As President Obama nears the end of his first term and gets ready to seek a second term, he has sought to give a new focus to the US foreign policy towards Asia.
This new focus is marked by two characteristics. Firstly, an open and uninhibited expression of US concerns over China’s ever-increasing economic and military capabilities and its far from transparent intentions. Secondly, an open expression of the US determination to maintain and strengthen its capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region in order to safeguard the strategic interests of not only the US, but also other like-minded countries which share the US concerns over China’s capabilities and intentions. Prominent among such like-minded countries are Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam and India.
While the first three years of Obama’s first term were marked by preoccupation with the threats emanating to the security of the US Homeland from the Af-Pak region and from the global terrorists operating from that region, the coming years of the Obama Presidency will be marked by a new preoccupation with likely threats to the US economic, commercial and other strategic interests from the increasing capabilities and intentions of China and to the critical infrastructure — civilian as well as military — in the US Homeland from the well-concealed Chinese cyber war capabilities.
The US does not anticipate a conventional war with China, but it does fear a major threat from China to its naval primacy in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions and to its commercial interests in the region marked by the passage of nearly US $ 1.2 trillion of its foreign trade every year through the South China Sea. The US also fears a major threat to its critical infrastructure in the US Homeland as well as overseas from the Chinese cyber war capabilities.
The US nervousness is increased by the fact that while considerable information is available on China’s modernisation and expansion of its conventional, nuclear and space-related capabilities, very little information is available on China’s cyber war capabilities. Till recently, fears over likely threats to US nationals and interests from the attempts of Al Qaeda-led global terrorists to acquire weapons of mass destruction capabilities remained an important driving force of the US strategic doctrine. Since the beginning of last year, there are indications that fears over likely threats to the US critical infrastructure, in times of peace and war, from China’s cyber war capabilities have become an important driving force of the US strategic doctrine relating to the Asia-Pacific region.
Since May last year, there have been reliable reports in sections of the US media about the examination of the outlines of a cyber war doctrine to meet the new needs of the expanding threat scenario. A significant element of the cyber war doctrine reportedly under contemplation is making explicit the US determination to use its military forces in response to a cyber attack if the gravity of the attack crosses a certain threshold. These reports of a cyber war doctrine under evolution and the recent decisions of the Obama Administration to maintain and strengthen its military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region are meant to convey a carefully-disguised cautionary to China to behave itself not only in the high seas, but also in the cyber space. The US is determined to prevent China from acquiring an asymmetric advantage in cyber space by threatening China with a military response against targets in its territory to neutralise its cyber war capabilities should it become necessary.
The Pentagon’s strategic defence guidance document titled “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” released at a press conference attended by Obama on January 5,2012, says as follows: “Over the long term, China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the U.S. economy and our security in a variety of ways. Our two countries have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a cooperative bilateral relationship. However, the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region. The United States will continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely in keeping with our treaty obligations and with international law. Working closely with our network of allies and partners, we will continue to promote a rules-based international order that ensures underlying stability and encourages the peaceful rise of new powers, economic dynamism, and constructive defense cooperation.”
The focus in the Pentagon document released to the media is on China’s non-cyber capabilities, but there are reports that the US is equally concerned — if not more — over China’s cyber warfare capabilities and intentions.
The US is still keen on strengthening a co-operative convergence with China to restore the health of the global economy, to deal with problems relating to climate and environment and to de-nuclearise Iran and North Korea. Nuclear non-proliferation will continue to be an important US foreign policy objective. For this, it needs the co-operation of China. At the same time, there are growing concerns in Washington DC that the USA’s benign strategic intentions and objectives might not be matched by equally benign Chinese intentions and objectives. It would, therefore, be necessary to reinforce the US presence and capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region.
This objective is sought to be achieved by a unilateral revamp of the US presence and capabilities and through co-operation with other like-minded and equally concerned countries without giving an impression of an attempt to promote a new alliance to contain China. What the new Pentagon document talks of is not a new alliance, but a network of US allies and partners. Though not explicitly stated, the US obviously views Japan, South Korea and Australia as allies in this network and India, Vietnam, the Philippines and possibly other ASEAN countries as partners. These unilateral and multilateral efforts will be projected in the months to come not as an attempt to contain China, but as an exercise to bring China into the mainstream of Asian peace and security.
The US is interested in India playing an activist role in this new exercise for a network of allies and partners, but does India reciprocate this interest? The answer to this is not clear. India has already been playing an activist role in relation to its strategic co-operation with Myanmar, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea. It has also been increasing its strategic co-operation with Singapore and Australia. Its relations with the US have improved in the fields of counter-terrorism and maritime security. But India is still inclined to view these relationships as without any linkages or networking which could trigger off alarm in Beijing.
India and the other Asian countries with which India has established a one-to-one strategic partnership share the openly expressed US concerns over China’s capabilities, intentions and objectives, but they are not prepared to say so openly. They would want to promote a policy of mutual consultations and assistance in security matters, but not in a manner that could alarm China.
India has its own unique concerns relating to China arising from the failure of the India-China border talks to make any progress and the growing strategic co-operation between China and Pakistan. It has to evolve its own strategy for dealing with China in a manner that would not make these two issues more complex and complicated than they are now. What would be in India’s interest is not a networked relationship, but a mutually assisted and reinforced relationship on a one-to-one basis with a gradually expanding basket of issues that could promote a strategic convergence.
Two such issues in the Indo-US strategic basket relate to counter-terrorism and maritime security. The time has come to add cyber security not only against non-State actors, but also against common States of concern to this basket. China’s undetermined cyber warfare capabilities could pose as much of a threat to India as they do to the US. The time has also come for the US and Indian Navies to think of a graduated surge in their navy-to-navy co-operation by way of training, joint exercises, exchanges of visits, intelligence liaison etc.
(This article draws upon salient points of a presentation that I will be making at a seminar on Re-evaluating US Foreign Policy Towards Asia being jointly organised at the University of Madras on January 9, 2012, by the Chennai Centre For China Studies, the Centre For Asia Studies, Chennai, and the Department of Politics and Public Administration of the University of Madras)