US ASIA-PACIFIC MILITARY REBALANCE: THE STRING OF PEARLS IN REVERSE
The broad contours of ‘US Rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific’, that form a critical component of US military redistribution and global drawdown were enunciated at the Shangri La Dialogue 2012 in Singapore by the US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta on 02 June 2012 . This seems to have set the proverbial cat among the pigeons as far the Chinese are concerned. Their media has criticised this posture as one that may lead to a regional arms race, destabilise regional power dynamics and pose a challenge to Beijing’s Nine Dashed Lines territorial claim(submitted to the United Nations in May 2009) that virtually encompasses the whole of the South China Sea. This commentary aims to examine the salient aspects of the future US military posture in the Asia-Pacific brought out in the Panetta address and its regional geo-political connects.
The question as to why the Asia-Pacific matters so much to the US can be seen through the prism of this equatorial oceanic pendulum, which whilst being in focus for energy security and economic growth is also the hub of violent terrorism, extremism and non-traditional security threats. The second reason is the growing assertiveness of China, which is a natural corollary to its meteoric economic and military rise and poses a counter to the US led world order. One US assessment mentions the following goals for China in the Asia-Pacific context:-
- Asserting China’s maritime territorial claims, particularly in most of the South China Sea.
- Enforcing China’s view that it has the right to regulate foreign military activities in its exclusive economic zone(EEZ).
- Displacing US influence in the Pacific Ocean region.
- Asserting China’s status as a major world power.
The key drivers for this US military realignment in Asia-Pacific are the Defence Strategic Guidance(03 Jan 2012), Joint Operational Access Concept(JOAC) of 17 Jan 2012, and last but not the least, the $ 487 Bn fiscal strait jacket over the next decade proposed by Pentagon in the 2013 budget.
The major impact of this global realignment would be on the hitherto equitable 50:50 distribution of US forces between the Atlantic and the Pacific which would now be skewed to 60:40 in favour of Asia-Pacific with a greater number of aircraft carriers and principal combatants allocated to this region. This re-arrangement of US forces is not ab-initio and it merits recall that as far back as in 2005, the US Quadrennial Defense Review(QDR) directed the US Navy to deploy six aircraft carriers and 60 percent of its submarine force to the Pacific Ocean. CRS report to Congress in December 2009 brought out that these had more or less been met by the US Navy deploying 31 of its 53 attack submarines and six of its 11 carriers in the Pacific. Such a force structure cements the US “pivot” to the East with an added emphasis on the Middle East and the Western Pacific.
The emphasis of this realigned US force structure would be on achieving a technological dominance especially in the areas of space, cyber warfare, unmanned platforms and Special Forces. Some of the key platforms identified for greater manoeuvre, access and operational leverage in threatened areas are - the advanced fifth-generation fighter, a more capable nuclear powered submarine modelled on the existing Virginia class SSN, enhanced electronic warfare and communications capabilities backed by improved precision weapons including ballistic missile interceptors. Some of the other key military aviation capabilities include advanced aerial refuellers, bombers and maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare(MRASW) aircraft. If the above technological superiority has to be brought to bear on the potential adversary, US military would require suitable staging posts interspersed at regular intervals and connected by an invisible thread – possibly a “Reverse String of Pearls?”
In addition to the deployed US forces in South Korea and Japan, Guam and other Northern Mariana dependencies(Rota, Tinian and Saipan), Australia would be an important base for rotational deployment of key US naval support personnel at HMAS Stirling, Perth and a combined arms Marine Air Ground Task Force(MAGTF) at Darwin. Further, Singapore has been identified as the location for sustaining operational turnarounds of the Littoral Combat Ships(LCS).
The key policy determinants identified for supporting this new pattern are the adherence to universally accepted international norms like the promotion of regional peace and stability, freedom of navigation and unhindered access for commerce. This strategy recast also looks at further strengthening of bonds with formal alliance partners such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Philippines. These would be supported by fostering key partnerships with like-minded countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and India who are not military allies of the US.
