America’s next global era is dawning. As we scale down military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, our future prosperity, influence, and security will be determined by what happens in the rising Indo-Pacific region. If we play a leading role in the great area stretching from India to Japan, the coming decades will see the strengthening not only of American power, but also that of our liberal, democratic allies. Conversely, surrendering the high ground in Asia to China will likely result in the ebbing of the post-war liberal international system and the establishment of a region, and world, of greater insecurity and instability. Two questions face a Washington focused on cutting budgets and stressed after a decade of combat in the Middle East. First, do we have the will to succeed in the Indo-Pacific? And second, do we have the means to continue to lead?
The answers may lie in our recent combat experiences. A cornerstone of America’s counterinsurgency approach in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the strategy of “clear, hold, and build” — that is, clear out insurgents, hold the area, and then build up local political and economic institutions to maintain stability. While many observers worry that the Defense Department under former secretary Robert Gates became too monolithically focused on counterinsurgency, the reigning counterinsurgency doctrine may actually provide a strategy for America’s policy in the Indo-Pacific region over the next decades — but only if it is turned upside down, into a “build, hold, and clear” strategy.
The Indo-Pacific is and will remain the most dynamic region on earth. After World War II, we — a nation with a traditionally Eurocentric mindset — naturally placed Europe at the apex of our national-security concerns, despite our involvement in proxy wars around the globe. As the Soviet Union peacefully dissolved in 1991, our focus moved to the Middle East, spurred by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The following decade saw American involvement in that region slowly deepen, as al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism generally impinged more and more on U.S. interests, culminating in the global war on terror from 2001 onward. Now, with the end of combat engagement in the Middle East, America is being drawn farther east, to the Indo-Pacific region.
Obviously, during each of these periods, Washington remained engaged around the world, dealing with multiple crises in the Middle East during the Cold War and confronting Chinese assertiveness during the 1990s and in the months just before 9/11. But during each of the post-WWII periods, there was a broad national consensus on the key threats to America’s safety and the key opportunities for its prosperity, and Europe and the Middle East dominated national-security thinking throughout. In the coming Indo-Pacific era, the U.S. will not abandon its commitments to the Middle East, and will have to deal with a potentially nuclear-capable Iran, possible European economic collapse, and continued terrorist threats. But our new national consensus will undoubtedly center on the opportunities and threats that Asia poses to America’s future.
The Indo-Pacific region stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. It contains over half the world’s population, including India and China, the two most populous countries; the world’s largest democracy, in India; two of the largest economies, in China and Japan; and at least three nuclear-capable powers. The struggle for democracy and liberalism has made extraordinary strides in the Indo-Pacific over the past several decades. The region has been anchored by Japan, Australia, and India, and countries ranging from South Korea to Taiwan, Mongolia, and Indonesia either have become full-fledged democracies or are continuing their liberal political evolution; others, such as Thailand and the Philippines, struggle with democratic stability.
The Indo-Pacific is the world’s economic engine and is responsible for the bulk of global consumer production. With a growing middle class in the hundreds of millions stretching from India through China to Japan and Korea, it is also one of the primary growth markets for global exporters. Already, the region accounts for about $1 trillion in trade in goods with the United States. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce calculates that around 11 million U.S. jobs depend in some fashion on trade with the broad Asian region.
The growth of the Indo-Pacific region, while beneficial to consumers, nonetheless poses significant challenges for future economic stability. China’s energy consumption has doubled since 2000, and it accounted for 78 percent of the global increase in the use of coal in the past decade. Japan is the world’s fourth-largest consumer of energy, while Korea clocks in at number ten. All of these countries are dependent on imports. The long-term economic expansion in Asia not only will put increasing pressure on global energy prices in coming decades, but has implications for the security of maritime transport routes, port safety, terrorism, and regional conflict over potential energy resources. Such conflict has spiked in recent years, with conflicting claims over territory in the East and South China Seas that holds oil and natural-gas reserves.
The Indo-Pacific region also hosts some of the world’s largest militaries. China, Japan, South Korea, and Australia have sophisticated, modern air and naval forces, while developing countries such as India, Indonesia, and Vietnam are buying new submarines (and, in the case of India, new ships and fighter jets as well). North Korea maintains a million-man army and an active nuclear- and ballistic-missile program. Over 40,000 U.S. troops remain permanently based in the Indo-Pacific, and the majority of our aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines are either in the Indo-Pacific region or based on the West Coast of the U.S. In coming years, the U.S. will likely base a larger percentage of its bomber and fighter fleet in the Pacific region.
