The following interview with Carl Baker was carried out in Honolulu on March 26, 2015 by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The main focus of the interview was on the role of the U.S. Navy in the Asia-Pacific, the alliance system and U.S.-China relations. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge and especially providing the links to the cited documents so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.
U.S. Navy in the Asia Pacific
The U.S. Navy is pushing for more cooperation with Southeast Asian nations and is asking them to get more involved and contribute to the efforts in the South China Sea. How does this impact regional security?
First of all, we have to decide what security is. The intent behind the U.S. Navy’s military engagement in Asia is to provide compatibility with naval forces in the region. By doing that, you provide security as you have compatibility to respond to an unnamed event. For the most part, this engagement has been associated with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. That does build security because it develops a more robust capacity to respond to these events. Now, the issue of China comes in and that is where it gets more difficult. Regardless of what the intent is behind the U.S. Navy’s engagement in Asia, China tends to see it as an effort to encircle and contain it. Hence, a lot depends on how that engagement is perceived and this is going to be interesting to watch as the U.S. continues it.
Currently, there is a bit of weariness on the part of the U.S. of engaging in so called secondary missions by military units. You get operational cooperation like flying helicopters together for purposes other than humanitarian assistance or disaster relief when you engage in these sorts of activities. As the U.S. develops more complex military relations with other countries in the region, tensions with China will increase since China can make a better case saying that some of the engagement is military-oriented and being driven by a perceived threat. Who else than China could be the perceived threat in the region? The U.S. military tries to keep a balance, but it will become more and more difficult as the engagement becomes increasingly sophisticated and oriented towards combat- type operations. I have not seen much of that with most of the engagement in Southeast Asia. In the case of Korea and Japan, you do see more because they are alliance partners and there is more of a recognition that there is a kinetic military component to it with the rationale being the threat from North Korea. In more sophisticated operations in response to North Korea, it is even more difficult to distinguish between North Korea the enemy and China the enemy due to their geographic proximity.
In China several experts we met have differing opinions regarding the engagement between the U.S. and the Philippines, especially concerning claims the Philippines bring up in the South China Sea. Some see these claims as backed by the U.S. What is your view of the relationship with the Philippines compared to that of the U.S. with other countries in the region?
What you are getting at is the whole problem of alliances. Let me start from a big view of alliances and then let me narrow it down to the Philippines as a bad example of why people maintain alliances. In my view, alliances are not helpful. This is very contradictory to U.S. policy lines. I think that the Chinese are correct when they say that alliances are an anachronism. But because we have sunk costs in these relationships, the U.S. and the alliance partners are reluctant to give them up, especially Japan, Korea and the Philippines. When you look at the case of Thailand, they are much more willing to ignore the alliance relationship. They understand that we have an alliance, but put it off to the side and are maintaining a more balanced relationship with China. So my view is that alliances really should be rethought and the U.S should move away from such a structure for its broader engagement with Asia and focus more on the cooperative kinds of activities with everyone in Asia.
When you look at the U.S. narrative , you see a lot of talk about the alliances and other security partners. If you look at Pacific Command’s activities in Southeast Asia in particular, you realize that they are actually not that concerned about the alliance partners, the Philippines and Thailand. Talking a closer look, the real security partners are rapidly becoming Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. There is that clumsiness with alliances as they are exclusionary and focused on a threat from someone. When we say alliances, the term we really should be using is mutual defense agreements, because that is what distinguishes the U.S. alliances from security partnerships. This is my broader view on alliances and I understand that few Americans would tell you that they think alliances are an anachronism. For them, the American deterrence system is built around those alliances, making them the center of the U.S. security interests in Asia.
Now specifically to the Philippines alliance: the Philippines definitely sees the alliance as their baseline for external defense. Part of that is driven by simple economics. The Philippines has never invested adequately in their external defense and so they are reliant especially on the U.S. Navy to provide coastal defense. Their own coast guard and navy are almost nonexistent. I also agree with China that the Philippines has used its alliance partnership with the U.S. and its promise for broader defense cooperation under the new formulation called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which will rely on the U.S. to build capacity. By building capacity you are going to put U.S. ships and U.S. military forces on the islands on a regular basis, which is going to reinforce the notion that they can rely on the U.S. to defend their security interests in the region. It is very understandable why China sees that as emboldening the Philippines to do what they are doing in the South China Sea. This does not justify what China is doing there, but it becomes understandable why China has that perception. I think that in fact the Philippines is doing exactly what China is accusing it of, without assigning blame for the problems in the South China Sea.
Does your general criticism of the alliance system leave you more optimistic or pessimistic regarding the future of U.S.-China relations?
