The Asia-Pacific Century: Challenges and Opportunities

  • Published

The Asia-Pacific Century: Challenges and Opportunities, edited by Adam Lowther. Air University Press, 2012, available online only at http://aupress.au.af.mil/.

Ever since the US Army purchased its first aircraft more than 100 years ago, the nation’s primary aviation arm—as with all services—has progressively increased its military capability. One could argue, however, that the Air Force’s vastly improved equipment and training over the past century have not been equally matched with the intellectual development of its Airmen, particularly in terms of strategic thought. Too often throughout history, the Air Force has found itself engaged in conflicts, as in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Southwest Asia, without the necessary background on the political and economic instruments of power associated with these regions.

One must commend the Air Force, then, for having the foresight to recognize that the Obama administration’s strategic shift from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific theater will require Airmen to have sufficient knowledge of the political and economic factors of the region to develop a coherent military strategy. To that end, the Air Force Research Institute conducted a year-long study, including a global conference on the Asia-Pacific region. The proceedings of that conference, The Asia-Pacific Century: Challenges and Opportunities, have now been published.

This work represents an ambitious attempt to assemble a diverse group of scholars to define how the strategic picture in the Asia-Pacific may look in the next 20 years. Thirteen civilian scholars from the Air Force and academia, including two academics from the region, contributed 13 chapters on the current and future strategic state of the Asia-Pacific theater. While the entire region receives some coverage, the bulk of the analysis is understandably directed toward the People’s Republic of China as an emerging power. Every chapter deals either directly with China or, when addressing other countries, includes some aspect of Chinese influence.

All the authors agree that China will continue to experience economic growth, albeit unlikely at the same pace as the past decade. There is less agreement as to whether its economic ascendancy poses a threat to the United States and global interests. While the analysts concur that China will continue to emphasize economic growth to ensure internal stability, they disagree on the strategic implications of its military modernization. Will China eventually seek hegemony, or will it stay committed to only defending its core interests?

Whether China chooses to flex its economic, political, or military muscles, it will undoubtedly remain a major player in the region. Chinese investment and trade continue to rise regionally. It has also exhibited military responses to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and over island possessions against Japan. The question now becomes what role can the United States play in that dynamic? No scholar predicts a new Sino-US cold war on the Soviet model. But there remains the issue of whether the United States should contain China militarily or engage it economically. One analyst contends that doing both simultaneously has actually been US policy since the end of the Cold War.

Another issue is how other state actors in the region will react to China’s growing influence. Since China prefers bilateral relations with its neighbors—as opposed to dealing with multinational organizations such the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—these countries may find it in their interest to bandwagon either with China or the United States. Some scholars contend that most Asia-Pacific countries do not want to side with either power, but prefer having a US presence in the region as a stabilizing influence. With the growing US debt problem, however, they may have to assume more responsibility for their own defense needs.

With the focus primarily on China as a potential peer competitor to the United States, deterrence and major combat operations dominated the strategic military discussion. Terrorism, which brought the return of a US military presence to Southeast Asia early this century after a 10-year absence, was virtually ignored. While admittedly on the wane following 10 years of military assistance and recent peace agreements, Islamist terrorism and separatism is still a potential threat, particularly in southern Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The strategic implications of humanitarian assistance provided following the devastating tsunami in 2004, Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 also received comparatively little coverage.

Conspicuously absent from the list of distinguished contributors was a dedicated sinologist. As China was the major focal point of the conference, the perspective of one intimately familiar with Chinese domestic issues and the inner workings of its party politics may have been invaluable in discerning the motivations of China’s leadership and their outlook for the next two decades. Save for the foreword written by an Air Force general and feedback garnered from officer attendees at the conference breakout sessions, no uniformed military member contributed to the proceedings. The military’s Air-Sea Battle concept designed primarily for the Asia-Pacific theater would rely heavily on the power projection capability of the Air Force. Hence, a knowledgeable Airman could have provided important information and a point of view that would have complemented the outlook of the civilian scholars.

Nevertheless Airmen and all uniformed personnel can still make important contributions to the military dimension of strategic discussion, provided they learn the political and economic instruments of power associated with the Asia-Pacific region. These proceedings will help provide the necessary information and insight for both the warrior and civilian scholar to formulate strategy in the coming years.

John Farrell, PhD

Squadron Officer College

Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."