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  Volume 10 |Issue 22 | June 10, 2011 |


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US in Asia

William Choong

Compared with last year's Shangri-La Dialogue, which was marked by verbal clashes between the American and Chinese delegations, this year's dialogue was relatively amicable.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak struck a chord when he said that war was not an option, given growing mutual interdependence.

The Chinese and Americans played nice, taking pains to stress the cooperative elements of their relationship. Most importantly, secretary of defence Robert Gates stressed that the United States would remain the dominant power in Asia despite problems at home and abroad. This soothed fears about instability resulting from China's rise.

Encouraged by the relaxed atmosphere, delegates were content to make small talk and chomp on a scrumptious spread of carrot orange cakes and cheese skewers.

In a veiled swipe, Gates said critics who questioned the US' staying power in Asia were "myopic souls" and "voices of doom and gloom".

The problem, however, is that pre-eminent US power - a critical piece of Asian security - is no longer a given. Even Gates, who has served eight US presidents, conceded that concerns expressed by such critics were "serious and legitimate".

It is not hard to figure out why. Recently, the US hit its debt ceiling of US$14 trillion. The Pentagon would have to suffer cuts of US$400 billion to its budget in the next decade or so. Comparatively, China holds US$1.1 trillion worth of US Treasury bonds. Assuming one US Nimitz aircraft carrier - that paragon of US power - costs US$5 billion, US$1.1 trillion is enough to buy more than 200 such carriers (the US Navy currently operates 10).

A British academic attending the forum told The Sunday Times that many analysts still remember Asia's fears about US retrenchment in the early 1970s, when America decided to withdraw from Viet Nam after suffering heavy losses there.

"Now, they see US power declining and Chinese power emerging. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict how this would go," said the academic, who declined to be named.

The breathtaking pace of China's military development has also led to fears that the US military would be constrained. The biggest fear centres on China's development of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), a game changer that would target US carriers far from the Chinese coast. China can use such ASBMs to challenge the credibility of America's deterrent posture in Asia and coerce the US Navy to back off from its traditional stomping ground.

In 2009, a Chinese admiral had reportedly offered his American counterpart a deal. The two powers would divide the region, whereby the US Navy kept its aircraft carriers east of Hawaii in return for China 'sharing information' with the US. According to Newsweek, the Chinese admiral was only half jesting.

Granted, there is no concerted move among the American political elite to retrench from Asia, given the region's increasing strategic importance. But calls for neo-isolationist policies in the US are not new, and they are growing. In the 1990s, American scholars called on the US to adopt an offshore balancing strategy in Asia, thus letting China and Japan cancel each other out.

Writing in International Security, a prestigious Harvard journal, Paul MacDonald and Mr Joseph Parent noted that US retrenchment is likely given America's declining power. They argue that the US would 'shift burdens to allies, cut military expenditures, and stay out of international disputes' - things that it is already doing.

"It remains to be seen whether five to 10 years from now, the US will be as strong as we are today," Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies told The Sunday Times.

"We certainly have the intention to be so, but whether we have the resources is another question. I'd like to see Secretary Gates wager more than $100 on that," she said, referring to Gates' public wager that the US would remain strong in Asia in the next decade.



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