As long as we maintain the alliance system as is, it will continue to be a point of friction between the U.S. and China. My hope is that the U.S. recognizes this and will continue to move away from the importance of the alliance system. To do that, the U.S. also has to move away from its security concept of deterrence. This will be a very difficult step for Americans, partly because of the structure of the U.S. political system. There is this strong narrative that anything looking like compromise is bad and represents appeasement. The American mindset is so fixated on the experience of the Munich Conference of 1938 there is a strong belief that every compromise eventually becomes appeasement. You see the same thing happening now with the discussions about the Iran nuclear agreement. Everyone recognizes that we have to do something and that deterrence is not going to work here unless you are John Bolton of course and see the solution in killing them all. It is very difficult to move away from the deterrence mindset when you are so fixated on the fear of Appeasement.
Getting back to my point, I hope that the U.S. actually recognizes the problems of the current strategy. When talking to military people from Pacific Command who have seriously thought about the idea of security engagement, you will see their confidence towards building capacities in cooperation, which at some point overwhelms the need for deterrence. Cooperating and generating good will allows you to move away from a deterrence mindset. My hope is that this is how we can get past these alliances and outlive the sense of deterrence that is associated with that mindset.
But is the U.S. rebalance to Asia not the exact opposite of this idea, at least from the way it is perceived in China?
Yes, it is the way it is perceived. There are a lot of reasons why it is perceived this way. The rebalance is a whole different complicated problem. You have to understand what the rebalance is and what it is not. First of all, the reason we have the term rebalance is because after the Obama administration came into power, it wanted to say that they were doing something different than the Bush administration. Initially, they said we are back in Asia. However, then the U.S. had to clarify what being back in Asia meant. People kept on pushing for an explanation to the point where in the 2010 National Security Strategy the U.S. actually articulated what it meant.
It was saying that Southeast Asia has become a very important part of Asia. The region is where the middle classes are developing, where economic growth is moving away from China, creating an opportunity for the U.S. to cut out China as the link between Southeast Asia and the U.S. market. What the U.S. wants to do is increase trade for the benefit of American companies and the opportunity to realize benefits from economic growth in Southeast Asia. While the rest of Asia is important, what we are really worried about is economic and diplomatic ties with Southeast Asia. The way to deal with this is by developing a strategy that encompasses all three areas: economics, diplomacy and military. But what happened in the execution was that the military received all the attention, the economic piece got wrapped up in the Trans Pacific Partnership and the diplomatic piece naturally got wrapped up in ASEAN related organizations. These are ultimately not very important, as they are essentially talk shops and can’t fulfill the requirement of relevance that Hillary Clinton laid out in 2011. Therefore, they are never going to produce something like the OSCE or the European Union in Asia. That is why the economic and diplomatic parts have been less successful.
Of course the military piece is also more visible just by the nature of what military engagement is, but in this case also because the U.S. has a very difficult time influencing economic policy. Its economic policy is driven by companies and not by the central government. Because the U.S. is so anti-mercantilist in its approach, it wants to leave this up to the individual companies. These individual companies however don’t operate on ten-year horizons like they do in a lot of countries that are in fact generally mercantilist. What you therefore see is the U.S. trying to encourage companies to invest and increase trade with Southeast Asia, but there is very little leverage the U.S. can put on these companies to actually do this. So you have foreign direct investment going into Southeast Asia but it is for very different reasons than to promote long-term trade with Southeast Asia or jobs in America. That is why it becomes very difficult for the U.S. to actually execute a coherent rebalance to Asia.
To wrap this up, what the rebalance to Asia really is about, is to maintain engagement in Asia. People from the old Bush administration correctly point out that the U.S. never left Asia. This whole rebalance thing was generated by the general statement that we are back in Asia at the beginning of the Obama administration and then it sort of blossomed into something more, mainly because people kept saying you are not doing anything, you are just saying that you are back in Asia. Now we are at the end of the Obama administration and back to where we were in the early 2000s. We recognize that the U.S. has to stay engaged in Asia because China and Southeast Asia are the engines for economic growth. There is 7-10% economic growth in Asia and 1% at best in Europe today. So we recognize that you have to stay engaged, but how do you maintain some sort of glamour about being engaged in Asia, when all you are doing is maintaining what you had back during the previous Administration?
Would you say that the next U.S. presidency will continue this engagement or will the events in the Ukraine and the Middle East reshape the foreign policy focus?
After the Obama administration leaves, it doesn’t really matter whether the next administration is Republican or Democrat, you will see talk about engagement in Asia . Of course the U.S. is also going to stay engaged in the Middle East. The Middle East and Europe are not going away and the U.S. will maintain its global interests with a global strategy. The rebalance to Asia was never a zero-sum rebalance. As I said, this whole narrative about rebalance to Asia is just a recognition that you have to stay engaged in Asia.
This global approach is accompanied by huge costs. Given the Chinese dependence on sea lanes of communication (SLOC) for trade but also for energy imports, some Chinese experts argue that China would like to play a bigger role in SLOC protection but these plans are being opposed by the U.S. In the U.S., some experts argue that they would be glad if the U.S. could cut costs with China playing a more active role, while more security oriented experts see it as a potential risk. What is your point of view on this?
