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Military

Asia-Pacific: A Strategic Assessment


Asia-Pacific: A Strategic Assessment - Cover

Authored by Dr. David Lai.

May 2013

113 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Dr. David Lai provides a timely assessment of the geostrategic significance of Asia-Pacific. His monograph is also a thought-provoking analysis of the U.S. strategic shift toward the region and its implications. Dr. Lai judiciously offers the following key points. First, Asia-Pacific, which covers China, Northeast Asia, and Southeast Asia, is a region with complex currents. On the one hand, there is an unabated region-wide drive for economic development that has been pushing Asia-Pacific forward for decades. On the other, this region is troubled with, aside from many other conflicts, unsettled maritime disputes that have the potential to trigger wars between and among Asia-Pacific nations. Second, on top of these mixed currents, China and the United States compete intensely over a wide range of vital interests in this region. For better or for worse, the U.S.-China relationship is becoming a defining factor in the relations among the Asia-Pacific nations. Third, the U.S. strategic shift toward Asia-Pacific is, as President Obama puts it, not a choice but a necessity. Although conflicts elsewhere, especially the ones in the Middle East, continue to draw U.S. attention and consume U.S. foreign policy resources, the United States is turning its focus toward China and Asia-Pacific. Fourth, in the mid-2000s, the United States and China made an unprecedented strategic goodwill exchange and agreed to blaze a new path out of the tragedy that often attends great power transition. Fifth, at this time of U.S. strategic reorientation and military rebalancing toward Asia-Pacific, the most dangerous consideration is that Asia-Pacific nations having disputes with China can misread U.S. strategic intentions and overplay the “U.S. card” to pursue their territorial interests and challenge China. Finally, territorial dispute is becoming an urgent issue in the Asia-Pacific.

Summary

This analysis has four objectives: first, it puts the key trends of Asia-Pacific’s geo-economic, political, and security affairs in perspective; second, it highlights the defining aspects in this region’s complicated interstate relations; third, it points out the dilemmas confronting the key players in the region; and fourth, it draws attention to the most dangerous potential impacts of the region’s outstanding conflicts.

Key points are as follows:

• Asia-Pacific, which covers China, Northeast Asia, and Southeast Asia, is a region with complex currents. On the one hand, there is an unabated region-wide drive for economic development that has been pushing Asia-Pacific forward for decades. On the other hand, this region is troubled with, aside from many other conflicts, unsettled maritime disputes that have the potential to trigger wars between and among the Asia-Pacific nations.

• On top of these mixed currents, there is an intense competition between China and the United States over a wide range of vital interests in this region. For better or for worse, the U.S.-China relationship is becoming a defining factor in the relations among Asia-Pacific nations. It is complicating the prospects for peace and the risks of conflict in this region, conditioning the calculation of national policies among Asia-Pacific nations and, to a gradual extent, influencing the future of global international relations.

• The U.S. strategic shift toward Asia-Pacific is, as President Barack Obama puts it, not a choice, but a necessity. Although conflicts elsewhere, especially the ones in the Middle East, continue to draw U.S. attention and consume U.S. foreign policy resources, the United States is turning its full attention to China and Asia-Pacific.

• In the mid-2000s, the United States and China made an unprecedented strategic goodwill exchange and agreed to blaze a new path out of the tragedy of great power transition. It was a giant step in the right direction. However, it does not take care of U.S.-China relations forever. These two great powers can still overstep the boundaries of each other’s core interests and overreact to each other’s moves. In addition, the United States is either indirectly or deeply involved in many of the disputes between China and its neighbors. These conflicts all run the risk of involving China and the United States in unwanted wars.

• As the United States makes its strategic shift and rebalances its military toward Asia-Pacific, it is faced with the problem that its Asia-Pacific allies who are pursuing territorial disputes with China will misread U.S. intentions and overplay the “U.S.” card. On the other hand, if China believes that U.S. efforts are simply an attempt to complicate China's relations with its neighbors—without actually shedding any blood—it may take strong and assertive action to “silence” its opponents.

• For the United States, its dilemma is how to uphold the regional order in Asia-Pacific while not emboldening China and China’s disputants to take reckless acts against each other.

• For China, its dilemma is when and how to settle its territorial disputes. It appears that China believes time is not on its side—the longer China defers the issue, the stronger its opponents' hold on the disputed territories, further weakening China’s position. There is ample evidence that while China is still advocating shelving the disputes for the future, it is still making efforts to gain control of the disputed territories. Territorial dispute is becoming an urgent issue in Asia-Pacific. A more relevant question thus has become how China settles the disputes with its neighbors. China has promised to settle the disputes peacefully and through bilateral consultations. China also blames the United States for interfering and complicating the negotiations. Can the United States and the Asia-Pacific nations give China the benefit of the doubt?

There is no easy answer to these inextricable dilemmas. All in Asia-Pacific must walk a fine line in managing these conflicts.


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