While the United States is confronting terrorism and hostile regimes in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Libya, leaders also are looking eastward to shape U.S. security policy for the long-term, the Pentagon’s top policy official said last night.
“When future historians look back at this era, I am convinced that the rise of Asia will be noted as the central geo-strategic fact of our time,” Michèle Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, told a packed room of policy experts at Johns Hopkins University’s “Rethinking Seminar” here.
“By most measures, the Asia-Pacific region is the most important and most dynamic region in the world today — and likely to be more so as this still-young century unfolds,” she said.
While the United States still ranks as the world’s largest economy as measured by gross domestic product, the next three largest are China, Japan, and India. As of last year, ten of the world’s 15 fastest-growing economies were in Asia, Flournoy said.
U.S. trade with China rose to an estimated $459 billion last year, compared to $2 billion in 1979, making it the United States’ biggest source of imports and second-largest trading partner, the undersecretary said. At the same time, she said, China’s economy is growing rapidly within Asia, causing the International Monetary Fund to estimate that Asia’s economy will eclipse that of the United States by 2030.
Meanwhile, “Asia sits at the crossroads of the world’s emerging threats” of cyber security, climate change and terrorism, Flournoy said.
This growing importance of Asia means the United States must continue to build and strengthen its alliances there, with a focus on building capacities where needed, and encouraging China and India to use their growth to secure and stabilize the region, Flournoy said.
Despite tensions over Chinese military secrecy and its increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, Flournoy said, the United States and China “are not inevitably destined for conflict, as some have posited. Even as we manage our differences, we can deepen our cooperation across the full range of our shared interests.”
U.S. military forces must be structured to align with emerging threats, the undersecretary said. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said the U.S. military in the region must be operationally resilient, geographically distributed and politically sustainable.
“We must ensure that our regional allies and partners are confident in the continued strength of our deterrence against the full range of possible threats,” Flournoy said. Strengthened missile defense and long-range reconnaissance and strike are central components, she said.
U.S. officials “think our posture in Northeast Asia is about right,” Flournoy said, but there’s need to expand efforts in Southeast Asia. Rather than building more bases, she said, the U.S. military is focused on working more closely in military-to-military relationships to include combined training, joint patrols, and shared medical and civil engineering missions.
As for alliances, Flournoy said Japan remains a cornerstone of U.S. security policy in the region. U.S. officials are confident of Japan’s ability to recover fully and continue to play a vital role in the region, she said, despite the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, resulting tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis it has endured since March 11.
The United States will continue to strengthen its ties with South Korea to ensure interoperability of their military forces to preserve stability on the Korean peninsula, she said.
The rise of Asia has made Australia an increasingly strategic location, Flournoy said, which led the United States as the end of last year to establish a working group with the Australians for combined military force posture.
The United States is strengthening alliances with the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, Flournoy said, and must do more with Indonesia and Vietnam. She noted that a small group of U.S. forces have worked quietly in the Philippines since 2001 “in a model of successful counterinsurgency” to prevent al-Qaida from gaining a foothold there.
Flournoy highlighted the work of the U.S. Agency for International Development and other U.S. civilians in the region and said they will remain critical to U.S. relations in Asia.
Despite its challenges elsewhere in the world, Flournoy said, the United States will stay engaged in Asia.
“The United States has proven repeatedly — over decades –that is it fully committed to upholding its strategic obligations throughout Asia. No one in Asia — anywhere in Asia — needs to ask if the U.S. will show up when it is needed.”