WASHINGTON — This could be the Asian century. And for the United States, that could be a challenge.
American defense and intelligence planners, looking 15 to 25 years ahead, see a rapidly growing Asia flexing its economic, military, and diplomatic muscle. Relations between the US and several nations in Asia could become seriously strained.
Asia's prospects during the next two decades will likely revolve around five key players - China, Japan, India, Russia, and the US. All could play decisive roles:
* China, booming in both low-tech and high-tech manufacturing, will be at the heart of Asia's future. As China's influence expands, its efforts to regain Taiwan and dominate the South China Sea could exacerbate relations with the US.
* Japan, the most technologically advanced in Asia, could find itself in a tight spot. Its proximity to an assertive China and its dependence on imported oil may force Japan to move away from the US and shore up its relationships with rising regional powers like India.
* Russia, with a shrinking population and weakened economy, could become a smaller but still important player in Asia. Its rich Siberian petroleum deposits may tempt oil-hungry China to put new pressure on Russia's Asian borders.
* India, a budding economic powerhouse with increasing high-tech skills, could develop into China's most serious Asian rival. By 2050, it is expected to become the world's most populous country.
* The US, the dominant maritime power in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, could face new competition. China and India may both become serious blue-water rivals by 2025.
The Pentagon is reassessing the US military's requirements for the next two decades in light of changes taking place in Asia and elsewhere. Strategist Andrew Marshall heads the study.
Changing military terrain
Unclassified government reports indicate that America's military needs will change significantly - and soon - primarily because of Asia.
America's military - bristling with 7,000 heavy Abrams tanks, 12 aircraft-carrier battle groups, and thousands of short-range, high-performance fighter aircraft - was designed to wage an all-out war with the Soviet Union. If the US had to assert its military strength in Asia, its military needs would almost certainly be quite different.
Short-range fighters aren't very practical if one has no place to land them. And American air bases in Asia, unlike Europe, are few and far between. As a 1999 study headed by Mr. Marshall concluded: "Planned tactical aircraft, such as the FA-18, F-22, and Joint Strike Fighter, are relatively short-range and would be of little use in most Asian scenarios considered."
Meanwhile, the US Army's heavy tanks, which might have been a great advantage on the Northern European plain against the former USSR, would be out of place in Asia, where the US is unlikely to be in a major land war.
This is why some US strategists - as well as President Bush - say it is time to rethink the role of the military before pouring billions into new weapons like the F-22 fighter, or aircraft carriers like the just-christened USS Ronald Reagan.
Several long-range scenarios could bring about rising tensions in Asia. One that requires little speculation is Asia's growing thirst for petroleum.
China's boom, as well as India's, is expected to be fueled for the next 25 years by traditional energy sources - oil, natural gas, and coal.
The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that by 2015, three-quarters of all Mideast oil will go to Asia, while only one-tenth will go to Western nations. US supplies will come increasingly from the Atlantic Basin.
While some oil will move southward from Russian Siberia to China, Middle Eastern oil will in all likelihood be the most plentiful and strategically critical for China, India, and Japan.
To reach China and Japan by ship, this Mideast oil travels by ship from the Persian Gulf across the Indian Ocean, then through the choke point of the Strait of Malacca (or, alternatively, through the Straits of Sunda or Lombok in Indonesia). Finally, it crosses the South China Sea.
Who's in charge at sea
Currently it is Western sea power that assures that this oil flows freely, despite pirates, Middle Eastern unrest, and other dangers. But how long will China, Asia's strongest power, be willing to leave its lifeline in the hands of others, particularly the US?
Already the Chinese are expanding naval forces with the help of Russia.
India, until now heavily focused on its stormy relations with Pakistan, is also likely to spread its sails in the next two decades. One possibility, say Pentagon planners, would be for India, like China, to strive for an expanded Navy that could eventually dominate the Indian Ocean.
The US could find itself displaced in both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
The Chinese and Indian spheres of influence could not only nudge out US military influence in the region, but could also isolate Japan, whose oil lifeline could fall under the sway of China.
Smaller nations, such as the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam, could also feel dominated by China.
None of this scenario is written in stone, of course. As a recent study sponsored by the CIA notes: "Estimates of development in China over the next 15 years are fraught with unknowables."
It adds, "China's ambitious goals for reforming its economy will be difficult to realize." Those goals include "restructuring state-owned enterprises, cleaning up and transforming the banking system, cutting the government's employment rolls in half, and opening up the economy to greater foreign competition."
Yet a number of US military planners say it is time to get ready for changes in Asia, however things develop.
Marshall's Pentagon group won't complete its study until later this spring. But his 1999 report, "Asia 2025," hints at the direction the group may take.
The US, it suggested, should emphasize a maritime strategy in Asia, with a "premium" on both naval and air forces.
These assets should be configured to deal with future threats against them that may include long-range precision weapons able to devastate nonstealthy targets like aircraft carriers. This means US ships and bases will need highly accurate and mobile antimissile defenses.
It's also likely that there will be greater threats to US forces from weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological, and chemical) as they proliferate to smaller states, or even terrorist groups, in the next 20 years.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor