Monday, September 19, 2011



Presented at the International Conference, “New Changes in American Foreign Policy Toward East Asia and Southeast Asia and Sino-American Relations” organized by the Center for American Studies, of Jinan University, Guangzhou, China on 17-18 September 2011

 I am tasked to talk about continuities and changes in US security strategy in Asia and the directions and challenges it poses to China-ASEAN relations.

There is no doubt that the United States continues to be the dominant world’s superpower.  Though the US is currently suffering from huge public debt that is creating enormous economic problems for the American people (around 46 million of which now living below the poverty line) its military might, however,  continues to be the number one in the world. 

The US is the only military power with the capability of global deployment.  No country at present has matched that capability.  As such, the US can still wield tremendous influence in global politics and can effectively throw its great weight around despite its relative economic decline at present.

In Asia, the US is still regarded as a foremost superpower despite the uneasiness of some Asian countries on American superpower presence in the region.

American alliances with major powers in Asia (namely Japan and Australia) remain strong and enduring and continue to play an pivotal role for the maintenance of regional stability.  The US is also solidifying its existing military alliances with other Asian countries like the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand while enhancing its defense relations with other countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia. 

These military alliances and defense partnership with key Asian countries are essential for the US to play a stabilizing role in the region.

Since the end of the Second World War, American military alliances and defense relations in Asia have served as cornerstones of security and stability in the Asia Pacific region.[1]  These serve as the major sources of continuity in US security strategy in Asia – to make these military alliances and defense relations work not only for regional stability but specifically for American security that is currently facing many gargantuan challenges.

However, the luster of American power in Asia is slowly fading, if not disappearing,  because of the rise of other powers such as China and India.[2] 

The economic rise of China and India is now changing the balance of power in Asia.  This has  prompted one scholar to describe the 21st century as the “post-American world”.[3]  This new situation warrants an adjustment in US strategy towards Asia to make US presence more relevant in this highly dynamic region.

The 2010 US National Security Strategy is the key document that vividly describes continuities and changes in US security strategy in Asia at present.[4]   

In this document, the US still gives high premium on the role of its military power as the main guarantor of American security.  It says that the American Armed Forces “will always be a cornerstone of our security” – a hallmark of foreign and security policy that is greatly informed by the principle of realism.[5] 

Thus, military or hard power is the US main comparative advantage with other rising powers in Asia.[6]

But the US is cognizant of the fact that military power alone cannot wield the necessary influence it needs in the rapidly changing world of Asian international politics.  It realizes the 21st century international politics is different from the past centuries of international relations.  With the advent of globalization that increases the complex interconnectedness of many sovereign Asian nations, the US has accommodated some changes in its strategy in Asia by utilizing its soft power to wield global influence and maintain its regional relevance.[7] 

Thus, the 2010 US National Security Strategy provides some important changes in its security strategy in Asia by stressing the importance of its soft power.  It  recognizes that American security “also depends upon diplomats who can act in every corner of the world, from grand capitals to dangerous outposts; development experts who can strengthen governance and support human dignity; and intelligence and law enforcement that can unravel plots, strengthen justice system and work seamlessly with other countries.”[8] 

As a winning strategy, the US, under the administration of President Barrack Obama, is also now using American smart power.  The concept of smart power, which is officially declared by the Obama Administration through US State Department Secretary Hilary Clinton,  combines the strength of its hard and soft powers. 

The use of American smart power is deemed necessary for the promotion of global peace and maintenance of regional stability.[9] It simply means becoming more clever in using its many sources of national power in order to maintain its global influence and regional relevance in Southeast Asia.

The major continuity in US national security strategy is the American obsession to maintain the global leadership it enjoyed in the 20th century.  Renewing American leadership in the 21st century, particularly in Asia,  is the main objective of President Obama in its current national security strategy.    The 2010 US National Security Strategy elaborates:

Our national security strategy is, therefore, focused on renewing American leadership so that we can more effectively advance our interests in the 21st century. We will do so by building upon the sources of our strength at home, while shaping an international order that can meet the challenges of our time. This strategy recognizes the fundamental connection between our national security, our national competitiveness, resilience, and moral example. And it reaffirms America’s commitment to pursue our interests through an international system in which all nations have certain rights and responsibilities. This will allow America to leverage our engagement abroad on behalf of a world in which individuals enjoy more freedom and opportunity, and nations have incentives to act responsibly, while facing consequences when they do not.[10]

Yet, American leadership in Asia is currently being challenged by the rise of other major powers in Asia.  Among major Asian powers,  China is posing the most formidable challenge to American leadership in the region.

There is a popular notion that China is a rising power in Asia.  I do not believe in this notion because China is not a rising power.  China is already a risen power. 

