Asia-Pacific: The next decades’ theater of power confrontation



On January 5, the United States (U.S.) unveiled their new defense strategy[i]. The new document is aimed are resetting American military capabilities and commitments after budget cuts included in the 2011 Budget Control Act. The Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, wrote on the preface that “This country is at a strategic turning point after a decade of war and, therefore, we are shaping a Joint Force for the future that will be smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready, and technologically advanced[ii]. In other words, the U.S. will no longer be able to engage two large-scale wars as occurred in the past decade with the back-breaking conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Washington in fact has been forced to revise its defense spending in order to avoid power overextension that caused already the fall of many superpowers in history[iii]. This time the “butter” won over the “guns”[iv], thus reversing the trend of the G. W. Bush administration. From now on, the armed forces will be deployed to maintain peace and stability and, above all, to ensure economic growth and the free flow of trade routes. Consequently, it is not surprising that Washington will turn more and more its attention toward the most dynamic region of the world: the Asia Pacific.

The U.S. considers the Asia-Pacific region as the most strategic one for its medium/long-term economic stability. This will require the U.S. to invest a larger amount of its smart power in the region over the next years, in order increase its shares of influence and contain those of competing powers (mainly China). The first step will be to redeploy military forces from Central Asia (Afghanistan/Pakistan) to the Asia-Pacific.

This process has already started last year. In mid November 2011, President Barak Obama visited Australia announcing the deployment of 2,500 marines in the military base of Darwin; the closest city to the South China Sea. The move was made on purpose to reaffirm Washington commitment toward its allies in the region, threatened by rising China. This will be fundamental to shape future economic agreements, as well as military alliances. It should be mentioned that South China Sea is valued $ 1.2 trillion in bilateral annual trade[v]. Insofar, the U.S. wants to assure that if small powers will be called to bandwagon, they will choose the right side. 

For this reason, the U.S. are also planning to create a Pacific Free Trade Zone (Trans-Pacific Partnership - TPP) to further balance China’s growing economic (soft) power. For the moment the TPP comprises four countries: Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, while six other countries are negotiating to join in: the United States, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Japan.

Military power and economic interests proceed on a parallel path, since the former will be used to safeguard the latter. In this regard, in fact, the Asia Pacific is witnessing a considerable arm race involving sea and under-sea upgrades. 

The greatest concerns, of course, are over China. According to last year draft defence budget, China should have increased its defence spending by 13 %, hence reaching a total amount of $ 91.5 billions[vi]. This amount however, does not include arms imports, whose details are never disclosed by Chinese authorities. This is why many western Defence Department estimates that China’s true defence spending should be much higher ($ 150-170 billion per year)[vii]. According to Goldman Sachs, Beijing will increase its defence budget by 14 % each year till 2015[viii]. These upgrades regard: submarines (from 62 to 77)[ix], the first aircraft carrier[x], surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles[xi].

Other regional powers like Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia are also involved in similar build ups. Recent estimates say the whole Asia Pacific will increase its defence spending by 4%/year till to reach investments for $ 114 billion in 2016[xii]


The Asia Pacific region has always been one of the most complicated Regional Security Complex (RSC) in the world[xiii]. Bilateral tensions (e.g. North vs. South Korea, China vs. Japan), as well as multilateral (e.g. South China Sea), has been featuring the region’s pattern of amity and enmity for the last sixty-seven years. What has changed is the rising of the Asia Pacific as a new center of great powers’ geopolitical interests.

This poses a challenge to the West and to Europe in particular. First of all, since the end of the Cold War European powers have been witnessing a constant shifting eastward of international geopolitical interests. In the 1990s, Eastern Europe was at the center of political and security issues due to the reintegration into European affairs of former Soviet-block countries. During the first decade of 2000s, these issues have moved further east toward Western and Central Asia (Iraq and Afghanistan). This has already posed several concerns of power projection and established a new limes for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); a limit that NATO is not willing to overstep.

If Europe and NATO do not want to fall into the oblivion of international politics, they are called to transform a risk into an opportunity. Thus, the north Atlantic community should operate together to maintain peace and stability in the Asia Pacific, to maintain free access to navigation routes and to foster liberalism and globalization. This can be achieved only through a common effort to overlay[xiv] the Asia Pacific and to protect it from competing interests.              

[i] Department of Defense of the United States of America, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January 2012, 

[ii] Idibem, p. iii

[iii] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vintage Book Edition, 1989.

[iv] The so called guns vs. butter dilemma is the choice states have to take when deciding how to allocate their limited resources among a plurality of issues. By giving preference to domestic needs a state must limit military. On the other hand, by increasing military spending the state will sacrifice its economic growth. See: Russett, B. M. (1969). Who Pays For Defense?, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 63, No. 2, 412-426.

[v] The New York Times, As US looks to Asia, it sees China everywhere, 15/11/2011.

[vi] Financial Times, China’s military budget rise alarms Tokyo, 04/03/2011,

[vii] The Wall Street Journal, Asia's New Arms Race, 12/02/2011,

[viii] Bloomberg, China Military Growth Spurs Asia Demand for Boeing, Lockheed, 12/02/2012,

[ix] Financial Times, The US navy fostered globalisation: we still need it, 29/11/2011,  

[x] BBC NEWS, US satellite pictures China aircraft carrier Varyag, 14/12/2011,

[xi] Reuters, China says to go ahead with Pacific naval drills, 23/11/2011,

[xii] Bloomberg.

[xiii] Barry Buzan, People States and Fear, Lynne Rienner Pub, 1991; Barry Buzan & Ole Wæver, Regions and power: The structure of international security,Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[xiv] Ibid. The concept of “overlay” represents one of the conditions preventing a security complex from taking place. Overlay means that one or more external power move directly into the local security dynamics, hence suppressing the autonomous development of the complex itself. External powers, practically speaking, overwhelm and replace local units that are no longer independent in their security interactions.

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