01 October 2013

Risks for U.S. in Asia with Shutdown Soap Opera

Andrew S. Erickson, “Risks for U.S. in Asia with Shutdown Soap Opera,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 1 October 2013.

As a dangerous game of budget roulette unfolds in the U.S., it behooves all concerned Americans and their representatives to remember that the world continues its rapid evolution and will not wait for Washington to get its act together. This is particularly true in the Asia-Pacific.

With respect to the most dynamic and important region of the globe, the insights of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew apply perfectly:

“Americans seem to think that Asia is like a ‘movie’ and that you can freeze developments out here whenever the U.S. becomes intensely involved elsewhere …. It does not work like that. If the United States wants to substantially affect the strategic evolution of Asia, it cannot come and go.”

Presidents and prime ministers, influencers and investors listen to Lee’s pithy assertions because he has a formidable track record in strategic analysis and international relations. But one does not need his intelligence or experience to see that the Asia-Pacific is arguably the most vital region beyond North America for U.S. interests in what might be termed the “Asia-Pacific Century.”

As defined by the U.S. Pacific Command, the region’s 36 nations contain 50% of the world’s population, several of the world’s largest economies and militaries, and five U.S. treaty allies. It is also the locus of the majority of world defense spending: In 2012 Asia’s aggregate military spending surpassed Europe’s for the first time.

The region’s importance continues to grow. It will contribute as much to the global economy as U.S. and EU combined by 2014 (pdf) . The U.S. National Intelligence Council forecasts that China will become the world’s largest economy by GDP in 2022  as measured by purchasing power parity, which it deems likely to be the strongest indicator of “fundamental economic strength.” Jane’s predicts that by 2015 Chinese military spending will double to $238 billion, surpassing the combined budgets of NATO’s eight largest military spenders excluding the U.S. The International Institute for Strategic Studies goes so far as to predict that Chinese defense spending might surpass that of the United States as early as 2025. Even if an economic slowdown prevents China from reaching the high end of some of these estimates, China is already here to stay as a great power, and it will grow stronger and more influential still.

Whatever horror film premiers in Washington this morning, it should not distract from a larger reality: The world is watching the United States, while also going about its own business—and judging and factoring in American influence, or lack thereof, accordingly. Particularly in the Asia-Pacific, momentous developments are unfolding—with or without American participation—that will affect the lives of all Americans tremendously in years to come.

A “trailer” of how Asia-Pacific affairs might unfold to Washington’s detriment played vividly at the world’s premier space conference in Beijing last week. The International Astronautical Congress is the world’s premier venue for space technology transfer displays, transactions and partnerships. Opened by Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao and held at the 5.3 million-square-foot China National Convention Center  in concert with a wide range of other large and important events, the 2013 Congress showcased China as a capable host and sought-after customer and patron for a record-breaking 3,500 registered delegates from 74 nations.

China National Space Administrator Ma Xingrui spoke modestly but cited impressive accomplishments, including China’s launching of 15 different space missions in the past twelve months (pdf). China’s September 23 launch of the Fengyun 3C weather satellite brought its historical satellite launch total to 232, with 105 currently in operational orbits (pdf). With the Chang’e 3 mission scheduled to deliver a rover to the moon by December and return lunar samples to earth, eyes will remain on China as a space power of the future. Ma’s larger statements of Chinese prioritization and effort of space development were supported exhaustively by countless other Chinese contributions to the Congress. Sophisticated Chinese facilities, displays, papers, presentations and numerous talented young engineers made it clear just how rapidly and comprehensively China is progressing in space.

With U.S. government travel largely suspended, a disproportionately small number of Americans attended, and little was said of recent American space accomplishments—in part because there was little new to say. Presently lacking even a shoestring space station, or ability to launch its own astronauts into space since 2011, the U.S. was not well-positioned to exercise leadership. By contrast, in 2011, China for the first time conducted more launches than the U.S., and at the Congress it announced plans to complete its first full-fledged space station within a decade, building on earlier steps that already offer a bare-bones space station (pdf).

To the global space community present, the trajectory of the international system was being partially shaped in Beijing, but how many in Washington were paying attention? I might have thought some descriptions of the Congress exaggerated if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes; having participated, I can attest that the scale and dynamism of Chinese contributions would impress anyone who witnessed it.

For seven decades, Washington has paid dearly to participate in the production of the all-time blockbuster that is Asian geopolitics. It cannot dictate how all aspects of this film are directed, but with proper focus and effort, it can continue to play a leading role.

One thing is certain: Becoming a no-show at the dynamic motion picture unfolding in today’s Asia to prolong a crass, ultimately-forgettable soap opera back in Washington will tank America’s ratings and revenue, both abroad and at home. Whatever foreign critics say, domestic critics will ultimately be harsher. The issues at stake in the Asia-Pacific today matter greatly to every American. Their representatives in Washington must understand this reality. In this critical hour, they must act with the foresight and dignity of the statesmen that they are elected to be. The future of the United States depends on it.