, something which came as a surprise to many. In his maiden visit to India in the first week of May 2012, then US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called defense cooperation with India "a linchpin" in the US's strategy.
The US is keen to show that there is geo-strategic and even territorial convergence between US and India in the region. Although India may not want to be described as a 'linchpin' of the US pivot, the present leadership will nevertheless reassure Washington that it is broadly supportive of US policies abroad.
The pivot is leading to the consolidation and expansion of American military bases all over Asia and the Pacific. New bases are being built as in Jeju, new basing arrangements are made, port facilities are ensured for American navy. Chalmers Johnson has called the US an "empire of bases". That empire is visibly expanding in the Asia-Pacific.
In South Korea the country's defense policy is virtually under the control of the US. All countries with US military bases and military alliances with US compromise in varying degrees their sovereignty.
The US pivot has sparked an Asian arms race and accelerated the militarization of states. The key strategic aim of the pivot, experts contend is to contain China's maritime assertive navy and protect freedom of navigation in Western Pacific, a global artery for trade and energy transportation. Yet the US's strategic focus has paradoxically not only strengthened the hands of the hardliners in Beijing calling for a more muscular counterstrategy but also emboldened the US's regional partners, namely Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam to push their claims more aggressively.
It is this change and its implications that should invite opposition and resistance from people across Asia-Pacific. Indeed, "the manufacturers of weapons are the peacemakers" as Bush stated in his Iraq 'victory' speech in 2003 and Obama echoed in his Oslo Nobel Peace Prize speech. The arms lobby is a powerful force in the new US strategy. A US-driven arms race in the region, one that benefits Washington's military industrial complex, could torpedo any chance of peaceful diplomacy.
Defense spending by China, India, Japan and South Korea accelerated sharply in the second half of the last decade and at $225 billion in 2012 was almost the double the amount of a decade earlier. Asia's defense spending is higher than that of Europe.
Militarization distorts foreign policy and makes it subservient to defense policy. It generates and invites conflicts. It has adverse influence on society. It ignores development priorities and leads to human rights violations.
The pivot has a major nuclear dimension. The elements are coalescing for exactly what the Obama administration does not want us to recognize - a nuclear pivot to Asia. The region is home to five of the eight states recognized as being in possession of nuclear weapons, three of the world's top six defense budgets, six of the worlds largest military militaries US, China, Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, India) two conflict areas from the Cold War era (ie Taiwan Straits, Korea)
North Korea's nuclear program has been highlighted as the major nuclear issue in the region. We have to look closely at this, especially against the background that North Korea has been under nuclear threat from US from 1952.
The pivot signifies the transfer of much of the US nuclear weapons arsenal half way around the world. With the redeployment of sixty% of US naval forces to Asia-Pacific the major part of America's sea-based nuclear assets will be in the region.
During the Cold War, the extended deterrence and nuclear umbrella for US allies including those in Asia like South Korea and Japan heightened nuclear tensions. This is repeated in the new cold war. It can be seen most clearly in the drama now playing out with North Korea. The US has responded to Pyongyang following a cold war blueprint by beefing up missile defense capability in Alaska and sending nuclear capable B-2 bombers to carry military exercises in the Korean peninsula.
As illustrated in a Pentagon press conference following the bomber run, the intended audience is not just Pyongyang, General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made a point emphasizing "The reaction to the B-2 that we are most concerned is not necessarily the reaction it might elicit in North Korea, but rather among our Japanese and South Korean allies. These exercises are mostly to assure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared and to help them deter conflict.
The pivot extends the path of NATO into Asia-Pacific. The United States in its new regime for the region has assigned a major role for the NATO in the region. NATO developed the Tailored Cooperation Packages which took in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea. This led to these nations cooperating in the Afghan War, extending NATO's reach through Central Asia to the Pacific Rim.
NATO advocates have called a formal expanded security mechanism in the Asia-Pacific, which could include more pro-US states. It is argued that a "globalization" of NATO is integral to the Obama administration's policy in the region and reflects continuity with several decades of US policy.
Zbigniew Brzezinski in his much-acclaimed book, The Grand Chessboard (1997) defines the North Atlantic alliance as part of an integrated, comprehensive and long-term strategy for all Eurasia on which NATO would eventually reach Asia, where another military alliance would connect Pacific and Southeast Asian nations. The prediction is coming true.
Ninan Koshy is a political commentator based in Trivandrum, Kerala, India, and formerly Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, is the author of War on Terror: Reordering the World and Under the Empire: India's New Foreign Policy.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.