One in a series of excerpts from THE NEXT DECADE by Stratfor CEO George Friedman.
Korea may play a critical role. It is already the thorn in the side of both parts of the Sino-Japanese balance, but it is particularly irksome for the Japanese. For historical reasons, Korea despises the Japanese and distrusts the Chinese. It is not particularly comfortable with the United States, for that matter, but at least geography has made it dependent on the U.S.
As Japan increases in power and China weakens, the Koreans will need the United States more than ever, and the United States will rely on Korea to increase U.S. options for dealing with both countries. Fortunately, the U.S.-Korean relationship already exists, and for that reason extending it would not cause signi?cant concern to either Japan or China.
Korea also has become a signi?cant technological center. China in particular will be hungry for that technology, and having some control over the rate of transfer would increase U.S. leverage with China. For their part, the Koreans will need help in dealing with the North Korean nuisance, particularly in handling the ?nancial aspects of reuni?cation when it inevitably comes. A uni?ed Korea would want special trade opportunities with the United States, and even though Korea has nowhere else to turn, the American president should make such concessions, because over the next ten years Korea may well be the most important relationship the United States has in the western Paci?c. But reuni?cation is not the core issue. North Korea, for all its bluster, is a cripple, and its nuclear facilities exist only as long as others permit it. North Korea’s nuclear program has bought it time by de?ecting pressure. It cannot stabilize North Korea permanently. South Korea, in contrast, remains a dynamic power on its own and will remain a dynamic power whatever happens in the north.
The second important relationship the United States will have in the region is with Australia. One of the last landmasses to fall under European control, it is certainly on the margins of the world geographically, and most of its population remains con?ned to a relatively small area of the country’s southeast.
Geopolitically, Australia is misunderstood and misunderstands itself. It appears to be isolated and secure, yet its isolation is an illusion and its vulnerability real. For example, its nearest neighbor is Indonesia, a highly fragmented and weak country, separated from Australia by hundreds of miles of water. During World War II, Indonesia and its eastern neighbor, New Guinea, served an important strategic function for Australia, soaking up the Japanese attack and leaving the Japanese too weak to think about extending themselves farther south. Interestingly, World War II and Australia’s island buffers to the north have reinforced its sense of security, in spite of creating worries about boat people.
Despite the appearance of standing alone and secure, Australia is actually quite dependent on international trade, particularly the sale of food products and industrial minerals such as iron ore, to sustain its economy. These goods are shipped by sea, and Australia has no control whatever over the security of its sea-lanes. In a sense, then, Australia is like a creature whose arteries and veins are located outside its body, unprotected and constantly at risk.
Australia’s strategy for dealing with this vulnerability has been to ally itself with the dominant naval power in the western Paci?c—once Britain, now the United States. All alliances bear costs, and the British and Americans wanted the same quid pro quo: Australia’s participation in their wars. Australians sacri?ced heavily in the Boer War both world wars, and in Korea and Vietnam. Between 1970and 1990 the Australians pulled back from this role as military partner, but during this period there were few calls for their participation. In 1990, in Desert Storm, they returned to their strategy of assisting in military operations, and they then went on to ?ght in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Along with the security of sea-lanes, Australia’s well-being depends on an international trading regime that allows terms it can manage. Australia’s strategy of being of service to its Anglo-American cousins has bought it a seat at the table alongside the great powers. This has provided in?uence and security to its trade, something that Australia never could have achieved on its own.
During World War II, Australia served Britain by sending troops to North Africa. It served the United States by acting as a depot for building up U.S. forces for the Paci?c theater. Certainly Australian forces fought as well, but if no forces had been available, Australia’s tremendous value was its location, behind the geographic shield of Indonesia and New Guinea. Should any great power emerge in the western Paci?c to challenge the United States, Australia will once again be the strategic foundation for America’s Paci?c strategy. The caveat is that building the infrastructure for a rear depot took several years in World War II, and any future con?ict might not allow that kind of lead time.
For the United States, maintaining a relationship with Australia shouldn’t be dif?cult. Australia has only two strategic options. One is to withdraw from alliance commitments and assume that its interests will be addressed in passing. The other is to participate in the alliance and have more formal commitments from the United States. The former is cheaper but riskier. The latter is more expensive but more reliable.
If a major threat developed, Australia would most likely return to the
U.S. fold. If a western Paci?c power suddenly gained control of the sea-lanes, however, there is always a chance that Australia would make a deal, if it calculated that such compliance would achieve its ends with less risk than ?ghting alongside the Americans. Therefore, having prior commitments from and installations in Australia serves the American interests best by limiting Australia’s options.
Even if Australia is hostage to U.S. protection, its strategic importance is such that the United States should be as generous and seductive as possible. Being sparing in what it asks of Australian military commitments also makes sense, because the United States may need Australia more— and more broadly—in the future than it needs Australian troops now.
Of similar strategic importance for the United States is the city of Singapore, created by the British at the tip of the Malay Peninsula as a base from which to control the Strait of Malacca. This narrow passageway is still the primary route between the Indian and Paci?c Oceans, particularly for oil headed for China and Japan from the Persian Gulf. U.S. warships on the way to the Persian Gulf also must pass through this strait. Along with Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, it is one of the world’s great maritime choke points. Whoever controls it can shut off trade at will, or guarantee that it will ?ow.
Singapore is now an independent city-state, enormously prosperous because of its geographical position and because of its technology industry. It needs the United States as a customer, but also to protect its sovereignty. When Malaya was given independence, the primarily ethnic-Chinese Singapore split from the predominantly Muslim Malaysia. Relations have varied, and there has not been much threat of annexation, but Singapore understands two geopolitical realities: that the worst thing in the world is to be rich and weak, and that security is never a sure thing. What Malaysia or, for that matter, Indonesia might want to do in a generation or two can’t be predicted.
The United States cannot simply control Singapore; instead it must have cooperative relations with it. As in his dealings with Korea and Australia, the president should be more generous with Singapore than he needs to be in order to assure the alliance. The price is small and the stakes are very high.
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