The United States is prioritising a comprehensive engagement of the Asia-Pacific region. Whether this is called ‘rebalancing’ or not, the US requires growing trade, active but effective diplomacy, and sufficient military investment and presence to promote and preserve a peaceful and prosperous region. However, as I see it, the Asia-Pacific region is beset with at least three somewhat intertwined and hard security challenges: avoiding conflict with an authoritarian North Korea, growing tensions in the East and South China Seas, and managing a more assertive and rising China. While governments have to be concerned with far more than these security challenges, they pose some of the starkest threats to the dynamism of the Asia-Pacific region.
Focusing on China as the starkest long-term geostrategic challenge, many analysts in the US, Australia and the Asia-Pacific region might be quick to dismiss the threat posed by North Korea. But to do so would be a mistake. While conflict on the Korean Peninsula is still likely to be deterred, war is possible. Especially in the wake of recent provocations including the successful Unha-3 rocket and third nuclear tests, there’s no substitute for further strengthening deterrence and defence. Counter-provocation strategies need further attention and must be exercised to ensure better readiness.
From the perspective of the US–Australian alliance, the careful management of the North Korean issue is a prerequisite for achieving regional peace and prosperity. If there is any political will, it might well focus on proposing a peace agreement to replace the 1953 armistice, now declared null by North Korea. Countries like Australia will be important, whether because of its seat on the United Nations Security Council or as a potential partner in debating future strategic moves.
The East and South China Seas also appear to be settling into a long-term state of heightened confrontation. While that confrontation appears manageable, wise statecraft should never be assumed and nationalist fervour is running high in the region.
What is needed moving forward is a mixture of realism, confidence-building measures, transparency, and restraint. The two largest powers, China and the US, have a special duty to secure peace. A good beginning would be to acknowledge that the South China Sea (and to a lesser extent, the East China Sea) is part global good, part sovereign territory. Different national interpretations are inevitable, and being realistic about this fact is an essential beginning point for easing tensions.
The US one day will no doubt learn to live with PLA Navy ships passing off America’s coasts. But for the foreseeable future, issues such as innocent naval passage through exclusive economic zones and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, must be managed rather than settled. Through greater dialogue, trust building and transparency, informal rules of the sea can accommodate both a rising China and a strong America. But the US should simultaneously remain strong—economically and militarily.
This raises the third and related challenge: managing a rising China. China appears to be in the midst of reassessing its strategy after decades of near-continuous policy aimed at a patient approach and a peaceful rise. The visible displays of nationalism over the South and East China Seas suggest that it may well become more assertive and difficult to manage when it comes to defending its interests and creating new military capabilities.
The management of the challenges outlined above will depend on the ability of the US to commit to the rebalance in the foreseeable future, but also the cooperation and involvement of regional partners. To this end, there are five major recommendations or conclusions that I would offer.
The first deals with the overriding American priority of addressing its own problems. If the US can’t put more of its citizens back to work and grow its economy, then the difficult trade-offs regarding budgets, including defence spending, will be even more difficult than they are now.
The second and third recommendations echo the classic advice of Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly and carry a big stick. First the stick; the US needs more, not less, naval and air power. While we need an ability to engage regional partners at their level, we can’t afford to abandon serious combatants or cutting-edge technology. As for speaking softly, a successful commitment to a strong defence posture and genuine, not just rhetorical, rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region should be matter-of-fact and carried out without fanfare. Improbable contingency planning exercises are best done quietly, especially in a region that prefers and expects superficial tranquility regardless of future uncertainty. Importantly, if the United States wishes to support a rules-based regional architecture, then it must seek to strengthen ASEAN-centred institutions, ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and embrace the Philippine right to third-party arbitration of maritime disputes with China.
The fourth recommendation is to further encourage the active diplomatic and security participation of allies and partners, especially key allies such as Australia, Japan and Korea, as well as a vital partner in India. Budget constraints alone should be sufficient to motivate a shift of some security burdens onto Asian allies and partners, rather successful and growing economies free-riding on the US.
Australia should be spending closer to 2% of GDP on defence rather than its current 1.56% level. The US needs Australia to play a vital role in the South Pacific, the southern Western Pacific, and into at least the crucial Malacca, Lombok and Sunda straits leading into the South China Sea. Australia’s engagement with states such as Indonesia remains critical. And its key training areas in the Northern Territories and elsewhere remain excellent places to build interoperability with other modern militaries. In the longer run, greater naval access to HMAS Sterling, through shared joint facilities rather than any permanent US bases, would be ideally suited for operations throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
Fifth and finally, the US and its allies should never forget that the overriding political objective of strength is to create a durable, rules-based system that supports more democratic freedom, open and fair trade, and clear rules of the road for resolving disputes and averting conflicts. Within this system, establishing a cooperative framework for greater commerce with China based on real reciprocity and cooperation on selective global issues is essential. Through a dynamic equilibrium that accommodates power shifts and other international changes, the United States hopes not only to perpetuate its own influence for decades to come, but to nudge forward a regional security architecture supportive of freedom in all its dimensions: across the maritime and air, cyber, and outer space dimensions of the global commons; through inclusive, open but fair trade and through more democratic institutions able to protect human liberty