The Asian Pivot of Obama administration has gained a new impetus during an Asian Security Summit held annually by a reputed UK based independent think- tank – the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Summit named as Shangri-La Dialogue, the eleventh in its series since 2002, was held in Singapore where 27 countries including USA, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Japan, Australia, Indonesia and India with other countries in the region had participated with their Defense ministers and top officials.
The United States had its strongest delegates led by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta that was accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command and senior Defense Department officials. Most of the region’s defense ministers had attended the high profile conference but prominent among the few absentees was the Chinese defense minister Liang Guanglie who last year had joined the Summit and had made speeches during the proceedings.
This year Ren Haiquan, the vice president of the Academy of Military Science affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army was leading the leaner Chinese delegation and he did not even choose to speak. Quoting a defense ministry official the reputed Japanese daily – Asahi Shimbun, commented that both on the ground of ranking and number of participants the Chinese participation in the 11th Shangri-La Summit was “the lowest to date”.
In his keynote address US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for the first time explicitly spelt out what ‘Asian Pivot’ means in military strategy. According to Panetta United States will move 60 percent of its naval fleet to the Asia-Pacific by 2020, Currently 50-50 split between the Pacific and Atlantic ocean including six aircraft carriers , a majority of US cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships, and number submarines in Asia – Pacific region where “America’s fate is inexorably linked with . . .”
Panetta also made it clear on why U.S. needed to rebalance their military engagement in Asia- Pacific – the region that homes “to some of the world’s fastest growing economies: China, India, and Indonesia to mention a few”. Therefore, in this century, as Panetta agrees United States considers the region vital for their prosperity. The region with its massive developmental and economic activities to address the world’s largest populations, accompanied by the world’s largest militaries and defense spending that has surpassed that of Europe, naturally offers tremendous trade opportunities to United States from advanced computer systems to most sophisticated weapons including advanced fighter aircrafts. Obviously this demands effective redeployment of U.S. military in the region.
Panetta also spelt out some “set of rules” and expressed “solid commitment” of his country to make those rule prevail that according to him will support the peace and prosperity of the region. The set of rules he elaborated were “the principle of open and free commerce” –meaning a just international order marked by rule of law –ensuring – “open access by all to their shared domains of sea, air, space, and cyberspace; and resolving disputes without coercion or the use of force”.
The second principle he explained was that of modernizing and strengthening the alliances like Japan, South Korea, Australia, Philippines, Thailand and a newly aligned country New Zealand followed by partnerships with countries like India, Indonesia and Singapore and others.
And the third one according to Panetta is the stronger US presence meaning maintain an adequate level of force projection from North East Asia to South Asia and the Indian Ocean region as a whole.
The Trajectory of Asian Security
Asia is in the midst global challenges that is defining a new global order for this century. China is located at the heart of Asia sharing borders with all the geopolitical regions, has become an immense economic and military power of the Asia- Pacific Rim as well as of Central, South and South East Asia. The collapse of Soviet Union and the rise of China as a great economic and military muscle have given it unrivalled opportunities to expand its power base in the region and project it more assertively. And now the deep economic crisis suing Europe and America pursued by huge defense budget sequestration especially in United States, has and given China massive opportunities to expand its power base in the region where it itself pivots.
Indubitably, India is another great Asian power that can compete with Chinese power but not until another 10 -20 years. However, a deepened Indo- US strategic partnership in the words from Barrack Obama to Leon Panetta will be one of the “defining partnerships of the 21st Century”.
After Shangri-La Summit Panetta visited Vietnam – a country that has soured relations with China and from there to India where on June 6 he addressed a high profile gathering of Indian policy makers and opinion builders on defense and foreign policy at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses – a major independent Indian think tank running under the financial support of Indian Government.
Reminding his audiences Panetta referred the only submission of a country – India in a new defense strategic guidance released in January this year which stated US “investing in a long term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.” Panetta mentioned India as a natural ally sharing same set of values and claimed that Defense cooperation with India – one of the largest and most dynamic countries in the region and the world, trailed by one of the most capable militaries, works as a linchpin of American strategy. He appealed Indian government to proactively define Indo- US relations on its broad based nature that has “become more strategic, more practical, and more collaborative,” and get their teeth to the joint military exercises to get more regular and complex.
In his speech and the press briefing that followed during Shangri-La summit and later in India Panetta highlighted role of China critical in advancing security and prosperity in the region and said that his country welcomes the rise of China as a strong, prosperous and successful country that plays “a greater role in global affairs – and respects and enforces the international norms that have governed this region for six decades.”
Recapping for a “healthy, stable, reliable, and continuous mil-to-mil relationship with China” US Secretary of Defense, during Shangri-La Summit entirely refuted that increased US engagement in region as a threat to Chinese security. However he claimed that renewed U.S. efforts to intensify its involvement is “fully compatible with the development and growth of China”, that will further benefit the dragon country in advancing its security and prosperity as well.
But Conflicting Strategic Combination in the Offing
However Panetta admitted in Singapore that both USA and China are not so naïve on the nature of their relationship that is living with so many challenges.
The head of the Chinese delegation Ren Haiquan, thundered with the reporters during Shangrila Summit that his country will also improve its military strategy, national defense and fighting ability of People’s Liberation Army – that has the capacity to strike back when the national interests of China is attacked.
After Panetta’s remarks Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin called upon all sides strive to preserve and promote regional peace, stability and development and asserted that the approach of artificially stressing military security, enhancing military deployments and strengthening military alliances are inappropriate and regrettable.
‘People’s Daily’ – a Chinese communist Party run news paper rejected Washington’s plea that the redeployment of U.S. forces is not aimed at containing China, but to create ruptures in the region that is looming large over strategic environment of the region.
Apparently, U.S. relation with Russia too, is enduring with qualitative low. President Barrack Obama had exhibited a rare gesture in welcome of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Camp David for G8 summit last month; but President Putin chose to articulate his displeasure over American reactions over the demonstrations in Russia against his election campaign. He made an excuse for his hectic schedules at home for not attending the Summit, but immediately thereafter; Putin got his time to visit Belarus, Germany France and Uzbekistan. Then on June 5, Putin arrived in Beijing, where he also attended a Summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security body that includes Russia, China and former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Both China and Russia have not concealed their aim in strengthening their strategic partnership to catch up on the growing American influence in South East Asia and Eastern Europe. They have also developed a common approach on Syria, Iran and NATO’s Missile – Defense System in Eastern Europe.
Interestingly, at the same time when Panetta was lobbying India to support and work with U.S. “pivot to Asia,” with common defense strategies in the region from advanced arms trade to joint-military exercises, Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna was in Beijing to attend the SCO Summit and was hobnobbing with Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang on building true partnership for the 21st Century.
Global strategic environment has become more complicated than it was during Cold War period from nuclear proliferation to terrorism. Ironically with unprecedented growth and wealth accumulation among few countries and more demand for most expensive sophisticated arms supply in the name of protecting with their economic interest either directly or indirectly are creating more rifts among nations and more challenges to them.
This article appeared in The Reporter weekly and is reprinted with permission