Gates in Asia

Robert Gates, the US secretary of defense, is in Asia for the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual meeting of defense ministers in Singapore. Mr. Gates has also stopped in Guam, and will visit Thailand and South Korea before returning to the US.

Before addressing the substance of the secretary’s swing through the region, it is worth pointing that there is something unfortunate about Gates’s tenure at the Pentagon. Like Fukuda Yasuo, Mr. Gates may be the right man for his job, but at the wrong time, coming into power too late to implement the changes that he feels must be made in US defense policy. Mr. Gates has given considerable thoughts on the way forward for US defense policy more broadly and US Asia policy specifically — but he may ultimately have too little time at the Pentagon to make a lasting impact on policy.

At Shangri-La, Mr. Gates showed that he has given serious thought to the changing nature of US Asia policy, and acknowledges that US power in Asia may be best applied in concert, not just in the postwar bilateral alliances, but in multilateral vehicles that may even include China. He clearly rejects a simplistic “stop China” approach to US Asia policy.

In his speech in Singapore he spoke in detail about the changing nature of the US role in Asia. He called for a continuing commitment to an open Asia, with transparent security relations that reduce the potential for misperceptions and misunderstandings (remarks undoubtedly aimed at China) and emphasized that the US is a “resident power” in Asia and will thus remain committed to an active role in Asia. The note Mr. Gates sounded is not of an America in retreat from Asia but of an America playing a quieter but no less effective role in the region as it allows its Asian partners to take the lead in shaping the regional security environment. (Perhaps this is a Nixon Doctrine redux.)

Accordingly, the US will work to strengthen and utilize all available foreign policy tools, not just its military power: “Asia in recent years marks a shift that reflects new thinking in overall US defense strategy. We are building partner-nation capacity so friends can better defend themselves. While preserving all of our conventional military deterrence abilities as traditionally understood, we have become more attentive to both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ elements of national power, where military, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and humanitarian elements fold into one another to ensure better long-term security based on our own capabilities and those of our partners.”

Mr. Gates clearly appreciates that US power must be used in connection with the broader aim of preserving stability (and thus promoting further economic growth) in Asia. While the US and Japan repeated their call for greater transparency from China, Mr. Gates’s message was on the whole positive and constructive.

To his credit, Ishiba Shigeru, Japan’s defense minister, emphasized the need for Japan to contribute to stability in the region in his remarks at Shangri-La. Mr. Ishiba acknowledged that Japan’s qualified acceptance of its wartime wrongdoings has complicated relations with its Asian neighbors, complications that must be addressed if Japan is to use the JSDF to contribute to peace and stability in the region.

The challenge of making the case for a responsible Japan will become more urgent as 2014 approaches, as US Marines leave Okinawa for Guam and necessarily yield greater responsibility for the defense of Japan to the JSDF.

It is no clearer, however, whether Guam will be ready by 2014.

Secretary Gates acknowledged the importance of the realignment in his Shangri-La address — “Our Asian friends, whether or not they are formally allied to us, welcome our growing presence on Guam. As the island’s new facilities take shape in coming years, they will be increasingly multilateral in orientation, with training opportunities and possible pre-positioning of assets” — and while touring Guam on his way to Singapore.

In Guam, the secretary met with local officials, including Felix Camacho, the governor, to discuss the daunting infrastructure project facing the US and Japanese governments, as well as the government of Guam, in preparing Guam to receive a massive influx of US military personnel (the bulk of which will be Marine elements relocated from Okinawa). The question remains whether the job can be done by 2014.

In a meeting with Ishiba Shigeru, his Japanese counterpart, in Singapore, Mr. Gates and Mr. Ishiba agreed that the realignment must proceed as scheduled. But there are a number of potential bottlenecks that could delay or derail the whole process: the environmental impact assessment in Okinawa related to the construction of the Futenma replacement facility (FRF); the environmental impact assessment in Guam, not due to be completed until 2010; the budget processes in both the US and Japan (neither government has appropriated funds for Guam construction yet); and Guam’s civilian infrastructure, which left as is could hinder the effectiveness of relocated US forces. These obstacles are by no means fatal, but they will not be overcome without sustained attention from Washington.

That is the challenge for Asia policy as a whole. While Mr. Gates is right to note that the US is a resident Asian power (i.e., it will not be withdrawing from Asia anytime soon), the quality of US engagement in Asia can clearly vary. Sustained, high-level attention is essential if the US is to play a constructive role in Asia along the lines envisioned by Secretary Gates.

One thought on “Gates in Asia

  1. Anonymous

    What does redux mean in this context? Rehash? I\’ve only ever heard it used as an adjective. (Forgive this humble ignorance.)


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