The Pacific Century

At 8:07 a.m. Thursday morning on an island off India’s east coast, the Southeast Asian nation successfully launched a nuclear-capable missile with a range far enough to strike Beijing or Shanghai.

Not that India wants to attack China.  And it probably won’t -- at least as long as the United States has a military presence in the area.

The crucial peacekeeping role the U.S. plays in the region was one of several issues addressed at Wednesday evening’s second Election 2012: The National Security Agenda event, part of the four-event series sponsored by the New America Foundation, the Center for a New American Security and the American Enterprise Institute.  

The panelists at Wednesday’s event, titled "The Pacific Century," explored the rich history and possible future of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia. They highlighted recent geopolitical changes in the region, and suggested an agenda of issues that Mitt Romney and President Obama should tackle during this fall’s presidential debates.

But they may need to start that discussion a little earlier. CNAS senior fellow Robert Kaplan presciently emphasized the significance of India’s missile launch last night in a response to a question about why U.S. ships remain in the region.

“If you extract American presence in this theoretical way, suddenly the India-China rivalry would not be so benign. The India-Russian rivalry would not be so benign.  The Chinese-Russia rivalry would not be so benign,” Kaplan explained. “These are countries that could easily go to war. The fact that…what we see is jockeying for position on the high seas more than real strong outbreaks of hostilities is because of the pacifying effect of an American military hegemon in the area. That pacifying effect allows world trade to happen.”

Kaplan described the Western Pacific/East Asian region as the geographic heart of the world economy. Merchant sea lines, like economic arteries, converge more there than at any other point in the world, he said.

“This is where our military should be focused to protect the balance of power and to allow the free trading system to go on as it has,” he said, adding that the U.S. currently has about 286 warships in the region, down from approximately 584 during the Reagan era.  Even though the U.S. Navy’s presence has declined, today’s ships “pack a lot more equipment and fire power” than those of the 80s.

Still, Western dominance is waning relative to indigenous navies and air forces: The Chinese defense budget has risen by double digits every year for the last 30.  Japan now owns four times as many warships as the British Royal Navy. China has purchased or built eight times as many submarines as the United States since 2005. Naval warfare is increasingly submerged undersea because surface ships are susceptible to air missile attacks.

 “Submarines are like the new bling in maritime Southeast Asia,” Kaplan joked.

What does all this mean for the next president?

He’d be wise to strengthen and refine U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region, with particular attention to bolstering relationships with China and North Korea.  

The Obama administration has already acknowledged the importance of those relationships. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote about the need to “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region in Foreign Policy magazine last year.   

But the campaign conversation has yet to make that pivot.  In a recent piece for CNN, panelist Patrick Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS, pointed out that “the national political campaign has barely acknowledged the existence of Asian security.” He also presented 10 questions about America’s relationship to Asia-Pacific countries he feels should be seriously considered by presidential candidates.

First, some ground rules: Both Romney and Obama must emphasize that America’s future security and prosperity is inextricably linked to the Asia-Pacific region, Cronin wrote.

Specifically, the next president must understand “how to establish a relationship with China that builds cooperation but doesn’t sacrifice strength at the same time, doesn’t sacrifice U.S. influence,” Cronin explained on Wednesday after event moderator Peter Bergen, the director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, asked him about the article.

During the fall debates, it will be crucial to “ask presidential candidates about how the U.S. sees China in the round, how do we get this balance right, because that’s the tricky question for America’s future,” said Cronin.

Romney and Obama must also develop a long-term strategy to engage North Korea.  The current lack of communication between the U.S. and top North Korean leadership, underscored by the Kim Jong Un administration’s recent covert missile test orchestration while overtly promising not to test one, is “unacceptable” Cronin said.  Thus far, Washington has failed to produce a plan to disrupt North Korea’s provocation cycle. “I’d love to hear Governor Romney and President Obama talk about in an election year how we’re going to break that,” Cronin said.  

First, though, the U.S. must decide what it wants North Korea’s future to look like.

“Do we want the regime to survive but not be quite so crazy? Do we want to face what the collapse of the regime would mean? That’s a pretty complicated question when you start thinking about it,” said Thomas Donnelly, resident fellow and co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Luckily, the thinking that’s come from the Obama administration thus far is on the right track, Kaplan suggested.
“The pivot to the Pacific, announced by Clinton, makes undeniable sense,” he said. “[There’s] nothing fundamentally wrong with our policy on this. We will have to accommodate ourselves somewhat to the rise of Chinese naval and air power in the region…We will have a more multipolar pacific. The idea is we will remain robust enough so that China eventually is unable to Finlandize places like the Philippines.”

But the event concluded on a somewhat ominous note as Kaplan speculated about what China and North Korea’s future could look like.

On China, Kaplan wondered how the “unclear” legitimacy of the Chinese government might affect economic and social tensions within the country. His line of thinking seemed to indicate a kind imminent Chinese Spring -- Kaplan mentioned “reptilian Middle East autocrats,” but made it clear he wasn’t comparing them to Chinese leaders. “China could face a real strong internal crisis based on the revolution of rising expectations,” he posited.

Then, recalling tumultuous reunifications of Yemen, Vietnam, and Germany, he offered a grim prediction for North Korea.

“We should not rule out some sort of regime unraveling in our lifetimes in the Northern half of the Korean peninsula that would create the mother of all humanitarian emergencies,” he finished.

 Bergen jokingly thanked him for his optimistic analysis.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Handout, Flickr user East-West Center