Defining Ideas

Don't Ignore the Indo-Pacific

Tuesday, August 12, 2014
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Dennis Jarvis

A great deal of discussion surrounds the rebalance or pivot to Asia. Too often, that discussion is all about China. While China does loom large, our strategic view and the actions and means to support our objectives must have a broader perspective. The issues that typically drive our actions include Pacific trade, maritime claims, and the interaction (often disputes) of the countries of that region. As important as those matters are, we must base our strategy on a fuller, broader, and more long-term picture of Asia.

We must think about Asia, not from a China or Pacific perspective, but from an Indo-Pacific perspective. The energy supplies that fuel Asia and which will remain essential to its economic rise will continue to flow primarily from the Middle East, along the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and then thread the Western Pacific littoral. In that regard India will matter. It will matter as a country protective of the ocean that it considers appropriately named. It will matter as a competing user of Middle East energy. It will matter as a strategic competitor to China in Asia. It will matter as its relationship with Pakistan shapes the dynamic in South and Central Asia. It will matter as a massive global market. It will matter as a vibrant democracy in Asia.

Policy makers, for the first time, must also deal with the changing geography of Asia. The sea routes of the Arctic will open creating new sea-lanes for products to market and critical resources that will be abundant in the high north. Disagreement over water rights will be replaced with confrontation over access to water throughout the Asian continent as the Tibetan ice cap shrinks and the massive hydro-engineering projects in China divert the great rivers of Asia at a time when water consumption will explode to meet the needs of the rising Asian economies and a burgeoning middle class. This will have the greatest impact on South and Southeast Asia.

Like the United States, Russia whose interests remain inextricably linked to Europe, is also a Pacific power. A country with a problematic demographic and an economy limited to energy, Russia has closely tied itself to China for the coming decades; the two countries recently closed the largest energy deal in history. Russia, as the United States, is an Arctic nation that will deal with the opening sea-lanes serving Asian trade and broader Arctic issues. We must not allow recent events to constrain an interest-driven relationship with Russia. 

For the foreseeable future, Central and South Asia will likely be the spawning ground of militant and terrorist activity. While several Asian and Middle Eastern countries have been confronting these movements for some time, and the realities and growth of terrorism have defined our security thinking for the past decade, those tactics are finding their way into China’s security equation in a new way.

China’s assertiveness and its chipping away of maritime and air space of late has unsettled many Southeast Asian countries and Japan. While China espouses freedom of navigation, how that is defined is unclear and will likely be inconsistent with the interpretation of the United States and what has been the accepted international norm.

Even with the above potential disruptors, stressors, and points of possible conflict, the future of Asia will be driven by rapid economic growth and trade. Accordingly, our strategic view and balance must be underpinned by that reality and priority. Our interests, influence, and prosperity will continue to require a credible and persistent security presence and viable response posture in the region. The attributes of that presence and response must be one that can address our security needs, assure allies and friends, and be compatible with the range of circumstances and environments of the diverse Indo-Pacific region.

As the economies and security capabilities of Asian nations grow, sensitivities of sovereignty will increase. American offshore options enabled by credible offshore presence will consequently be more compatible with the region. This argues for naval and air forces, special operations forces, ground forces of light footprint and logistic support characterized by minimal infrastructure and more rapid delivery. The large base infrastructure and extensive in-country basing with which we have become accustomed over the past decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be an option in Asia.

While China attempts to chip away and dissolve our regional alliances and commitments, such as those to Taiwan, we must be more attentive to nurturing and maturing them even more. Interoperability must be a priority and it will be more challenging as the pace of technology will remain the same or increase. Transfer of technology, especially with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Singapore (our most stalwart partner in Southeast Asia), must be more open and made less bureaucratically onerous. Similarly, we must, as part of our evolving relationship with India enable easier opportunities for cooperation and sharing and transfer of technology. We must expand significantly opportunities for more personnel assignments in those countries to enable levels of interoperability tuned to the pace of response and operations. Our forward basing and deployment must be sustained and be meaningful and operationally relevant. The frequently used term of “places, not bases” must only apply where there is credible activity, support, or capability. 

As politically challenging as it is to realign military forces within the U.S. we must bias more forces to the Pacific. For air forces, Alaska remains an optimum base from which to respond and regrettably our most northern state may see more activity from a more assertive Russia. Alaska will also serve our Arctic needs well, and clearly increased basing for our Coast Guard will be in order in the coming decades.

More naval presence is necessary in the Pacific. An east coast aircraft carrier should be moved and based in either California or Washington and more submarines should be based in the Pacific. Our naval force posture should be increased by an additional Amphibious Ready Group that can support our Marines and special operations forces.

The vast reaches of the Indo-Pacific and the expanse of the Arctic will be sensed from space and high altitude, long endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft. Basing, ground support and ally/partner information sharing schemes must reflect the advent of that force and technology in the operational environment. Space and undersea dominance must continue to be a U.S. advantage and our cyber organization and policies must include new approaches to cooperation with allies and trusted partners.

Rebalancing cannot just be a narrative. Difficult political and budget decisions must be undertaken. They will take time, but now is the time to move boldly if we are to influence and shape the future and assure our security and prosperity in the coming decades.