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  • Rebalancing U.S. Security Posture in Asia
  • Wallace "Chip" Gregson (bio)

The Chinese naval vessel Zheng He recently made port calls in South Korea and Japan. These visits were an appropriate reminder of Chinese power, past and potential. The ship honors the admiral responsible for China's greatest expansion of political influence and commercial activity, a soft-power effort backed by unmistakable superiority.

Between 1405 and 1433, China deployed the greatest naval fleet in history, overwhelmingly superior in size and nautical technology. Larger than Spain's future armada a century and a half away, it sailed a wide arc through China's seaward frontiers, the Indian Ocean, Africa's coast, and the Arabian Gulf. The admiral brought gifts, extolled the virtues of the emperor, and conveyed foreign envoys back to the Imperial City. There was no need to fight. Admiral Zheng He's obvious and overwhelming superiority made it unwise. Clear and congenial intentions made it unnecessary. But imperial edict ended this strategy in 1433. Preoccupied by landward threats and unable to resist the seaborne Western presence, China began a long period of inward focus and decline. This era would last more than four centuries.

Although history shows that Asia can endure centuries of strife, maintaining today's success is another challenge. This is not only an issue for Asia; it is a critical issue for all. China's rise as a productive member of the international system is important to the United States, Asia, and the world. But challenges remain.

Asia spans two oceans that are increasingly linked by shipping, energy, trade, and strategy. The region is home to three maritime straits—the Malacca, the Sunda, and the Lombok—that permit the easy passage of well over 1,100 fully laden supertankers per year, most passing into the South China Sea and the East China Sea. The epicenter of China's growth and wealth lies along these shores, creating opportunities and vulnerabilities.

Many nations compete over claims to the South China Sea's fishing grounds, seabed resources, exclusive economic zones, and freedom of navigation. Half of the world's seaborne commercial tonnage and one-third of its trade value traverse this sea. Nowhere else do the important interests [End Page 45] of so many states compete. The South China Sea may hold great seabed energy resources, which are accompanied by access disputes. The search for affordable energy invites upstream countries to build hydroelectric dams on rivers descending from their mountains. This can devastate downstream nations dependent on these rivers. Every freshwater system on the East, Southeast, and South Asian littoral is under heavy pressure. Ocean and freshwater fish suffer from illegal fishing, and some sort of resource management agreement is needed.

Demographic trends also create pressures. The world will add nearly 60 million people per year, reaching over 8 billion by the 2030s. The United States, alone among the developed countries, is expected to add 50 million people, while Europe, Japan, Russia, and South Korea will join those in absolute population decline. China will add some 170 million, but the population will be aging and predominantly male. India, in contrast, will add 320 million people and become the world's most populous nation before 2030. India's growth risks tensions between rich and poor, and among Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. The Maoists in much of eastern India are the country's most important security challenge.

Incredible communications and transportation technologies make business a truly global affair. Manufacturing depends on global supply chains, and global dependencies require a global approach. One such dependency is the need for free and secure access to cyberspace. Knowledgeable estimates show that the United States loses billions of dollars and millions of jobs every year due to cybercrime. Additionally, an old threat, piracy, has returned to the high seas, adding cost and risk to legitimate business. Natural disasters, as we have recently seen in Japan and Thailand, destroy supply chains.

Asia, the Pacific, and the world also confront one significant legacy threat. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea continues to threaten the Republic of Korea and defies all predictions of imminent collapse. North Korea's continuing nuclear and missile programs threaten every nation. Pyongyang...


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