When U.S. trade and military alliances are mentioned, Europe usually is the first region that comes to mind. That continent has been a long-established trading partner, and the nations ringing the North Atlantic set the global standard for democratic capitalism in the post-World-War-II years. In foreign affairs, NATO stands tall with more than half a century of security and peacekeeping that defines it as the most successful alliance in history.
Yet, any student of geography who rejects the claims of the flat Earth society can recognize that the United States is a Pacific nation as well as an Atlantic one. The country’s longest maritime border fronts the world’s largest ocean, our nation’s only two noncontiguous states are in the Pacific, and scattered throughout Pacific waters and along its edges are U.S. territories as well as scores of nations that share the same principles and goals as the United States.
And their future is intertwined as closely with the United States’ as is Europe’s. From trade to transportation, from regional politics to global security, the nations of the Asia-Pacific region and their superpower counterpart across the ocean are inexorably linked. Perhaps more than ever, both sides of the Pacific face the same challenges and opportunities.
Peaceful relations among nations often are defined in economic terms, and that certainly holds true with this vast region. This reality recently was brought home to the United States with a labor dispute involving longshoremen on the Pacific coast. After a few days of work stoppage, its effects began to be felt across the entire United States. Key industries such as automotive assembly and information technologies were unable to receive badly needed parts and components to generate finished products. Retail stores began to run out of imported consumer goods ranging from computers to clothes. U.S. agricultural exports were stranded—60 percent of all U.S. beef exports go to Japan and South Korea alone. An economy struggling to emerge from a two-year downturn faced the potential of a major setback of $1 billion to $2 billion each day from just the interruption of seaborne trade from the West Coast.
In the larger world of global finance, the undisputed truth is that the countries with the two largest gross domestic products are the United States and Japan. One of the fastest growing large economies in the world is China’s. India has what may be the largest middle class of any society on the globe. And, these colossi are complemented by a host of other nations that are working toward reaching their economic potential.
U.S. involvement in Asia-Pacific security measures does not often generate the same degree of public awareness as its involvement in Europe—probably because NATO serves as a plainly visible focal point for all of the U.S. efforts in Europe, whether they encompass Cold War deterrence or Balkan peacekeeping. However, just because NATO has no Pacific peer does not mean that the United States is less interested—or less involved—in regional security there.
In computer terms, one could draw the analogy that U.S./Asia-Pacific activities are built along the architecture of a distributed database instead of a NATO-style mainframe. Absent a single overarching alliance, the United States has established individual relationships with dozens of nations to address Asia-Pacific security needs.
This approach works very well for regional security. Not every nation desires the same degree of connection with the United States, and many have their own disagreements with each other. By building a series of bilateral relationships ranging from friendships to defense alliances, the United States is able to provide the proper degree of security assistance for each of its nation partners. And many in turn support this country where possible. Australia, for example, has fought alongside the United States in every major war beginning with World War II—including conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. Other countries have contributed goods, services and manpower, in varying degrees. The United States has worked to maintain security among these diverse nations.
Now more than ever, this approach is proving its worth. In addition to the United States and Afghanistan, another front on the war on terrorism has been opened in the Asia-Pacific region. U.S. Pacific Command forces are working closely with the armed forces of the Philippines to defeat the Abu Sayyaf guerillas that have been preying on that nation’s civilian populace in Mindanao for years. Tied to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida terrorist network, these guerillas now are on the defensive as U.S.-trained and -guided Philippine forces have seized the initiative and have killed or captured about 80 percent of the terrorists. Other nations in the region, notably Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, have worked closely with the United States to crack down on al Qaida surrogates.
Just for its size, the Asia-Pacific region would be important to the United States. Yet the region is more closely intertwined with this nation’s fate than most people realize. The efforts of many years of statesmanship, economic assistance and security measures now are bearing fruit as the United States and its Asia-Pacific neighbors face the future together.