US focus shifts to Asia-Pacifica

US focus shifts to Asia-Pacifica

The world is paying close attention to Korea today but Asia-Pacifica became the focus point for the US two years ago, both militarily and economically. The old Atlantic alliance between the US and Europe and the more recent US obsessions in the Middle East and Islamic world are giving way to recognition that the Asia-Pacific region contains both the most political intrigue and the fastest growing economies in the world.

 The shift of military resources to address the threat from Korea has garnered the most attention in the popular media but even before the defensive buildup began the US was shifting military resources. It includes an enormous revamping of the base in Darwin, Australia for the Navy and Marines, allowing a great expansion of the US military presence in Asia-Pacifica and a reduction in the US presence in Okinawa, which is becoming increasingly problematic with the local Japanese population. By 2020 sixty percent of the Navy will be in Pacific instead of the 50-50 current balance between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Pentagon will send P-8 submarine-hunting aircraft, cruise missiles, Virginia-class submarines, coastal combat ships and F-35 fighter jets to Asian ports and bases in coming years.

Some of this is clearly driven by a desire to harden our presence in the face of China’s dominance in the region and, increasingly, worldwide. That point is denied by General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, who last year said “…our new [defense] strategy and our rebalancing to the Pacific is not intended to contain China.”

It will not and it cannot. Both nations can flex their muscles but a hard war would result in a death toll unlike any ever experienced in history. 

Combined military spending in Asia this year will exceed European military spending. Almost every nation in the region wants more ships, jets and guns. That is certainly true of the US, driven by a weapons industry that sucks the lifeblood from the US economy even while it claims to be both a jobs producer and essential for our national security.

Nuclear North Korea is high on the list of weapons building nations in the region. It exploded its third nuclear device in mid-February with a relatively small bomb. It is on a path unlike all other nuclear nations, which started with big nukes and then shrunk them down to missile deliverable devices. North Korea is aiming directly for a missile deliverable system. It seems unlikely that it will use such a device in a first strike action, which would result in the virtual anihilation of the country but it will give it a credible deterent in its paranoid fear of the US and South Korea. The various ups and downs of North Korean belligerence give minor panic to China, which fears an influx of hundreds of thousands of impoverished and ignorant immigrants flooding across its border in the event of war.

Regional conflicts

Asia-Pacifica is rife with regional conflicts, some of which lead to military dust-ups. The conflicts are mostly driven by the demand for resources and wealth. Almost every country in the Asian-Pacific region, with the large and notable exception of Japan, had economic growth rates higher than the US and the big economies of Europe in 2012.

Japan and China have a long running dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, currently controlled by Japan. The demand for oil and fish are driving factors. The most recent outbreak occurred in January when Japan said a Chinese frigate put a radar lock on a Japanese navy ship near the islands, something China disputes. More recently, Japan signed an agreement with Taiwan to allow it access to the rich fisheries around the island, angering mainland China.

China is involved in other regional disputes involving natural resources. The Philippines arrested the crew of a 500 ton Chinese fishing vessel which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site, when it was illegally poaching fish in Philippine waters. The Philippines had earlier this year sought international arbitration over Chinese hostile actions in pursuit of Philippine resources.

China is claiming increasing sovereignty over international waters and even waters well within the boundaries of other nations, including the Panatag Shoal in the Philippines, using its superior numbers of fishing and military vessels.

Vietnam is currently seeking compensation from China for damages to a fishing vessel caused by military fire from a Chinese warship, the most recent manifestation of territorial disputes. The Spratly Islands are the longest running point of contention, heavily fortified by Vietnam yet claimed by China.

Numerous other regional disputes exist but the US Senate’s refusal to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas leaves it in a position to offer no help in resolving these disputes. So we send the Navy and the Air Force with the hope that our might will give strength to China’s regional opponents even while we try to work with China on economic ties and in controlling North Korea.

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About Jim Marzilli

Jim Marzilli combines expertise in economic, energy and environmental policy with a deep understanding of public policy and politics. He has strong political campaign, organizing, networking, media and communication skills. He played a unique role for eighteen years as an elected official in state government, working nationally and internationally with sub-national and national governments, NGOs and businesses. He left state government in 2008 and went to Iraq to work on a democracy building program. He spent the winters of 2013 and 2014 working in Burma/Myanmar with people who are trying to expand democracy in their country.
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