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Overview Uphill Challenges: China’s Military Modernization and Asian Security Ashley J. Tellis Although the United States was engaged in Asian geopolitics long before World War II, the decisive U.S. victory in that conflict marked a turning point in U.S.-Asian relations. The demise of Japan as a major challenger paved the way for the inauguration of a new regional order underwritten by the military power of the United States. Although a transformed order of some kind would have inevitably materialized as a result of the U.S. triumph over Japan, the Cold War that followed—involving the struggle with the Soviet Union, and with global Communism more generally—defined the specific character of the “hegemonic stability” that came to prevail in maritime Asia. It is one that survives, even if increasingly challenged, to this day. The success of this hegemonic stability, as manifested in the postwar Asian political order, was wrought through a bitter struggle with a powerful, but ultimately weaker, coalition of Communist states. This U.S.-led system itself evolved slowly, beginning first in Northeast Asia and then extending over time to Southeast Asia in both its continental and maritime configurations. Throughout this process, it was shaped by actual or threatened conflicts with the Communist powers, who at various points threatened the local states that were U.S. allies. The military protection offered to these states against the Communist threat created the nucleus of a pacified Asian order, which survived ultimately because of the U.S. capacity to bring considerable military power to bear in its defense at different points along the Asian littoral. Ashley J. Tellis is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Research Director of the Strategic Asia Program at the National Bureau of Asian Research. He can be reached at . 4 • Strategic Asia 2012–13 This ability to muster concentrated force when required along the Asian periphery was contested by Soviet power for most of the Cold War, but Moscow’s challenge here was consistently overcome thanks to the United States’ technological superiority, better internal balancing, and sturdy regional coalition. Furthermore, even during the height of the Cold War, when its military capabilities were at their most potent, the Soviet Union was severely handicapped in its capacity to definitively deny the United States access to maritime Asia for several reasons: the core of Soviet national power was based in the European half of its Eurasian territory rather than in its Asiatic fringes; the air and land lines of communication between European and Asiatic Russia were long, tenuous, and relatively underdeveloped, making the sustainability of Soviet military forces in the Far East a challenging proposition; and, finally, Soviet combat power adjacent to the Pacific, however significant in absolute terms, was considerably weaker than its equivalent in Europe. These realities all combined to bequeath the United States with functional access to the Asian land mass even during the Cold War. Although the gradient imposed by distance inevitably eroded the ease with which military power could be brought to bear, these limitations were substantially circumvented by the U.S. ability to deploy powerful forward-based and forward-operating forces either in or in close proximity to Asia.1 This extended reach was reinforced by the traditional U.S. command of the commons, especially its mastery over the open oceans, which in effect made them a “great highway” through which massive reserves of military power could be ferried from the continental United States to any trouble spots along the Asian periphery.2 Thanks to these umbilicals, the United States became, in effect, an Asian power geopolitically, even if it was physically far removed from the continent. The Legacy of U.S. Military Dominance in Asia Despite the contest with the Soviet Union, U.S. military dominance laid the foundations for making East Asia one of the critical successes enjoyed by American grand strategy in the postwar era. It did so in three ways. First, the preeminence of U.S. warfighting capabilities ensured that attempts at seeking hegemonic domination in Asia by any regional or extraregional state would end up being both costly and ultimately unsuccessful. By 1 For more on the “loss of strength gradient” (the inverse relationship between geographic distance and the amount of military power that can be brought to bear), see Kenneth E. Boulding, Conflict and Defense: A General Theory (New York: Harper, 1962), 262. 2 Alfred T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783...


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