While the U.S. Government and the national security community worry about the outcomes of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, pressing the reset button with Russia and dealing with the threat of proliferation, they are all but oblivious to the largest most significant strategic challenge of the 21st Century. I am referring to globalization but particularly to the growing economic and military power of Asia. In its study of trends that will impact the future security environment, Global Trends 2025, the National Intelligence Council pointed out that “in terms of size, speed, and directional flow the global shift in relative wealth and economic power now under way — roughly from West to East — is without precedent in modern history.”
This shift is as great as that between the 15th and 17th centuries that led to the domination of the global economy by Europe until the end of the 20th Century. Europe led the world in technological achievements, military power, literature, dress and even culture for three hundred years. The great ideas that dominated world politics — capitalism, liberal democracy, communism, fascism, psychoanalysis — came from Europe and its branches in the New World. So too did the various rule sets that formed the structure for international relations in this period. The security implications of this shift in wealth and economic power, particularly when coupled to current demographic trends, says that the future of the global system will be shaped in Asia.
For the United States, this shift has the most momentous implications. Because the Asia-Pacific region is where the future will be decided, this is where the U.S. must be able to exert its remaining economic and military power. Europe, for a century the focus of U.S. attention, will decline in relevance from both economic and security perspectives. Second, U.S. relationships in the region will be the most significant that Washington will have. It is vital that the U.S. maintain and even deepen its economic and security ties with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Indonesia and India. Where possible, the U.S. needs to expand military-to-military ties and the sale of U.S. advanced weapons systems. Third, the U.S. needs to pay attention to ideas emerging from the region regarding economic relations, international politics and domestic governance. Increasingly, these ideas, for better or worse, will shape the international system. Some, like a uniquely Asia approach to economic development or human rights may prove to be extremely pernicious.
This leaves the issue of China. There is no inherent reason why the U.S. and China should be adversaries, much less enemies. But there is also no way that the U.S. can allow China to dominate East Asia and the Western Pacific. Thus, the U.S. needs to be an active player in the region. It needs to ensure a balance of power between China and its neighbors. It also needs to make it clear to future leaders of whatever persuasion in Beijing that the U.S. will act to ensure the freedom of the region and unfettered access to it. The U.S. must increasingly look to design its military forces for action in this region.
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