Though Asia-Pacific countries are keen on safeguarding their territorial interests, they are at the same time anxious not to let regional conflicts flare into Asia's next war. However, to lay the foundations of overall peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, a NATO-like security structure would need to be inclusive, having China within its ambit.
The return of Asia-Pacific to the centre of world affairs is the great power shift of the 21st century. This economically integrated region is traversed by half the world's commercial shipping worth $5 trillion of trade a year. More than 4.2 billion people live there, constituting 61 per cent of the world's population. And apart from straddling vital supply chains, it holds dense fishing grounds and potentially enormous oil and natural gas reserves, though at present it is a net importer of fossil fuels. Energy-hungry export-driven economies in the region, heavily dependent on raw material and fuel imports, are keen on exercising their suzerainty over the regional Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) that are critical to the survival of the entire Asia-Pacific community.
Washington's "pivot" strategy is juxtapositioning its desire to be neutral with the imperative to raise its already formidable profile in the Asia-Pacific. Its numerous military bases in the region include 17 in Japan and 12 in South Korea, while it also has a presence in Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, Guam and Singapore. Obama's "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific entails the relocation of 60 per cent of America's naval assets - up from 50 per cent today - to the region by 2020. The drawdown in Afghanistan, according to US deputy Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, will release naval surface combatants as well as naval intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and processing, exploitation, and dissemination capabilities, as also more Army and Marine Corps. EP-3 signals reconnaissance aircraft have already moved from CENTCOM (Central Command) to PACOM (Pacific Command). There will be a net increase of one aircraft carrier, seven destroyers, 10 Littoral Combat Ships and two submarines in the Pacific in the coming years. America's military outpost of Guam is being readied as a strategic hub for the Western Pacific and Marines are being forward-stationed there. A full US Marine task force will also be established by 2016 in Australia, a key Asia-Pacific partner of the United States. The US Air Force will shift unmanned and manned reconnaissance aircraft from Afghanistan to the Asia-Pacific, apart from space, cyber and bomber forces.
The question remains whether this "rebalance" is aimed at containing China's growing economic and military might or bolstering the American presence in the region. Beijing views Washington's proposal as an attempt to curb Chinese influence across the region and to embolden countries to brazen out Beijing on the maritime disputes.
America's concerted force multiplication in the region betrays the intent to forge some sort of a military front like NATO. "There is no multilateral organisation like NATO in the region," notes Ashton Carter. "And in the absence of an overarching security structure, the US military presence has played a pivotal role over those last past 60 years, providing nations with the space and the security necessary to make their own principled choices."
A NATO-like platform may not evolve soon, but appears inevitable in light of the rising volatility in the region. The similarities between now and at the time of NATO's creation cannot be lost, notwithstanding the fact that the United States and China have very high stakes in their relationship, unlike the Cold War that had riven Washington and Moscow. Be that as it may, while announcing America's renewed engagement in the Pacific, Secretary Clinton told the Pacific Islands Forum that "the Pacific is big enough for all of us". There's a lot of merit in keeping it that way.