Is another ‘Guam doctrine’ moment approaching in Asia?

Nixon 2.0?

On 25 July 1969 President Nixon outlined a US strategic policy for Asia that came to be known—because of the location in which the speech was delivered—as the ‘Guam doctrine’. The Guam doctrine contained three elements: a reassurance that the United States would not abandon its allies; a reaffirmation that extended nuclear deterrence remained a key US contribution towards regional security; and an expectation that regional military forces would become more self-reliant in their own defence. It was a speech intended to suggest that, post-Vietnam, the US would not lightly embark upon a future land-war in Asia, but it was widely interpreted across the region as a downplaying of the US role in the Asia Pacific. Here in Australia, it was one of the drivers towards the more self-reliant defence policy that unfolded in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, in 2013, with the US defence budget under pressure, and a rising level of economic development in Asia, are we close to a second round of the Guam doctrine?

It would certainly make sense for Washington to be more interested in burden sharing with its allies now that its economy is under pressure and theirs are expanding. And the US has been telling its NATO allies that it expects more from them in carrying the weight in Europe and its near abroad. But I sense that a repeat of the Guam doctrine isn’t close. I think there are three reasons to believe that. First, the general tone of US declaratory policy remains expansive in the Asian context, despite the slowing operational tempo suggested by Iraq and Afghanistan. The speech that Obama delivered to the Australian parliament in November 2011 suggests a greater engagement with Asia, not a lesser engagement. It’s true that the language of that engagement is not settled, and the fact that the administration is unsure in its own mind about whether its ‘pivoting’ or ‘rebalancing’ is not entirely reassuring to its allies and partners on the western side of the Pacific. But the US’ Asian allies aren’t hearing the same messages about burden-sharing that NATO allies are.

Second, it makes sense for the US to press forward with a new strategic footprint in Asia. Its old footprint was primarily forged during World War II and the Cold War, when much of the strategic weight of Asia lay up in the Northeast subregion. The Soviet Union, Japan, the two Koreas and a growing China meant that the strategic centre of gravity for the region lay somewhere around the Korean peninsula. Nowadays, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the relative slow economic growth of Japan, and the rapid economic development of China, India and Southeast Asia (not to mention Australia itself) all suggest a centre of gravity further southwest, and moving a little further in that direction every year. As the regional centre of gravity moves, the US footprint will move—which is why Washington is looking at new opportunities for strategic engagement in our own subregion.

Third, President Obama is now acutely aware that regional sensitivities about the future US role are high. A perception that the US was walking backwards in Asia would light a Bunsen-burner under a volatile mix of nationalism and anxiety amongst allies and partners. Especially in the wake of North Korea’s third nuclear test and Chinese assertiveness of territorial claims, a restatement of the notion that US allies should be primarily responsible for their own defence could be horribly destabilising. Asian countries look out upon 20 years of looming regional transformation. They are all prepared to weight up as needed the better to ensure their own security during that period. But another Guam doctrine moment in Asian security would be alarming to the region’s technologically-savvy US allies.

So, while the US economy is pulling its strategic policy in one direction, the tempo of strategic change in Asia is pulling it in another. I’m betting strategy trumps economics.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user cicatrix.

Second, it makes sense for the US to press forward with a new strategic footprint in Asia. Its old footprint was primarily forged during World War II and the Cold War, when much of the strategic weight of Asia lay up in the Northeast subregion. The Soviet Union, Japan, the two Koreas and a growing China meant that the strategic centre of gravity for the region lay somewhere around the Korean peninsula. Nowadays, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the relative slow economic growth of Japan, and the rapid economic development of China, India and Southeast Asia (not to mention Australia itself) all suggest a centre of gravity further southwest, and moving a little further in that direction every year. As the regional centre of gravity moves, the US footprint will move—which is why Washington is looking at new opportunities for strategic engagement in our own subregion.

Third, President Obama is now acutely aware that regional sensitivities about the future US role are high. A perception that the US was walking backwards in Asia would light a Bunsen-burner under a volatile mix of nationalism and anxiety amongst allies and partners. Especially in the wake of North Korea’s third nuclear test and Chinese assertiveness of territorial claims, a restatement of the notion that US allies should be primarily responsible for their own defence could be horribly destabilising. Asian countries look out upon 20 years of looming regional transformation. They are all prepared to weight up as needed the better to ensure their own security during that period. But another Guam doctrine moment in Asian security would be alarming to the region’s technologically-savvy US allies.

So, while the US economy is pulling its strategic policy in one direction, the tempo of strategic change in Asia is pulling it in another. I’m betting strategy trumps economics.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user cicatrix.

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