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Lieberman on the Asia-Pacific

1:51 PM, Nov 4, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Indeed, when it comes to dealing with a host of global challenges -- whether supporting democratic transitions in the Middle East, managing the global economy, responding to large-scale natural disasters, or putting pressure on rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea -- the contributions and cooperation of countries in the Asia-Pacific region have been, and increasingly will be, absolutely indispensable.

But America's deepening engagement and presence in Asia is also driven by another factor -- the shifting geopolitics within the Asia-Pacific region itself.

It’s useful here to take a step back. As I noted, the extraordinary economic growth that has characterized the Asia-Pacific region in recent decades did not happen by accident. It was made possible because of a particular set of international conditions. These include a worldwide system of free and open commerce, access to the global commons by all, freedom of navigation, and the principle that disputes among nations should be resolved without coercion or use of force. What has underwritten and guaranteed these rules and principles in the Asia-Pacific region is not simply mutual goodwill among nations, but a very specific balance of military power there.

The fact is that it has been the predominance of American military power in the Asia-Pacific that has been the ultimate guarantor of the international rules and conditions that have facilitated the explosive economic growth of countries in this region, which in turn has enabled literally hundreds of millions of people to emerge from poverty. By providing a climate of international security and assured access to the global commons, the U.S. military has tempered destabilizing regional rivalries and allowed countries to focus instead on building their economies and expanding trade -- good for them and good for us.

This was precisely the hope and intention of the wise men who, at the dawn of the Cold War, established the American security architecture for this region. As President Harry Truman said in 1951: “In the Pacific, as in other parts of the world, social and economic progress is impossible unless there is a shield which protects men from the paralysis of fear.” For six decades, the U.S. military -- through its constellation of bases, forward-deployed assets, and close cooperation with key counterparts -- has provided that shield.

The result has been one of the great success stories of American foreign policy and of human history. As a consequence, the Asia-Pacific region today is more prosperous, more secure, and more free than ever before.

The balance of power in the region, however, is also under growing strain. Paradoxically, it has been the miraculous economic growth made possible by this balance of power that has facilitated the rise of one country -- China -- whose government many in the Asia-Pacific region now fear is prepared to use its economic wealth to challenge this regional balance of power.

Let me be clear. I do not think that a destabilizing security competition with China is inevitable. On the contrary, the emergence of a strong and prosperous China can be a real plus for the entire world; reinforcing the international system that China, as much as any other country, has benefited from. Already China's extraordinary economic growth has allowed hundreds of millions of its own people to escape poverty while simultaneously creating opportunities for millions more around the world. We also should note, with appreciation and encouragement, the contributions China has made in recent years to international efforts to address problems like piracy off the coast of Africa, and we should seek to engage China in more cooperative activities of that kind.

At the same time, it is impossible to overlook the fact that -- in comparison to just a few years ago -- there is markedly greater anxiety today among virtually all of China’s neighbors about Beijing’s conduct, capabilities, and intentions. In my personal experience, China has now become issue number one that political and policy leaders around the Asia-Pacific region want to discuss. That was not the case a decade ago.

Much of this uneasiness is traceable to China’s continuing military build-up -- in particular, the development of so-called anti-access and area-denial capabilities. These are sophisticated weapons systems -- including precision-guided cruise and ballistic missiles, submarines, anti-satellite weapons, and cyber-capabilities -- that directly challenge the ability of the U.S. military to carry out its traditional role as a security guarantor in the Western Pacific and thereby unsettle the established military balance there.

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