US Decline Series: US shows long-term commitment to Asia-Pacific security

U.S. military Pacific

While rising tensions have provoked concern over the United States’ status as the region’s security guarantor, the Pacific Power is not going anywhere. This GRI series challenges the myth of the American decline.

In May, a confrontation arose between China and Vietnam over the deployment of a Chinese naval rig in disputed waters. While this event has managed to catch the attention of a world seemingly inundated with crises, this development is most important as an indicator of a broader rise in tensions in the Asia-Pacific.

Over the past several years, the region’s flashpoints have expanded from the Taiwan Strait and Korean Peninsula to the South China Sea, as demonstrated by the Sino-Vietnamese standoff, and the East China Sea, as emphasized by China’s unilateral declaration of an Air-Defense Identification Zone over territory also claimed by Japan and Taiwan.

China’s involvement stands out as a commonality linking these cases of regional contention, with recognition of the rising power’s growing influence demonstrated by ubiquitous media analysis. Never far from this conversation, however, is a questioning of the United States’ capability as the traditional guarantor of regional security.

This debate is part of a broader discussion on the hegemon’s supposed decline and foreign policy retrenchment. While the US faces a growing array of challenges, it remains both highly critical and actively committed to the region’s security.

In order to assess the region’s security guarantor, it helps to understand the changing balance of power. Power undergirds the system of international relations, and as power becomes more diffusive, weaker states will experience greater marginal gains in power than stronger states.

Although the US was left in a position of clear military superiority at the end of the Cold War, today the Asia-Pacific is home to five of the eight countries known to possess nuclear weapons, three of the world’s top six defense budgets, and six of the world’s ten largest militaries. China alone has pursued double-digit military growth for the past two decades, culminating in a 2014 defense budget of $132 billion.

While the Asia-Pacific is experiencing the tumult that accompanies rising powers, an Asia-Pacific without the US would experience the disaster of a vacuum of power. US military strength prevents the uniting of Taiwan with mainland China by force.

Despite North Korea’s flirtation with nuclear proliferation, US nuclear capabilities continue to deter against an actual missile strike. In the face of growing belligerence among some of the region’s actors, partnerships with the US discourage gratuitous military buildup and minimize unpredictable behavior.

The net loss of power, then, does not make the US any less vital to Asia-Pacific security, but rather confirms the US’ indispensability amidst power diffusion.

Despite the US’ importance as the bedrock of regional security, the inclination to adapt to the region’s growing challenges is not guaranteed. Of particular concern is that China’s increased military spending comes as the US is cutting back, with Washington pursuing a 2015 defense budget which would reduce Army personnel by 6 percent.

This development, as well as the expectation that Chinese military spending will match US spending in the mid to late 2030s, have been instrumental in stoking the perception that China is set to replace the US as the leading superpower.

While these developments are disconcerting, they are far from damning in terms of US commitment to the Asia-Pacific. The US defense budget is more than three times that of China, and even if China achieves spending parity, it is expected to take another  20 to 30 years to approach military parity.

Furthermore, the US is not complacent in its current strength. Washington is deepening its commitment to regional security by expanding the share of its naval assets in the Pacific to 60 percent of the global fleet. Simultaneously, the US has emphasized trade and diplomacy through wide-ranging efforts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the strengthening of alliances with Japan and the Philippines.

The US will face many challenges amidst the Asia-Pacific’s dynamic security environment. Just as certain, however, is the US’ critical and committed impact to the region’s security.

Today, as home to six of the ten fastest growing US export markets and destination for 60 percent of US exports, the Asia-Pacific is the most important region for the US. As President Obama declared to the Australian Parliament, “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”

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Categories: Pacific Asia, Security

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