By Dr Subhash Kapila*
The United States Forward Defence Perimeter in the Western Pacific ever since 1945 has been an effective shield and a first line of defence for Mainland USA, first against the Soviet Union and now against an increasingly belligerent China’s geopolitical designs.
China as a military threat weighs heavily in threat perceptions of not only the Asia Pacific nations but increasingly also in threat perceptions of the United States. Militarily, China can be assessed as not being powerful enough to militarily challenge the United States directly. China’s immediate priority, in the interim, is to dilute US Forward Military Presence in the Western Pacific by subtle political and military coercion of US traditional allies in the region like Japan, South Korea and the Philippine. These nations are essential components of the US Forward Defence Perimeter and the United States should never ever allow a rising militaristic China to breach this Perimeter. The United States must guard against any acts of commission or omission in US policies which could facilitate such a breach.
US Forward Defence Perimeter comprises of nearly 100,000 Forward Military Presence deployed on a network of military bases hosted by South Korea and Japan primarily, and a complete US Marines Division-sized Expeditionary Force based in Okinawa, Japan. Supplementing this presence are sizeable US Air Force assets based in both these countries and US Navy Seventh Fleet. Philippines, despite current strains in relationship is likely to fall back in line, once again, as another important component of this network.
Reviewing the United States Forward Defence Perimeter in the Western Pacific in February 2017, just a month away from US President Trump’s inauguration, it is assuring for Asian nations to note that no changes have occurred in terms of dilution of US deployments or putting US traditional security ties with Japan and South Korea under strain, as President Trump’s election rhetoric indicated.
Political dispensations in the United States of any political hue need to recognise that Japan and South Korea hosting sizeable US Forward Military Presence in their respective countries does not amount to one-way street calculations. The United States needs the willing readiness and acceptability of Japan, South Korea and the Philippines to host US military presence at their military bases. Hence, for the US to argue that these nations should bear the increasing costs of US military presence is self-defeating. Simply, because without US Forward Military Presence in these countries, the Forward Defence Perimeter shield in the Western Pacific would crumble. Does the United States have any other viable options to substitute this vital security architecture in the Western Pacific crafted ever since 1945, and which has stood the test of time.
China for the last decade and a half has been assiduously working politically, economically and using coercive brinkmanship against the Western Pacific nations, including those on the littoral like Vietnam to prompt a US-exit from the Western Pacific. It has failed to achieve this so far as a result of the determination of countries like Japan and South Korea not to falter in their security commitments to the United States and also the resilience of successive US Administrations to pivot back to reinforcing its Forward Defence Perimeter after periods of strategic neglect like in the first decade of the 21st Century.
It has therefore been heartening to note that within a month of the Trump Administration assuming office in Washington, the US Defence Secretary, General Mattis has paid visits to South Korea and Japan for defence consultations with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts. It needs to be remembered that the US Defence Secretary has vast powers over the US military machine, second only to those of the US President.
Similarly, Japanese Prime Minister Abe had meetings with President Trump before his election and now stands invited to visit Washington on February 10 for a summit meet. The meetings with the Japanese Prime Minister of the US President are not about economics and trade but more significantly on the security and stability of the Western Pacific.
That the Trump Administration is not faltering in its commitments and its determination to enforce US security guarantees in the region was evident from recent statements by the US Defence Secretary and also the US Foreign Secretary, both of whom put China on notice on Chinese belligerence on the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
More noticeably, no media reports indicate President Trump making a telephonic call to the Chinese President or inviting him to visit Washington. In contrast, the Japanese Prime Minister will be visiting the United Sates twice in recent months. Chinese President’s may happen anytime later but the political and strategic significance in terms of signalling to China should not be lost.
The Philippines which had strayed off its traditional US security commitments need to be brought back on track. The recent China-deviation by its new mercurial President appears to be short lived and US influence should again prevail. The Japanese Prime Minister who paid an official visit to the Philippines in recent months announced sizeable Japanese economic aid and also aid for building up the capacity of the Philippines Navy. This should also be viewed as steps taken by Japan for its own national security interests and furthering US security interests overall.
The United States emphasis on reinforcing its Forward Defence Perimeter in the Western Pacific which had been North-East-centric has in the past decade or so acquired a balance towards the Southern segment also. The build-up of Guam as a major US military base has been done to add more balance in US military capabilities against any potential military adventurism by China in the South.
This segment could be additionally strengthened by the United States by a robust strategic partnership with Vietnam and Indonesia, both being powerful nations in the region, and also being subjected to Chinese military adventurism.
In conclusion, it needs to be stressed that neither the United States nor the nations in the Western Pacific should ever doubt the value of each other’s intentions and commitments to jointly and strongly hold this Defence Perimeter in the Western Pacific. The value is never at stake though nuances could vary. Contemporary geopolitical situation in the Western Pacific in 2017 of an unrestrained and belligerent China bent on revising the status quo reinforces the call for such an unwavering determination.
*Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group