From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s Sydney Correspondent
Since 2001 American military operations have unsurprisingly focused on the Middle East – in particular the two wars in Iraq and the current operations in Afghanistan that are drawing to an end. It is not within the scope of this article to question whether these wars were justified or even if they have gone on too long. It is more important at this point to focus on the future. President Obama’s new military strategy is referred to as an ‘Asian pivot’. This change in focus is a response to the emergence of China as a superpower and the fact that the US is growing less reliant on Middle Eastern oil. It also reflects a war weariness on the part of the public and a financial reality where the military budget is being scrutinised in a way that it never has previously.
The so – called ‘Asian Pivot’ must be viewed through an appropriate context if it is to be fully understood. It is clearly a response to the growing power of China and the fact that China is beginning to flex its military muscle in disputes with American allies in the South and East China Seas, including a territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands. This represents a dilemma for America. Clearly America is expected to support its allies; however, it does not want to be drawn into a military conflict with China, something that could have serious repercussions. Before you accuse me of being cynical it must also be said that the Asian Pivot is also an economic response to China’s growing economic power and the increasing importance of trade between the U.S. and China. One example of this is the fact that during his recent visit to China John Kerry held further negotiations in order for the U.S to join the Trans – Pacific Partnership. As an article in the Atlantic states, this accord links a number of Asia-Pacific countries. It demonstrates how America is strengthening its ties in the region.
The Asian Pivot is interpreted by a number of commentators as an attempt to contain China’s military growth. Currently China does not have a very large military force and it could never presently defeat America in a military engagement. China can be expected to develop its military but is not likely to want to engage America militarily, at least in the foreseeable future. As an aside it is interesting to consider the idea that the only way China could have a chance of defeating America in a military conflict would be to disable American military technology through a cyber attack. This is perhaps one reason why the Chinese Government has put so much effort into developing such advanced cyber espionage capabilities. On a practical level America is not presently doing all that much militarily in order to ‘contain’ China. One of the main measures put in the place was the deployment of 2500 marines to a military base in Northern Australia. Unsurprisingly the Chinese were less than impressed by this move. It is also worthwhile noting that the Philippines Government has allowed America to resume hosting military forces for the first time in 20 years.
One thing America must be very careful to avoid is getting too involved in local military conflicts. It has a long history of covert or overt interference in such a manner. This might be ok in South America or the Middle East where it has a massive military advantage but China, as a growing superpower, is entirely different. Even though China does not possess a lot of military hardware, it does have an immense standing army of 1.4 million. As such, it certainly has the ability to make its presence felt. The reluctance of the United States to intervene in Syria shows that it is becoming more selective in military interventions and therefore there is a good chance that America will exercise similar discretion in the Asia Pacific.
So how does China view this Asian Pivot, and what of it’s military plans? We have seen already that the American decision to station 2500 marines in Northern Australia was looked upon disapprovingly. The most recent Chinese Defence white paper is also revealing. The Hindustan Times quotes the white paper as saying China “…will never seek hegemony or behave in a hegemonic manner, nor will it engage in military expansion”. But at the same time it will build a strong military, “…commensurate with China’s international standing and meet the needs of its security and development interests”. It is hardly surprising that China would take this approach given that it has become an economic superpower. It clearly and correctly wants to develop a military that reflects that fact and is able to protect its interests. The question is what will China view its interests as in the future? In recent years China has been able to make significant overseas investments in mineral resources, agriculture, and in other areas. This is usually done through private companies (although significantly many of these companies are regarded as having acted under Government direction). China’s Five Year Plan released in 2001 shows the strategy China’s Government has adopted. It states that one of the Chinese Government’s goals would be “…to support companies in exploring resources overseas that were in short supply domestically and promote adjustment of the sectoral structure of resources trade”. How far will China go in order to defend these foreign investments if they are threatened in any way? It is not within the scope of this article to attempt to answer this question because it is a very complex issue involving a variety of industries in many nations across the world.
President Obama’s Asian Pivot reflects the need to address the emergence of China as an economic superpower, and as a nation that is beginning to flex its military muscle in the Asian region. Certainly the new focus on Asia will be welcomed by America’s allies in that area, many of whom will have been wondering why it took America so long to get involved. Obviously the main reason is the fact that America was so heavily involved in the Middle East. Economically America does not have the resources to support large scale military deployment in both the Middle East and Asia. It is important that the Asian Pivot is as much of a diplomatic engagement with China as it is a military one because closer diplomatic and economic ties will help soften the perception that the Pivot is an attempt to ‘contain’ China. America is capable of engaging China in a way that is mutually beneficial and this must be the ongoing aim of both nations.
References and Further Reading
http://www.cifor.org/publications/pdf_files/WPapers/WP-79CIFOR.pdf (The link is a detailed working paper that analyses China’s foreign investments. It provides an interesting insight into this aspect of Chinese foreign policy.)