Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the geopolitical center of gravity has been moving eastwards with respect to Europe and NATO. This process has begun in the 1990s, with the reintegration of “eastern” European countries into the EU and the transatlantic community, and has continued with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The pivot of international politics is now shifting once again eastward, toward a region of rising economic opportunities and everlasting security issues: the Asia Pacific. Indeed, cheap labor costs and rising internal markets might represent a “cure” to many western economies. This cure, however, has a price: a direct involvement in the region’s security dynamics.
The rise of the Asia Pacific
In the last few decades the Asia Pacific has experienced a considerable increase of its strategic importance in both economic and military terms. From the economic side, the South China Sea encompasses navigation routes that are worth more than $ 5 trillion in annual trade[i]. Maintaining free navigation of these waterways is a national interest of many countries along (and beyond) its shores.
From the military perspective, the Asia Pacific is witnessing an arms race involving remarkable increase in defense spending. China, of course, is leading this process. According to Goldman Sachs, Beijing will increase its defense budget by 14 % each year till 2015[ii], while IHS Jane provides an even more optimistic forecast, which sees an increase of 18.75 % per year till reaching a total amount of $ 238.20 billion in 2015[iii]. This budget will exceed those of all other regional players combined[iv]. To give a term of reference, IHS Jane affirms that Japan’s defense budget should raise up to $ 66.60 billion by that time[v], which means 3.6 time less than China’s. The majority of defense investments are spent for sea and under-sea upgrades. China will increase its fleets of surface ships and submarines[vi], will complete its first aircraft carrier[vii] and will upgrade its anti-ship ballistic missiles[viii]. Other regional powers like Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia are obviously worried about a possible regional dominance by Beijing. Consequently, they are involved in similar build ups.
Regional states, however, are not the only ones concerned about China. In a recent visit to Australia last November, U.S. President Barak Obama declared: “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay”. The statement testifies that Washington will give the Asia-Pacific the highest priority in its diplomatic agenda in the years to come.
The concept was later reaffirmed during the unveiling of the new defense strategy early in January. In the document, Washington affirms that it considers the Asia Pacific as the most strategic region for its medium/long-term economic prosperity [ix]. This will call the U.S. to invest a larger amount of its smart power in the region in order to increase its share of influence and contain that of China.
The redeployment of military forces from Central Asia (Afghanistan/Pakistan) to the Asia-Pacific has already begun. During the above mentioned visit to Australia, President Obama announced the deployment of 2.500 marines in the military base of Darwin; the closest Australian city to the South China Sea. The move was made on purpose to reaffirm Washington commitment toward its allies in the region. This will be fundamental to shape future economic agreements, as well as military alliances. In so doing, the U.S. wants to be sure that if small powers will be called to bandwagon, they will choose the right side. For this reason, the U.S. is also planning to create a Pacific Free Trade Zone (Trans-Pacific Partnership – TPP) to further balance China’s growing economic (soft) power[x].
Consequently, the Sino-American relations, as well as other security issues affecting countries in the Asia Pacific, will shape the next security challenges in the years ahead. The risk, then, is that Washington might decide to revise its alignment preferences from the trans-Atlantic Alliance to a trans-Pacific one.
Turning risks into opportunities: overlaying the Asia Pacific
If the pivot of international politics will effectively shift toward the Asia Pacific, Europe and NATO risk facing the destiny of falling into the oblivion of history. To avoid such a gloomy scenario, they are called to transform a risk into an opportunity. This uneasy goal could be achieved through a trans-Atlantic endeavor to overlay[xi] the Asia Pacific, in order to maintain peace and stability, to ensure free access to navigation routes and to foster liberalism and globalization. Overlay means that one or more external powers move directly into the local security dynamics, thereby suppressing the autonomous interaction of regional units. External powers, practically speaking, overwhelm and replace local powers that are no longer independent in their security interactions. This would call the EU and NATO to be present in the Asia Pacific in order to replace an unstable multilateral regional subsystem with a unipolar one that is able to ensure economic liberalism and globalization.
The overlay should be pursued through air and naval dominance, particularly with submarines that are relatively cheaper than aircraft carrier and provide an “invisible” deterrence[xii]. An overlay reached through naval dominance would be both less expensive to maintain and less invasive, according to the principle that sea power is “more silent than the clashes of arms”[xiii]. Only through a directed involvement in the Asia Pacific’s security, NATO and the EU can aspire to play a major role in what is now considered as the next decades’ theater of international politics.
[i] Daily Mail, Obama will pledge to increase America’s military presence in the Asia-Pacific region when he begins Australia tour, 16/11/2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2061914/South–China–Sea–dispute–Obama–increase–
[ix] Department of Defense of the United States of America, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January 2012, http://www.defense.gov/news/Defense_Strategic_Guidance.pdf
[x]For the moment the TPP comprises four countries: Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, while six other countries are negotiating to join in: the United States, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Japan.
[xi] Barry Buzan, People States and Fear, Lynne Rienner Pub, 1991; Barry Buzan & Ole Wæver, Regions and power: The structure of international security,Cambridge University Press, 2004..
[xiii] A.T. Mahan, The influence of sea power upon history: 1660-1783, ch. 1, p. 54.