The US Naval Operational Concept(NOC) of 2010 clearly states that it shall maintain the forward presence of a carrier strike force in the Western Pacific for the foreseeable future to possibly prevent the Western Pacific and South China Sea turning into a virtual Chinese lake. Towards that end, Vietnam and Philippines assume much greater salience as possible ‘reverse pearls’. US recognises this imperative and has been making efforts to involve these states more proactively into the complex South China Sea dynamic.
At the August 2010 ARF Summit in Hanoi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a significant assertion that “…US has national interest in the freedom of navigation and open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea…”. In support of this articulation, the US carrier George Washington carried out naval exercises with the Vietnamese Navy in the South China Sea besides hosting government and military officials. Additionally, US Destroyer John McCain visited the historic Da Nang port. This proactive stance was further reinforced by a US Senate resolution of June 2011, calling for “a peaceful and multilateral resolution to maritime territorial disputes in South East Asia; deploring the use of force by naval and maritime security vessels from China in the South China Sea; and supporting the continuation of operations by the US armed forces to enable the freedom of navigation in international waters and air space”. There have been some reports of Vietnam having unofficially offered the historically prominent Cam Ranh Bay for US use, during Secretary Panetta’s visit to Hanoi immediately after the Shangri La dialogue.
It is opined that the Philippines would not have been able to sustain its position for more than a month in the recent standoff with China over the Huangyan Islands(Scarborough Shoal) without the tacit US support demonstrated by the latter’s overt pronouncements and activities for the last three years. In fact, the October 2010 statement of the US envoy in Philippines, to the effect that the US was willing to help China and the ASEAN nations formulate a legally binding ‘Code of Conduct’, further emphasised the heightened US involvement in regional matters.
A peripheral positioning of US military power around the approaches to the Western Pacific, the maritime chokepoints in the Indian Ocean including the Middle East may accord the United States an inherent flexibility to apply pressures on the economic jugular of the potential adversaries, particularly China, right from the source(s) to destination(s). By fostering deeper interactions with Vietnam, India and the other littorals, the Pentagon would further complicate Chinese dilemma and provide the US with additional leverage and another front for suasive force application, if push comes to shove. This ring of US influence is expected to run in an unbroken arc from Japan and South Korea as formal military allies in the North Western Pacific - the United States itself at Hawaii, Guam and Northern Marianas - Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Taiwan in the South China Sea and Singapore guarding the Malacca Straits - Australia and New Zealand blocking off the southern deep water straits of Sunda, Lombok and Ombai-Wetar with the US Central Command military component and, as hoped for by Secretary Panetta, possibly India acting as a “swing state” for concerted action in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
In addition, the recessed US presence would provide safety in depth and complicate surveillance and targeting issues. This ‘out of sight’ approach would also remove the negative US proxy connotation in the context of formal alliance countries such as Japan, Taiwan, Philippines and ANZUS partners, whilst giving them the requisite diplomatic room to ‘push back’ against Chinese assertiveness. Most of the key military capabilities that the US has identified are those where it has clear capability and technological superiority on a global scale and if this gap were to widen any further, it would bring back into the relevance the conventional military deterrence in Asia-Pacific geopolitics especially against emerging power centres. Further, if anti-submarine warfare, Ballistic Missile Defence(BMD), littoral combat capabilities, the JOAC with its air-sea battle concept are taken into account, it is China that emerges as the focus of this strategic counter to Anti Access Area Denial(A2AD) philosophy.
From the above, it is averred that the US is attempting to apply the metaphoric Chinese ‘string of pearls’ strategy in reverse, at places that remain critical vulnerabilities of nations that are expected to pose a counter to US global hegemony. As far as India is concerned, it is opined that these “interesting times” would call for a long term pol-mil cost benefit analysis either to throw the lot with one or the other, or to chart an independent course. India has done remarkably well in consistently enunciating that it “supports the freedom of navigation in international waters including the South China Sea ......” and emphasising that it expects “these principles to be respected by all”. These pronouncements largely conform to the statements at Shangri La 2012; but India has not linked this issue to “national interests” as stated by the US. In doing so, India has demonstrated its balanced stance to retain strategic autonomy. Hazarding a guess as to how the future dynamics will pan out, would be akin to peering at a cloudy crystal ball as time will only tell whether or not the new Pax Americana prevails.