China assures the international community that its rise to power is peaceful and benign through its policy of peaceful development.[11]

In its newly published White Paper on China’s Peaceful Development, the State Council declares that “peaceful development is a strategic choice made by China to realize modernization, make itself strong and prosperous, and make more contribution to the progress of human civilization.”[12] 

More importantly,  China explains that seriously pursuing the policy of peaceful development is essential not only for its own peace and progress but for the peace and progress of the whole of humanity.  It elaborates:

The Chinese nation loves peace. From their bitter sufferings from war and poverty in modern times, the Chinese people have learned the value of peace and the pressing need of development. They see that only peace can allow them to live and work in prosperity and contentment and that only development can bring them decent living. Therefore, the central goal of China's diplomacy is to create a peaceful and stable international environment for its development.

However, American security officials and defense analysts continue to doubt the strategic intention of China as an emerging world power.  This is a big continuity in US security strategy in Asia – a strategy of ambivalence when its comes to its relations with China. 

At the same time, however,  there is a change in US security strategy in Asia under Obama – a more China-focused US Asian strategy in the 21st century compared to the Japan-focused US Asian strategy in the 20th century.    

The current American National Security Strategy aptly declares that the US will pay more attention to China in this current century because the rise of China is already creating tremendous impact on the US strategic interests in Asia.  The White House asserts that it “will monitor China’s military modernization program and prepare accordingly to ensure that US interests and allies, regionally and globally, are not negatively affected.”[13]  The US also commits to “encourage China to make choices that contribute to peace, security, and prosperity as its influence rises.”[14]

The annual report  to Congress of the  US Department of Defense (DOD) on the Military and Security Development of China reveals American perception of the growing military power of China. 

In its 2010 Report, the DOD expresses serious concerns that the “pace and scope of China’s military modernization have increased over the past decade.”[15]  This increased military modernizations has enabled China’s armed forces “to develop capabilities to contribute to the delivery of international public goods, as well as increase China’s options for using military force to gain diplomatic advantage or resolve disputes in its favor.”[16] 

Thus, the US finds it imperative to adjust its Asian security strategy in the 21st century in order to meet the challenge of China’s ascending power.

Towards this end, one important aspect of the fundamental changes in US security strategy in Asia is the serious fortification of its existing alliances in Asia, particularly with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.  The US regards its Asian allies as “force multipliers” that can be used to balance if not to necessarily contain China.  It contends:

Alliances are force multipliers: through multinational cooperation and coordination, the sum of our actions is always greater than if we act alone. We will continue to maintain the capacity to defend our allies against old and new threats. We will also continue to closely consult with our allies as well as newly emerging partners and organizations so that we revitalize and expand our cooperation to achieve common objectives. And we will continue to mutually benefit from the collective security provided by strong alliances.[17]  

Another aspect of current American security strategy in Asia is its deliberate and decisive move to build cooperation with “21st century centers of influence”. 

It means that the US will deepen its comprehensive relationships with emerging powers in Asia such as India, Russia and even China.  It also means pursuing  a stronger American role in the region’s multilateral groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

US dynamic relation with China is the key driver of the current American security strategy in Asia.  In fact, US Asian security strategy  is largely defined by its security strategy towards China. 

The US has strongly declared a policy of pursuing “a positive, constructive, and comprehensive relationship with China.”[18]  The US even welcomes China to play  “responsible leadership role in working with the United States and the international community to advance priorities like economic recovery, confronting climate change, and nonproliferation.”[19] 

But the US is aware of the reality it has some differences with China on key strategic issues. 

Nonetheless, the US has expressed hopes that their disagreements on some issues “should not prevent cooperation on issues of mutual interest, because a pragmatic and effective relationship between the United States and China is essential to address the major challenges of the 21st century.”

How should China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) react to the continuities and changes in American security strategy in Asia?

That is something we need to further discuss in the open forum.

Thank you very much for your attention.

[1] Abraham M. Denmark & Brian M. Burton, “The Future of US Alliances in Asia”, Global Asia, Volume 5, Number 4 (Winter 2010).
[2] See Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York:  WW Norton and Company, 2008).
[3] Ibid.
[4] The White House, National Security Strategy (May 2010).
[5] Ibid.
[6] For a good background on this topic, see Kurt M. Campbell and Michael E. O’ Hanlon, Hard Power:  The New Politics of National Security (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
[7] Joseph Nye, Soft Power:  The Means to Success in World Politics (New York:  Public Affairs, 2005).
[8] The White House, National Security Strategy (May 2010).
[9] Joseph Nye, The Future of Power (New York:  Public Affairs, 2011).
[10] The White House, National Security Strategy (May 2010), pp. 9-10.
[11] Information Office of the State Council, China’s Peaceful Development (September 2011).
[12] Ibid.
[13] The White House, National Security Strategy (May 2010), p. 51.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2010 (Washington DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2010).
[16] Ibid.
[17] The White House, National Security Strategy (May 2010), p. 49.
[18] Ibid., p. 43.
[19] Ibid.

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