Chatham House Report

Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs
Manager, US and the Americas Programme

President Barack Obama’s November 2011 announcement of the rebalancing of the United States to the Asia-Pacific made clear his intention that America would sustain its leading role in the region. However, what is less clear is how America’s allies and partners in the region see their own security interests changing and, given this, how they see the United States fitting into this new security framework.

Asia-Pacific Security: A Changing Role for the USPhoto by Aaron Tam/Stringer/Getty

President Barack Obama’s November 2011 announcement of the rebalancing of the United States to the Asia-Pacific made clear his intention that America would sustain its leading role in the region. However, what is less clear is how America’s allies and partners in the region see their own security interests changing and, given this, how they see the United States fitting into this new security framework. It is vital that both the demand for security (from Asia) and its supply (by the United States) are better understood in order to achieve a new status quo that meets the needs of all the players.

This report considers six US allies or partners in Asia (Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea) and asks how they perceive their security interests and emerging threats – and, consequently, how they are addressing them through domestic capabilities and regional or plurilateral groups, and what role this suggests for the United States.

Some of the principal findings include:

  • As elsewhere, America’s role in Asia is changing. Despite the rebalancing, cuts in US defence spending and greater political attention to domestic priorities are likely to lead to a less militarily assertive role in the region and perhaps, in time, a smaller permanent military presence there. The United States will, however, remain an Asia-Pacific power, and its continued focus should not be underestimated.
     
  • Over the next 15 years, non-traditional threats, whether natural or man-made, are likely to become more significant. Traditional state-driven conflicts are likely to play out initially in non-traditional ways, such as by constraining an adversary’s economy or its access to natural resources, and through attacks in cyberspace or against military or communications satellites. Only as conflicts escalate will more traditional means be engaged (such as ground forces). Non-state actors, such as terrorists or insurgent groups, are also likely to employ such non-traditional levers where their capabilities allow.
     
  • The severity of the impacts of natural, rather than man-made disasters is also likely to increase. Demand for oil, gas, water and food is rising exponentially across the region and expanding consumption is, in many cases, creating a new vicious cycle of resource stress. Military force is unlikely to play a leading role in alleviating these tensions.
     
  • With rising defence expenditure, the six countries examined in this study are enhancing their traditional military capabilities. However, this alone will not be sufficient to protect them against the complex array of future threats. Other assets will be needed, including greater diplomatic resources to manage inter-locking relations with regional allies and partners, and the diversification of economic and trading links to minimize each country’s vulnerability to the actions of any other single actor, principally China.
     
  • The Asia-Pacific states are already building up their informal alliances and partnerships with one another and with other states. The number and the depth of these informal relationships are likely to endure, and they will play an important role in maintaining stability in the region.
     
  • As natural threats become more prominent, given their less sensitive (and less zero-sum) nature, regional groupings might find a new more active role in addressing these challenges. Building cooperation and collaboration in these forums, could, in time, create a framework for resolving more traditional areas of conflict.
     
  • Over the long-term, America will continue to play a central role in the region, but not indefinitely as the lead actor. It will be looking in Asia, as elsewhere, to share the burdens of leadership. In the next 15 years, Asians may well have to get used to a situation with which Europeans are only just coming to terms – a United States that is a very important regional actor, but not always the first or principal port of call for ensuring security.


Video 

Report author Xenia Wickett discusses some of the key findings.