Global security in the 20th century was largely an Atlantic question; in the 21st century it may well be a Pacific one. The rise of China is understandably making Asian defence ministers nervous, but at last weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue – an annual Asian security summit in Singapore – the ministers’ concerns were more to do with the relative decline of the United States.
The pre-eminence of the US has helped to keep Asia stable in recent years. Now that it is wallowing in debt and exhausted by its long wars, many of those gathered in Singapore were wondering: is the US planning to cut Asia loose? And what will happen to the Asian world order if it did?
“America is, as the expression goes, putting its money where its mouth is with respect to this part of the world,” US defence secretary Robert Gates reassured his edgy Asian counterparts in a much-anticipated speech on Saturday. Though the axe will fall heavily on other areas of US military expenditure, Gates insisted that Asia was strategically too important for Washington to do anything besides beef up its commitment.
As well as an upsurge in military diplomacy, this reaffirmation of US engagement could entail the permanent basing of US Navy Littoral Combat Ships – next-generation warships – in Singapore, Gates revealed. As for the new weapon systems being developed by China that some fear will overturn US supremacy, Gates said the US military was working on classified programmes of its own that would trump anything China could throw at it.
Gates has been critical of China at previous summits, but this year he was pointedly relaxed, saying merely that cyber attacks – such as the recent Gmail hack traced back to China – are “hard to attribute”. Gates’s Chinese opposite, General Liang Guanglie, was also in attendance, and the US has evidently come to feel that criticism of China is better suited to closed-door meetings than the public podium.
The questioning of Chinese motives was instead left to some of the smaller Asian countries. Malaysian prime minister Najib Tun Razak tried to pre-empt that criticism in his Friday address, arguing that China is a “benign force” whose rise should give Asians cause for optimism. But not all of Malaysia’s Southeast Asian neighbours sounded so enthused, with both the Philippine and Vietnamese defence ministers using their speeches to rap China on the knuckles for its unilateral and provocative actions in the disputed, energy-rich South China Sea.
Of course, they made their disparaging remarks only after Gates had told the Dialogue that America wasn’t about to leave Asia to Chinese devices. So for all the great changes that Asia has undergone, it seems that many Asians’ view of their own security remains unaltered: it’s a security that stems from American power.