President's Commentary: Nothing Placid About the Pacific

November 1, 2015
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

Why should people be concerned about the Asia-Pacific region? Just because it comprises more than half the Earth’s population, has 36 nations that speak 3,000 languages, spans the globe from the Arctic to the Antarctic, is transited by a third of the world’s maritime trade and includes six nuclear powers should not necessarily be cause for alarm.

Yet the Asia-Pacific region represents a challenging security environment encompassing extremely diverse political, military and economic issues. Territorial disputes among nations increasingly are coming to the fore, and national differences are amplifying rather than diminishing. About $5.2 trillion worth of maritime trade passes through the region, more than $1 trillion of which goes to the United States. Any threat to freedom of navigation easily could affect the global economy.

The region is not well-understood by most Westerners and does not receive the close attention it merits. But the emergence of China as a major regional power creates concerns when coupled with a testy rogue regime in North Korea amid flattening or even shrinking U.S. defense budgets. China’s growth places it in competition with the United States economically, politically and militarily. Whether this competition turns out to be healthy or destructive over the long term remains to be determined, but the bottom line is that the United States must maintain a strong security presence in that part of the world—not just for our interests but also to reassure our allies.

China continues to be a source of cyberthreats. The United States has reached agreement with the country on some aspects of cyber espionage, but there needs to be a more rigorous dialogue with clearly discernible positive outcomes. The loss of intellectual property alone merits aggressive action in this regard.

China’s economic influence continues to grow, and the underpinnings of its political-military strategy are evolving along with its economy. In some cases, this evolution is subtle, but in other cases, it is not so subtle. In terms of security concerns, outward activity does not always reflect what is taking place below the surface. Many nations in the region have growing worries about what China’s ultimate objectives are, and they are treading carefully.

Among their concerns are China’s unilateral attempts to establish territorial possession by building up reefs and shoals. Three groups of islands—the Paracels, the Spratlys and the Senkakus/Diaoyus—are claimed by several nations in addition to China. Now China is building bases atop little more than outcrops of rocks that are not recognized internationally as islands. It is using these constructs to claim territorial waters and economic zones. Not only do all these areas sit on potentially tremendous economic resources, but also they could disrupt freedom of the seas and shared maritime access.

China’s unilateral territorial claims affect both vital resources and sea lane control, and its efforts tend to lie outside of international laws and treaties. China long has criticized other nations as striving for “hegemony” over large regions, but these recent territory-extending activities display hegemonistic characteristics.

All these conditions are creating a growing opportunity for miscalculation between powers. Yet China’s growth need not lead to a negative outcome. The door to cooperation must stay open, but the United States must be careful about what it bargains away. U.S. leverage in the region must be used constructively. In particular, military-to-military contacts between China and the United States can help improve understanding, especially with regard to intent.

The United States also must have strong alliances and partnerships in the Pacific. The U.S. strategic rebalance toward the Pacific was designed to improve relations and increase our partners’ capacity to defend themselves. Interoperability across a broad spectrum of capabilities is an important aspect of an improved security environment—not just with communications and information systems but also with other elements of security. Integrated operations among the United States and its allies and partners help display the capabilities of many to all nations in the region. It will help promote a more stable security environment over the vast area.

The United States and its allies must apply the resources needed to ensure that maritime freedom of movement continues unabated. This requires a continued U.S. forward presence and strong relationships with partners based on a long-term presence.

A viable and highly credible U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region is important to discourage conflict and coercion. In the absence of a regional alliance such as NATO, the U.S. Pacific Command has a strong leadership role in the evolution of U.S. national security strategy in the area. The command often serves as the face of the United States, which in turn is viewed by most Asia-Pacific nations as the hub of stability in the region. This U.S. presence has been a stabilizing factor for everyone in the area. By displaying the determination to continue serving as the region’s font of stability, the United States can help ensure those conditions continue.

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