WASHINGTON, Jun 13 (IPS) - Deepening security ties between East Asian nations offer substantial benefits to the United States as it "rebalances" its military forces towards the Asia-Pacific region, so long as the move is not perceived as a U.S.-led effort to contain China, according to a new report by a think tank close to the administration of President Barack Obama.The report, released this week by the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), stressed that intra-Asian security relationships – such as those that have developed between India and Vietnam or Japan, and Australia and South Korea – are creating a new regional and strategic reality of which Washington should take advantage.
"Strategies defined solely by historical notions of American primacy will fail to garner the benefits of a more networked security environment in Asia," according to the 47-page report, "The Emerging Asia Power Web".
"Although traditional bilateral alliances and partnerships will remain the foundation of U.S. strategy in Asia, U.S. policymakers will have to supplement them with approaches that move beyond the hub-and-spoke alliance model," the report said.
"In some instances, this will mean stepping back and resisting the temptation to assume a leadership role in advancing relations among allies and partners," it added.
And while Sino-U.S. competition is likely to remain the "predominant driver of security behaviour in Asia", the development of alternative, indigenous security networks could work to take the "heat off the U.S.-China relationship" and have the added benefit of creating a "stronger deterrent" against more aggressive behaviour by Beijing against its neighbours, the report concluded.
The report, which was co-authored by CNAS's director Asia-Pacific Security Program, Patrick Cronin, and CNAS president Richard Fontaine, and others, follows last weekend's two-day summit of Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a southern California estate.
The meeting, which was designed primarily to begin to dispel the "mutual strategic suspicion" that has historically arisen between a rising great power and a reigning one as it increasingly appears to have between Beijing and Washington in recent years, reportedly narrowed position on dealing with at least one major regional problem – North Korea's insistence on being recognised as a nuclear power.
But on other regional points of contention, particularly China's territorial claims in the South and East China Seas that are a growing source of concern to U.S. allies and partners in the region, it appears that the two sides mostly stuck to their pre-summit positions.
The Obama administration's support for China's neighbours in those territorial disputes and its recent upgrading of military ties with them, combined with its much-touted "pivot" or "rebalancing" of its naval and other assets towards the Asia-Pacific region through 2020, has fuelled charges by senior Beijing officials that Washington is adopting a "containment" strategy against China.
The administration has vigorously denied those charges, insisting that it welcomes China as a great power and hopes to work out an increasingly co-operative relationship with it.
It has also repeatedly called for all parties to establish "rules of the road" – preferably in a multilateral context, a suggestion that Beijing has so far resisted – for navigation, exploration and exploitation rights in contested areas that would both reduce tensions and significantly reduce the risks of violent confrontation.
In this context, the CNAS report argued that the rapid growth of intra-regional security ties between China's neighbours – or the "Asia Power Web" – adds an important new factor in the regional strategic equation.
The report focused in particular on developments in security relations between and among six countries – Australia, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam – both because they are "key allies or emerging partners" of the United States and because they have been "the most active in diversifying their security relationships" in the region.
These new, mostly bilateral relationships range from the Indian Navy's training Vietnamese submariners to Japan's recent security agreement with Australia, the first it has signed outside the post-World War Two U.S.-Japan alliance.
They have been marked by high-level military-to-military consultations; increasingly frequent joint exercises; a plethora of formal defence and security agreements; military-training programmes, and intra-Asian arms sales, particularly of systems designed for maritime use, fuelled both by concern over China's territorial ambitions and rapidly increasing defence budgets throughout the region.
The primary motivation for these new and rapidly growing relationships, according to the report, is "the desire of countries to supplement their ties with the United States and China" .
While Washington remains both a key investor and underwriter of regional security, Asian officials are concerned about U.S. staying power, given likely declines in the defence budget and war fatigue. Similarly, while China has become a "critical engine of economic growth throughout the region.…many states remain wary about the possibility of a heavy-handed Chinese foreign policy."
"As a result, governments have begun hedging against these uncertainties by deepening engagement with like-minded states to diversify their political, security and economic relationships," the report said.
These trends, which the authors expect to deepen in the coming years, offer Washington a number of benefits, but it must be careful in navigating the evolving strategic environment, according to the report.
"The diversification of security ties in Asia could have the salutary effect of reducing the prominence of U.S.-China competition in regional disputes," it argued, noting that recent crises in the East and South China Seas have put Washington's responses in the spotlight and elevated them to "strategic tests of Washington's credibility".
"This dynamic puts the United States in the difficult position of needing to meet its alliance commitments [to Japan and the Philippines] and maintaining regional security without provoking China into a major power war."
"In addition to taking the heat off of the U.S.-China relationship, stronger bilateral security ties will likely have a broader deterrent effect on Chinese assertiveness," according to the report, which noted that Beijing has historically "exercised greater caution and moderation in the face of multilateral resistance".
"These benefits will be undermined, however, if China perceives the United States to be the principal drive of alternative security networks," it added.
As a result, to the extent that "Washington does take a more active role in knitting together burgeoning security ties in Asia", it should do so in ways that include Beijing in any multilateral activities that involve Washington, such as the annual U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific exercises to which China has been invited to participate in 2014.
Similarly, it should avoid overly formalised "mini-lateral" security arrangements that can be "perceived as counterbalancing coalitions".
In addition, Washington must "remain vigilant against threats of entrapment from adventurous allies and partners", the report recommended.
"U.S. policymakers should be clear in private with allies and partners about U.S. commitments and expectations in the region and should publicly call on all sides to avoid unilateral actions that threaten regional stability."
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