Could the USA's ability to shape Asia-Pacific security be on the wane?

Peter La Franchi/SYDNEY


The future dominance of the USA in shaping security in the Asia-Pacific region cannot be taken for granted, the Australian Defence Organisation's most senior strategic planner has warned.

How the USA maintains - or loses - its global dominance will be the big strategic story of the 21st century, according to Hugh White, Australia's Deputy Secretary for Strategy and the second most powerful civilian in the Australian defence hierarchy.

Speaking at the Royal Australian Navy's Maritime Warfare in the 21st Century conference in Sydney on 1 February, White said that the regional strategic environment is "unique and deeply perplexing. We are in a unique unipolar situation and we have to measure our experience not in decades or centuries, but in millennia- you have to go back to the Roman Empire or the Chinese Empire to find a situation where one sovereign entity had such a preponderance of strategic power as the USA has today.

"It is possible that what was called a few years ago the unipolar moment might last quite a long time. When you watch the way the US economy has been growing recently, it would be heroic to say that this can't last. If it does - if it becomes a stable feature of our environment - then I think that will have very profound consequences. It will indeed change the shape of the international system."

White's comments come as the Australian Department of Defence moves into the process of developing a new statement on the nation's security outlook, to be released during the third quarter of this year. The statement is intended to provide a framework for government security policy out to at least 2010, including future Australian Defence Force acquisition priorities.

Australia's security outlook has undergone extensive re-thinking over the past 12 months as a result of a change of government in Indonesia and the East Timor crisis. The new security statement is expected to track a complex course between pressure from the Australian Defence Force for a more interventionist approach within the Asia-Pacific region and stringent budget realities.

The 50-year outlook for security in Asia, White said, offers two basic scenarios. "The first is an Asia which looks much like today's-a community of states which basically get on pretty well, who manage a series of bilateral relationships, including the odd disagreement, without recourse to armed force.

"It has a USA that is strongly engaged and playing a significant role in managing and mediating the international system and, in particular, in suppressing the potential for strategic competition between major powers. I think it would be unwise to hope for better than that."

The alternative scenario, White said, is an environment in which "strategic competition between great powers is much more active: in which recourse to armed force in the Asia-Pacific region is much more likely and the USA's role or its capacity to suppress armed conflict or strategic competition is significantly reduced."

The emergence of a strategically competitive Asia-Pacific, according to White, would depend on whether the economies of Asia grow fast enough to provide them with the basis to develop maritime capabilities to challenge the USA. "By that, I mean will it be able to raise the costs of US intervention or US deployment to the point where constraints on US strategic freedom of action open significant opportunities for other actors? You can boil that down even further to quite a simple proposition: are countries in Asia going to have a fair chance of sinking a US carrier?"

White cautioned that existing strategic interpretations of regional economic patterns, including analysis of the Asian economic crisis of 1997, tend to overestimate the long-term significance of short-term events. "I don't think 50 years from now people will look back and say that what happened in October and November 1997 was absolutely decisive to the shape of the strategic environment in Asia-Pacific for the next 50 years."

Asia, White said, is no longer developing in the same patterns as before the economic crisis. "It is moving forward to be a quite different kind of economic entity, much more complex economically, with much greater differences in economic growth rates and patterns of economic growth between different countries.

"We are not going back to the past. We are going forward to something different. But we do appear to be moving back into an environment where it would be sensible to bear in mind the possibility - but foolish to rule it out - that Asian powers will grow fast enough to significantly expand their strategic capabilities over coming decades."

Source: Flight International