Of particular concern is China’s military buildup. Beijing is developing military capabilities to reduce America’s qualitative superiority and effectively target our bases and forces. Its hope is to create an environment in which the U.S. military will be hindered from accessing the region and operating freely within it. Among the programs especially worrisome to U.S. military planners are the DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, which is designed to track U.S. large ships at sea; the J-20 stealth fighter, which could reduce the edge of our stealthy F-22s and future F-35s; the growing submarine fleet, which now numbers over 70; and ongoing cyber-warfare programs, designed to attack the networked structure of America’s defense machine.
Policymakers need to begin planning and implementing a strategy for the next American era today, before we lose more ground economically or before insecurity leads to instability and the possibility of military conflict. Like traditional counterinsurgency, this takes time, commitment, and resources. The way forward is to build, hold, and clear.
The core of American strategy in Asia for the past six decades has been a system of bilateral mutual-defense alliances. These pacts, with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines, not only committed the U.S. to the protection of these nations during the Cold War, but also made possible a permanent U.S. presence in the region, particularly because of the alliance with Japan, which provides the major bases for U.S. forces in Asia.
While these bilateral alliances have served us well, and will remain the core of U.S. security relationships in Asia, it is time to build a larger community in the Indo-Pacific region with partners both old and new. By building such a new structure, the U.S. can more explicitly promote a more democratic, prosperous, and stable region. This new community should comprise liberal or liberalizing nations large and small that collaborate with one another and with Washington to promote regional stability and enhance security. This new architecture can be conceived of as a set of “concentric triangles,” linking regional powers with smaller, developing nations. It is not an alliance system, but rather a community of interests that will provide varying levels of public goods — stability and security — necessary for future economic growth in the Indo-Pacific.
The outer triangle should comprise Japan, South Korea, and Australia, all American allies, along with India, the next great rising power in the region. The basic political and social values shared by these four countries, along with their growing commitment to global free trade, provide a common foundation for promoting democratic governance, civil society, and rule of law throughout the region. Each is involved with numerous countries, providing aid, concluding free-trade pacts, and sometimes doing joint military exercises. Most important, each is influential among its neighbors, so all four might take leadership roles in their immediate neighborhoods, in partnership with U.S. military forces. Washington should aim at a permanent high-level forum with these four liberal nations to discuss region-wide security issues, identify common threats and challenges, and speak with a common voice when possible in regional and international institutions.
While it might be easier initially to work with America’s three current allies, no realistic diplomatic and security initiative is possible without India’s participation. U.S. policy should encourage all four nations to commit to shaping regional political institutions in a liberal vein and to committing resources to uphold regional security both broadly and, more specifically, in their immediate areas. Working with the U.S., each should slowly expand the range of its maritime patrols, conduct larger and more regular military exercises, enhance and share intelligence, and work with smaller nations to encourage liberal development.
While this outer triangle is focused on the grand strategy of the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. should also build an inner triangle, comprising Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam. This triangle is centered on the lower South China Sea and, particularly, crucial sea lanes including the Malacca Strait, through which over 60,000 vessels and one-quarter of global trade passes every year, not to mention half of global oil shipments. This area is the hinge between the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans, linking together the two halves of the Indo-Pacific. These countries are strategically located, deeply involved in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), pressed by Chinese maritime territorial claims, economically crucial, and (with the exception of Vietnam) liberalizing in varying degrees.
Economic growth in all these countries is creating a new, affluent middle class, and each government should be encouraged to further liberalize its political and economic systems. Already Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia have joined in anti-piracy patrols and cooperated with the U.S. and Australia on anti-terrorism policy. Each has pushed ASEAN to take a firmer stand against Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and has also been involved in developing the East Asia Summit (which is the only all-Asia multilateral forum, and in which liberal nations are trying to play a leading role). Their interests and location make them ideal partners to contribute to enhanced security in the crucial sea lanes, providing valuable intelligence locations and possibly new access for U.S. and allied naval and air forces. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam in particular seek to build up their naval and air capabilities to patrol their widespread coastlines and maritime territories.
The U.S. and the countries of the outer triangle should work with the inner-triangle states to identify common security concerns, develop the inner-triangle countries’ military capacity, increase professional military exchanges, engage grass-roots political movements and civil-society leaders, and encourage further political liberalization. The aim should be building a steady movement toward openness and democracy while strengthening the inner-triangle countries’ security capabilities and cooperation.
Building a new community of interests in the Indo-Pacific is of little value if the U.S. does not hold its position in the region. A holding strategy requires committing the diplomatic, economic, and military resources required to carry out the building policy described above.
