The Obama administration released its Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) on Feb 1. The 2010 review – the fourth since 1997 – certainly has its ‘same old, same olds’. But it also bears the new Democratic administration’s stamp.
If the preceding 2006 QDR stressed the idea of the ‘Long War’ against terrorist networks, the 2010 QDR is more focused on the US prevailing in ongoing conflicts. It maintains, nevertheless, that the United States should develop the capacity to deter and thwart a broad range of security threats. These include adversarial states and terrorist groups.
While those pronouncements reflect Washington’s plans to maintain a militarily muscular approach in dealing with threats to its physical security, they also expose its recognition that resources are limited. Other approaches are therefore necessary to advance US interests. Indeed, the 2010 QDR stresses the importance of ‘revitalising defence relationships with allies and partners in key regions’.
The logic of that emphasis is plain. To relieve the stress on US resources, discourage free-riding, balance rising powers and preserve American access to the global commons, enhancing relations with allies and partners is vital. Such calculations underscore the US intention to firm up its defence relations with a specific group of South-east Asian states.
While the 2006 QDR made references to unnamed South-east Asian states as potential security partners, the 2010 review has been more explicit in identifying them. Broadly, they comprise three groups: formal allies, strategic partners and prospective strategic partners.
The first comprises Washington’s treaty allies, the Philippines and Thailand; the second, Singapore; and the third, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. The QDR states that the US intends to ‘enhance’ its alliance relations with the Philippines and Thailand, ‘deepen’ its cooperation with Singapore, and ‘develop new strategic relationships’ with Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Specifically, the areas where cooperation will be developed involve ‘counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, and support to humanitarian assistance operations in the region’. Mentioned too is the Pentagon’s plan for US forces to be more ‘forward-deployed’ in the area, where their presence ‘supports increased multilateral cooperation on maritime security and enhanced capabilities for assured access to the sea, air, space and cyberspace’.
How the US will advance these aims is discernible. The US Pacific Command (Pacom), whose area of operations covers South-east Asia, has developed strong military-to-military relations with the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore. War games and manoeuvres are conducted annually between Pacom forces and these states in exercises like Cobra Gold. Bilaterally, Pacom units have been deployed for counter-terrorism action in the Philippines. Other American units also engage Singapore in map planning exercises.
With Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, the Americans have made similar attempts to nurture relations. Indonesia has been participating in Cobra Gold. Exercise Garuda Shield brings together American and Indonesian soldiers for peace support exercises. Malaysian and US air forces exchange combat tactics in Exercise Cope Taufan. And since 2008, Vietnamese and American officers have met annually for dialogues on security issues and defence cooperation.
What bears watching is what effort the US makes to bring defence relations with these states to the next level. A possible restoration of US assistance to Indonesia’s Special Forces – suspended in the early 1990s because of the unit’s alleged human rights abuses in then-East Timor – will need to be addressed. Also, if a basing agreement enabling US access to Cam Ranh Bay can be obtained, it will mark a significant milestone in Vietnam-US relations since the Vietnam War.
The military architecture in South-east Asia looks solidly underpinned by a strong US presence – for now. China has yet to extend its military reach into the region as has the US. If the 2010 QDR has anything to say about this, it is that Washington intends to keep it that way. Building sturdy defence relations and maintaining basing agreements in the region will enable Washington to prevent potential adversaries from denying the US access to the global commons in the region.
South-east Asian states, insofar as they seek to hedge against any aggressive Chinese behaviour, will welcome Washington providing a strategic counterweight to Beijing. At the same time, they will continue to engage China in bilateral and multilateral exchanges in order to enhance cooperation and balance US influence. No country in South-east Asia wants to be put in a position where it has to choose between the two powers.
If the regional military balance is maintained and diplomatic interactions remain robust, they will not have to.
The writer is assistant professor of history and international affairs at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.