The US has turned its attention to the Pacific to contain the rising power of China. The strategic implications of this new policy are analysed here by a former chief of the Pakistan Army.
During the 1970s, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the US strategist and National Security Advisor to former President Jimmy Carter (1976–1980), forecasting the breakup of the Soviet Union, expounded the concept of US unipolarity.
How America manages Eurasia is critical, Eurasia is the globe’s largest continent and is geopolitically axial. A power that dominates Eurasia would almost automatically gain Africa’s subordination, rendering the western Hemisphere and Ocean, geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent. Preeminence in Eurasia — and America’s Global Primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained.
He suggested the use of US military power in the Euro-Asian region to establish the “Western Front” in Europe, and the “Southern Front” in Asia. The Western Front was established, by assimilating the East European countries into the European Union. NATO was retained to maintain the integrity of the Western Front, and to support the establishment of the Southern Front, which essentially comprised Iraq and Afghanistan.
The events of 9/11 provided the pretext to occupy Afghanistan, followed by Iraq in 2003. And so, the US established the “Southern Front,” with NATO support. India also ventured beyond its borders to join the Great Game of global primacy. For consolidation of the Southern Front, a “scorched earth policy, rather a scorched soul policy,” was followed, which now has recoiled with Iraq falling apart. In Afghanistan, America went full-circle seeking different options but failed to obtain guarantees for a safe exit. The Afghan front is also collapsing, while the American economy has an external debt to the tune of $16 trillion, compounded by $14 trillion in household wealth being wiped-out. There is mass unemployment, foreclosures and increased poverty, spawning a “criminal culture.” The ambitions of unipolarity have now turned into the decline of the American empire. “The emperor and the empire have no clothes,” according to the American author, Kirkpatrick Sale.
The collapse of the Southern Front has forced the US to shift the strategic pivot to the South East, as conceptualized by Henry Kissinger,
Tectonic international upheavals mark our period. The center of gravity of world affairs is moving to the Pacific and almost all major actors on the international stage are defining new roles for themselves. That transformation is about concept as much as about power.
Therefore, Obama defined the need for this shift in his Defense Strategic Guidance intending to establish the “Strategic Pivot” in the Asia Pacific region, because “US economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities.”
It is not difficult to draw the inference from this concept that Asia-Pacific is the main theatre, and the US military is going to equip itself for ocean warfare in the region. The United States has thus decided to strengthen its naval presence over the long term by “building towards a 346-ship fleet rather than retreating to 250-ship mark that the US faces due to budget cuts and the decommissioning of aging warships in the next decade. Diplomatic and economic engagement with China and others will work better when backed by a credible military posture.” Hillary Clinton calls this major shift the triumph of US diplomacy — the “American Pacific Century”— the best bet, after “disengaging from two futile, polarizing and massively expensive land wars.” Obama, therefore is busy forming the “Coalition of the Willing” — India, Japan, South Korea and Australia — to herald the onset of the American Pacific Century against a rising China.
Obama’s Defence Strategic Guidance envisages about a 15% cut in the defense budget and a two-track mode of deployment of military power. Firstly, there will be no direct military intervention anymore, as was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. Allies and coalition partners will do all the necessary lifting as in Somalia, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere. The regional surrogates — Israel and India — would help project American power and interests. Secondly, a number of “combat groups” comprising heliborne Special Forces, supported by strike aircraft, will be deployed around the world to carry out surgical operations, similar to the one launched in Abbottabad in May 2011. Drones will be used extensively for intelligence gathering and engagement of opportunity targets.
The strategic shift from Euro-Asia to the Asia-Pacific is very significant for Pakistan and other countries in the region. Afghanistan would be the main beneficiary, as the “mother of all evil — foreign aggression was vacated.” Now the US has no choice but to knock on the Taliban door, seeking help for a safe exit, which is also a challenge for Obama “to concede for the Afghan people the very minimum privileges of an Arab Spring, so that Islamism could reconcile with democracy — quintessentially, expecting the US to be on the right side of history,” as M.K. Bhadrakumar, the former Indian ambassador, wrote. “Islamism there is winning out because it is the deepest and widest channel into which discontent can flow,” according to John M. Owen, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. The world has to reconcile with Taliban rule in Afghanistan and their broad-based government to ensure peace and stability. There is no other viable option.
Iran’s Strategic Defiance since 1979 has added new dimensions of resilience and self-reliance to its people. Iranians have developed “an asymmetric hybrid strategy, supported by advanced technology weapons.” Iran also “has levers, exploiting their interior lines of operation. Their anti-access and anti-denial capabilities are proven. We [Americans] would have a difficult time” in a war against Iran, says Cronin. Therefore, war is not an option anymore. The recent sanctions imposed on Iran, restricting sale of oil is a slap on the face of European importers. China, India and Pakistan would benefit and continue to trade with Iran at a premium, while Saudi Arabia and Russia will sell oil to European buyers at $130–150 a barrel, putting even more pressure on the already struggling European economy. Geo-strategically, as “Iran lies between Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, Central and South Asia, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, a broader network of trade is nearly impossible without it.” In particular it has the potential to reshape Afghanistan’s strategic future. It is not possible to build a new security and economic structure in South and Central Asia without Iran. Sanctions would serve no purpose.
Pakistan has suffered immensely since 1979 due to foreign invasion and the occupation of Afghanistan. Now its woes and sufferings would gradually wane with the departure of the occupation forces from Afghanistan. Geo-strategically, Pakistan is as important, if not more so, than Iran, for a broader network of trade and commerce, between South and Central Asia, East and West Asia. Pakistan can contribute significantly to reshaping lives in a free and independent Afghanistan and build a new security paradigm in the region. However, it carries the burden of the “American bear hug” demanding a foothold in Pakistan after exiting from Afghanistan. Therefore, Pakistan has to adopt skillful diplomacy to shake off this burden without jeopardizing its security interests.
The shifting of the “Strategic Pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region is of special interest to Pakistan as the geopolitical play begins between the emerging regional centres of power. China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran constitute the first regional power base. The second is the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan triangle emerging as the power base of the Muslim world, meeting the much needed “Strategic Depth” of security. And the third is China, India, Japan, Korea and Australia, to ensure balance under the American umbrella in the Asia-Pacific region. In this complex geopolitical game, America’s role would be important, as the dominating power, and would become more meaningful if it draws on the interests and wisdom of ascending Asia and engages constructively with them.
This is a period of great opportunity for Pakistan as the geo-strategic shift is taking place, defining new contours of balance between the emerging centres of power, from Euro-Asia to Asia-Pacific. Pakistan has to find its rightful place, playing the role of a facilitator that is, consolidating a regional, cooperative, relationship-oriented regime based on the Chinese principles of peace, cooperation and engagement.
The writer is the former Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army and currently heads the NGO, Friends Foundation.