We must have a clear diplomatic line that does not confuse our friends and realistically calls out those nations that act in destabilizing ways. The Obama administration has begun to openly put such pressure on China over maritime territorial claims, but our reluctance to make clear China’s negative policies with respect to North Korea, Burma, Iran, and other nations, as well as its continuing abysmal human-rights record, means we are sending mixed messages to those nations that seek to adhere to higher standards of international and domestic behavior. Washington needs not only to play a more prominent role in regional institutions such as the East Asia Summit, but host Indo-Pacific democracy forums to give a voice to liberal elements throughout the region.
The Indo-Pacific’s great economic dynamism makes it especially unfortunate that, under the Obama administration, the U.S. has surrendered the high ground on free trade. We are losing to China, which has steadily expanded its free-trade zones, including with ASEAN, though in ways that do not protect workers’ rights or include rigorous consumer-safety mechanisms. Washington needs to recapture leadership on free trade, ensuring markets for American exports, continued affordable consumer goods at home, and the free flow of ideas that fosters economic activity. Our position in the Indo-Pacific will become less tenable if we are a bystander to the growth of India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries.
Holding our military position in the region is of seminal importance, particularly in the face of China’s development of advanced weapons systems that may one day equal our naval and air forces. In the foreseeable budgetary future, this will be one of the most difficult elements of the strategy to carry out, but the expense is far outweighed by the potential cost of losing our military edge in a rapidly changing security environment. Holding our position requires a careful mix of maintaining top-level forces in the theater as well as expanding our access throughout the region. Rebalancing our global forces so as to put more submarines, ballistic-missile defense measures, and stealth aircraft in Asia will reassure allies and complicate any aggressive plans of potential adversaries. Gaining basing rights in Australia, and seeking access for air and naval units in Southeast Asia, will provide flexibility in times of crisis. Given China’s increasing ability to target our forward bases in Japan and Guam, however, part of holding our position in the Indo-Pacific must include developing next-generation long-range strike capabilities that can be based securely on U.S. soil but will be able to reach areas where adversaries will attempt to deny access to U.S. air and naval units.
Even as the U.S. builds and holds in the Indo-Pacific, the region will continue to change. Enmities among Asian nations are unlikely to disappear anytime soon, China’s military growth already is resulting in other nations’ building up their naval and air forces, and North Korea continues to threaten its neighbors and regional stability. Thus, America must be willing to clear out obstacles to stability and political development. This means not a simple reliance on military force, but rather a plan to apply the forms of national power discussed above.
Washington should look for ways to reduce the maneuvering space of regionally disruptive actors. This means ramping up pressure on North Korea by reinstituting broad financial sanctions, and refusing to do business with Chinese companies that are supporting Pyongyang’s economic activity. With regard to China, this means not ceding “water space,” as the U.S. Navy puts it, and continuing full surveillance in regional waters and airspace. It also means that the U.S. must more aggressively shadow Chinese naval ships that are in the process of harassing neighbors, and maintain a constant presence in sometimes contested waters. If China continues to abet Pyongyang’s missile proliferation or acts in other disruptive ways, the U.S. should not hesitate to limit or cancel the military exchanges with Beijing that we have been eager to keep going as proof of our earnestness.
Ultimately, the U.S. must be serious about its willingness to deal with problems that threaten to precipitate conflict. The steady erosion of stability caused by North Korea’s ongoing provocations and China’s growing assertiveness may lead to miscalculation or such heightened tensions that military conflict erupts. For example, South Korea has made clear that it will respond to any further attacks on its territory, and U.S. war planners must be willing to take action to degrade North Korean capability to carry out such attacks. We also must be ready to exploit weaknesses in China’s military systems and command structures so as to ensure decisive victory in any confrontation, in part as a way to reduce the likelihood that a conflict will break out. As serious as such steps would be, even worse would be to reach a tipping point at which U.S. credibility is lost, and a more Machtpolitik competition among regional powers leads to long-term instability.
A build, hold, and clear strategy is the most flexible and realistic approach to maintaining American influence and protecting our interests in the Indo-Pacific region. No doubt some, especially those in Beijing, will see this as a plan to contain China. In reality, this approach is not anti-China, but pro-Asia. Our goal should be an unreserved commitment to defending against the slow deterioration of security in the Indo-Pacific region, leading the continuing growth in economic production and trade, and furthering the trend of political liberalization.
America’s economic health and global leadership in the next generation depend on maintaining our role in the world’s most dynamic region. This means deepening the liberal order that has driven Asia’s growth over the past half century. It also means providing a viable alternative to China’s growing political, economic, and military influence. By promoting a more prosperous and more stable Indo-Pacific region, not just we, but our allies and partners, will benefit, and China, too, eventually may decide to play a more constructive role in upholding a system from which it has benefited as much as any other nation.
– Mr. Auslin is a resident scholar, and a director in Asian and security studies, at the American Enterprise Institute.