My answer to that is addressing the broader problem that we had with the idea that the U.S. is the security guarantor in Asia and China is the region’s economic growth engine. That is an unsustainable model. Ultimately, you have to be able to share both. This is where the real conundrum between China and the U.S. occurs. Of course the U.S. would like to have China more engaged in security throughout Southeast Asia, as long as it is on the U.S.’s terms. China also would like to have the U.S. more engaged in Asian economics as long as it is directly beneficial to China. So there has to be a compromise on both sides. The U.S. needs to accept that China is going to become more engaged in the security of the South China Sea, broader Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. China needs to accept that the U.S. has legitimate economic interests in Southeast Asia that go beyond using Southeast Asia as the manufacturer for components that get assembled in China and brought to the U.S. That is the big picture of what has to happen.
You are right, there are a lot of people in the U.S. who see this as a good thing, but say China would have to follow our rules and would have to be subordinate to the U.S. because our interests trump their interests in the area of security. China would say in terms of economics – even though they of course don’t openly argue this – that they are mercantilist and maintain their national economic interest by doing trade agreements in Southeast Asia that are excluding the U.S. So there has to be a compromise on both sides for the longer term – bigger picture U.S.-China cooperation to actually happen. I don’t think that this is going to happen within the context of multilateral institutions developed around ASEAN. This organization is ultimately a black hole that absorbs problems, but doesn’t seem to have the capacity to solve them.
In China economic growth is slowing down, probably even below 7% and China is increasing its military expenditure. At the same time, the U.S. is lowering military expenditure and the U.S. economy is gaining momentum. Does this shifting balance of economics and military help U.S.-China Relations?
The real question behind this is whether we can reach some sort of equilibrium in the shift between the economic and security elements in Asia, while avoiding an open conflict or warfare between the U.S. and China. It’s possible, but there is a lot of risk involved in the process. Part of that risk has to do with the willingness on each side to accept the other side’s interests, especially when you look at how you could integrate the Chinese military into what has been an overly U.S. dominated security environment in the maritime spaces of East Asia. This is a very difficult task that is complicated by the overly aggressive activities of China in the view of its neighbors.
Even if the U.S. could accept that, going back to your question about whether the U.S. is an enabler for bad behavior on the part of the Japanese and the Philippines, it makes it very difficult for these countries to see how they can get a positive outcome from what is happening. The U.S. narrative and certainly the narrative in Japan and the Philippines is that China is being aggressive, while in China the opposite is seen as true. They see their aggressive behavior as a response to the aggressive behavior of Japan and the Philippines. A resolution to this kind of narrative has to be worked out for any progress to happen. If it would be just a great power conflict, the U.S. and China could probably come to some accommodation, like Hugh White suggests in his approach, saying we can work this out. The problem is that we have these other countries that are not so sure they are going to get a fair deal in the process. This is the main challenge, to bring along everyone in this condominium that Hugh White hopes for. You have to find out how to make this balance and not upset someone to the point where they try to take military action to rectify what they see as the real Problem.
Thank you very much for the interview.
 More about Carl Baker at: http://csis.org/expert/carl-w-baker.
 For a more detailed assessment of the Chinese perception of encirclement, refer to: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/chinas-biggest-fear-us-indian-encirclement-12225.
 The role of the U.S-Japan alliance and the deterrence system is part of the analysis of Ariana Navarro Rowberry, which is available here: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2015/01/06-advanced-conventional-weapons-deterrence-us-japan-alliance-rowberry/advanced-conventional-weapons-deterrence-us-japan-rowberry.pdf.
 The full text of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) is available here: http://www.gov.ph/2014/04/29/document-enhanced-defense-cooperation-agreement/. For the Q&A regarding the Agreement, refer to the information provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines: http://www.gov.ph/2014/04/28/qna-on-the-enhanced-defense-cooperation-agreement/. Finally, an analysis of the EDCA in the general context of U.S.-Southeast Asia relations, can be found in the Pacific Forum publication Comparative Connections: http://csis.org/files/publication/1403qus_seasia.pdf.
 “A settlement reached by Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy that permitted German annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia,“ http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/397522/Munich-Agreement.
 To read up on John Bolton’s idea of solving the Iran nuclear issue by breaking key links in the nuclear-fuel cycle, setting back the nuclear program for three to five years while supporting Iran’s opposition and aiming at regime change in Teheran, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/opinion/to-stop-irans-bomb-bomb-iran.html?_r=0.
 The 2010 National Security Strategy is available here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_security_strategy.pdf.
 For an assessment of the importance of the Trans Pacific Partnership, refer to Brad Glosserman’s “America’s TPP dilemmas” PacNet No. 20: http://csis.org/files/publication/Pac1520.pdf.
 For more about her idea of the role of the U.S. is Asia, read her Foreign Policy contribution of October 2011, titled “America’s Pacific Century”, http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/10/11/americas-pacific-century/.
 To get an insight into Hugh White’s assessment, refer to the following articles written by him last year: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hugh-white/china-america-relations_b_5412014.html and http://nationalinterest.org/feature/asias-nightmare-scenario-war-the-east-china-sea-over-the-10805.
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