U.S. refocusing on Asia-Pacific
Published : Jul 4, 2012 - 20:10
Updated : Jul 4, 2012 - 20:16
China’s ‘anti-access/ area-denial’ capabilities pose threat to U.S., its
allies in Asia-Pacific

This is the first in the series of articles on America’s refocus on the Asia-Pacific region and the possible impact on its alliances with South Korea and Japan. ― Ed.

After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is refocusing on the Asia-Pacific where it faces a rising China ― a potentially destabilizing factor in the regional order it has fostered since the end of World War II.

It has mapped out a new strategy to realign its military resources for the region to maintain what it calls an “inclusive, rule-based” order, particularly at sea, as China becomes increasingly assertive based on its economic and military clout.

“In a steady, deliberate and sustainable way, the U.S. military is rebalancing and brings enhanced capabilities to this vital region,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during an annual defense ministers’ meeting in Singapore last month.
An F/A-18E/F Super Hornet combat aircraft engages in take-off and landing drills on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier during a South Korea-U.S. joint exercise in the West Sea on June 24. (Yonhap News)

While tackling its massive national debt, Washington is striving to deepen ties with South Korea and Japan where it stations some 78,500 troops in total ― a legacy of the Cold-War era now being readjusted to meet a wider range of regional and global security challenges.

Beyond the bilateral alliances, the U.S. is also trying to forge a security network with regional partners such as India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia and even Myanmar, a move experts say appears to target China.

“After all, this is a region that has doubled its share of global wealth in the past dozen years alone. Our refocusing on the region is a long-term, bipartisan effort and one based on a comprehensive set of policy tools,” Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security, told The Korea Herald.

“It (America’s refocusing on the region) also requires more active diplomacy, both to managed, longstanding alliances such as the one with South Korea and Japan, but also efforts to build new partnerships and create regional institutions.”

The Washington-based CNAS is an influential think tank that provides major policy proposals to the Obama administration. Kurt Campbell, assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, co-founded it in 2007.

While moving to bolster its presence in the region, the U.S. also seeks to engage China in its economic and diplomatic activities, encouraging its rival to become a “responsible regional stakeholder.”

China believes it has long maintained its influence in the region, and is apparently displeased with the growing calls from the West to become “responsible.”

“We both understand the differences we have, we both understand the conflicts we have, but we also both understand that there really is no other alternative but for both of us to engage and to improve our communications and to improve our (military) relationship,“ Panetta said at the security forum in Singapore.

America’s policy shift has apparently unnerved the Asian power despite U.S. efforts to engage it. Stressing that any move to hem it in stems from an “outmoded zero-sum, Cold-War mentality,” its state media expressed concern that America’s pivot to Asia could needlessly heighten tensions.

An intensifying rivalry between the U.S. and China will be burdensome for South Korea as it shares security and economic interests with both powers, experts pointed out. South Korea apparently fears the rivalry could force it to make a hard choice between them.

South Korea is now in negotiations over a bilateral free trade pact with China, which is its largest trading partner. The two-way trade volume, which stood at $6.3 billion in 1992 when the two countries opened diplomatic relations, topped $200 billion in 2011.

Seoul also needs cooperation from China as North Korea’s largest patron to persuade the reclusive state to renounce its nuclear ambitions.

New strategy to handle China’s rise

Unveiled in January, the new strategic guidance on “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership” indicates that the U.S. will shift its focus to strengthening capabilities to fend off threats from potential adversaries apparently including China.

Since Al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, it had focused on irregular warfare such as anti-terrorism.

“The single biggest threat to stability and peace is when a rising power is unhappy with the status quo and wants to change it. This is the reason why everyone is worried about China, because no one knows if China wants to challenge the status quo,” said Balbina Hwang, a professor at Georgetown University.

“As such, it is only prudent that the U.S. should continue to maintain its existing strength in the region … and to ensure that all future rising powers do nothing to endanger the stability and freedom enjoyed by all the states in East Asia ― freedom of commerce, navigation, etc.”

While aiming to make its military “smaller and leaner, but agile and flexible,” it now seeks to increase its presence in the region where China is aggressively seeking greater maritime interests to help feed its 1.3 billion people and ensure its economic growth.

China is now in a series of maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas with the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and others which want a stronger U.S. presence to keep the Asian power from dominating the region.

Securing freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific waters is strategically vital for the U.S. as the maritime area is where crucial sea lines of communication converge and vast reserves of resources are buried.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. plans to reposition its navy fleet so that 60 percent of its warships would be deployed to the region by 2020, compared with about 50 percent now. The ships would include six aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines.

The move comes as Washington seeks to slash $487 billion in its defense spending over the next decade.

Above all, for the U.S., the biggest threat from China comes from its development of the so-called “anti-access/ areal-denial” capabilities to ward off any hostile approaches to its maritime territory.

“Global security and prosperity are increasingly dependent on the free flow of goods shipped by air and sea. State and non-state actors pose potential threats to access in the global commons,” the strategic guidance reads.

“The U.S. will continue to lead global efforts with capable allies and partners to assure access to and use of the global commons, both by strengthening international norms of responsible behavior and by maintaining relevant and interoperable military capabilities.”

China has focused on developing the new capabilities since the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996 when the U.S. mobilized two of its aircraft carrier battle groups in the largest show of its military might in the region since the Vietnam War.

“China’s military has focused on acquiring and developing selected technologies and A2/AD capabilities that would deter, delay or prevent external (U.S) entry into specific areas,” said Michael Raska, associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

“In this context, China has been developing anti-satellite weapons, conventional ballistic missiles, long-range precision cruise missiles, advanced integrated early warning defense systems, electronic and cyber-warfare capabilities, submarines, surface combat vessels and multi-role combat aircraft.”

China has aggressively strengthened its naval power under a long-term, consistent strategy that covers not only the South and East China seas, but also virtually the entire world by 2050.

Beijing is now preparing to put into service its first aircraft carrier “Varyag” this month or next month in a move to bolster its maritime ambitions, observers said. The carrier was bought from Ukraine in 1998.

By Song Sang-ho (