President's Commentary: Military Diplomacy Matters in Asia-Pacific Region

October 1, 2017
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

The Indo-Asia-Pacific area is diverse, expansive and challenging for the United States and our international partners. The 36 countries within the U.S. Pacific Command’s area of responsibility encompass about half the Earth’s surface and contain half the world’s population. The region lacks a common culture, religion or language. In fact, about 3,000 languages are spoken there. It hosts the three largest global economies—the United States, China and Japan—and the world’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia. Furthermore, it is now home to five nuclear powers: Pakistan, India, China, Japan and North Korea. The region has seven of the world’s 10 largest armies, accentuating centuries of deeply held animosities. In addition, the Ring of Fire, a tectonic natural phenomenon, hosts the overwhelming majority of the world’s earthquakes and helps birth many natural disasters.

Such enormity and diversity present distinct challenges in building trusting relationships for military commanders and diplomats alike. The region’s vast expanse underscores the metaphor “tyranny of distance” and all that entails from a security perspective.

Against this backdrop, the area has remained largely stable in recent decades, owing to a reassuring U.S. military presence that underpins American diplomatic efforts. Unlike European security, which is reinforced by NATO, security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region is principally achieved through a series of bilateral agreements and treaties with nations sharing common interests. Military-to-military relationships have become a critical tool in America’s diplomatic arsenal for managing affairs and overcoming political obstacles. Further, the Pacific Command engages in a series of exercises and training opportunities with regional partners to improve interoperability and to foster cultural and security appreciation while developing stronger strategic ties.

But the region’s stability has begun to fray because of several dynamic developments. These include the rising military and economic power of China, accompanied by its blatant disregard for international law and norms, the bellicose and threatening behavior of a lawless North Korean regime, and the evolution and migration of ISIS and other terrorist organizations.

China is increasingly aggressive, both economically and militarily. Economically, it has established a global foothold and is expanding its influence. Militarily, China is broadening its blue-water naval and Coast Guard capability by developing a homegrown aircraft carrier program to add to its Russian-designed carrier. Additionally, China’s advancing cyber capability has been felt across broad political, economic and military fronts. And is the design similarity between the U.S. F-35 and the Chinese J-31 a mere coincidence?

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has recognized as illegal China’s aggressive behavior in creating fake islands in the South China Sea and establishing a military presence on those islands to intimidate and control free navigation. China’s disregard for the rulings of the international courts strongly suggests that it will only follow international norms that meet its needs.

Hostile neighbor North Korea threatens with a nuclear and ballistic missile program and a belligerent posture that creates unparalleled challenges regionally and globally. The Western world has limited good options to deal with an unpredictable regime that seems bent on survival at any cost, to include the inhumane treatment of its own people. The U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning North Korea’s actions, indicating the gravity in which the international community, even Russia and China, holds North Korea’s nefarious actions.

North Korea’s antagonism adds new meaning to the term Ring of Fire. Controlling roughly 85 to 90 percent of North Korea’s imports and exports, China and Russia likely hold the keys to influencing North Korean behavior. The question is whether China will act responsibly and step into the leadership role it espouses.

Another major influence in the region is the increased migration of ISIS and comparable organizations, particularly but not exclusively in the southern Philippines, where ISIS has publicly sought pledges from various groups. Such groups are not new to the Pacific Command, but battle-hardened terrorists flocking to the area further complicates the war on terrorism regionally and globally.

Carefully influencing and managing each of these developments affecting stability is critical to both regional and global security. It is now recognized the national security focus has relegated the Indo-Asia-Pacific region to the backwater. The United States and our international partners must refocus and strengthen our efforts on that vital theater.

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