The military side of America’s “Pacific century”

29 February 2012

China called it “war mongering”. U.S. President Obama preferred the terms “promoting a rule-based international order that ensures stability and encourages the peaceful rise of new powers.” Regardless of the interpretation, the new U.S. military strategyannounced on January 5th indicates a clear shift in the American focus towards the Asia-Pacific.

This underlines recent steps in U.S. foreign and security policy that put a particular emphasis on increasing its presence in the region to grapple with China’s rise. Secretary of State Clinton has called for a “Pacific century” for the US. Part of this concerns ‘soft power’ instruments, such as increased investment or the creation of a Trans-Pacific Trade Forum– an institution that for now excludes China. But there is an important military side to it as well. During his visit to the region last November, Obama pledged continued support to the Indian, Filipino and Indonesian armies and announced the opening of an American base in Darwin.

As a recent Pentagon reporton China outlines, the increasing militarization of China’s economic boom concerns American security policy makers. Last summer, China presented its first aircraft carrier and a stealth fighter jet. It has made heavy military investments and plans to expand its space program.

These developments appear to add support to Robert Kaplan’s assertion that the South China Sea will be the scene of future conflict. Apart from decade-long disagreement surrounding the status of Taiwan, several countries (Vietnam, Malaysia, China, The Philippinesand Japan) have competing territorial claims on small islands in the South China Sea. Moreover, it is estimated that the region contains considerable energy reserves. The fact that 80% of China’s oil imports are transported through the Strait of Malacca adds to the importance of this part of the Pacific Ocean.

China on the other hand assures it pursues a “peaceful rise”. Indeed, the Pentagon report deems that economic growth still has the absolute priority for the Chinese leadership. There is no reason to believe that China’s intentions are belligerent or beyond securing its economic interests. How this “modernization in sheep’s clothing,” asThe Economist has called it, will develop remains to be seen. What is certain however is that the Asia-Pacific region has become a crucial element in global security. Whether the U.S. military shift contributes to global stability, as the Pentagon claims, or erodes it will depend on the Chinese response in the years to come.

Luuk Nijman

UCL - The School of Public Policy