Facing Westward to the Future

By General Charles C. Krulak, U.S. Marine Corps

Poised at the threshold of the 21st century, we still look westward for future economic growth. The key to our national security lies in the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean region, whose markets are essential to the continued health of our economy. Access to and free trade within these markets can be possible only in a regional environment of political, economic, and military stability; such tranquility, however, is far from a natural state of affairs. Many have hoped for a period of global stability after the demise of the Soviet Union, but it has not materialized. Many challenges are surfacing to threaten the security of the United States and its allies in the 21st century:

  • Rapid advances in science and technology are bringing vastly increased lethality to conventional weapons, and are making weapons of mass destruction more available.
  • The post-Cold War diffusion of power and resultant political fragmentation are creating power vacuums, from which spring new conflicts fueled by ancient ethnic, religious, and cultural animosities.
  • These conflicts are aggravated by explosive population growth, regional food shortages, and mass migrations, which bring a new dynamic to local conflicts and increasingly threaten to escalate into large-scale regional conflict.
  • The world is becoming more economically interdependent.
  • The global economic center of gravity is shifting westward toward the Asian Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral.

The Asian Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral is as diverse as it is wealthy. It is home to one of the planet's most influential economies (Japan), the last significant communist state (China), the two most populous nations (China and India) and the most populous Islamic nation (Indonesia). Six of the world's great religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Taoism) intersect there. In addition, this region creates more than 33% of the world's wealth, contains 41% of the world's bank reserves, and consumes 28% of the oil. It is responsible for one out of every six jobs in the United States. In terms of geography, resources, and economic and industrial capacity, the nations that comprise this region have all the tools—and the momentum—to become the world's economic heartland. Unfortunately, these elements of strength also provide tinder for conflict, and regional tensions could in time become the seeds of global instability.

Geography . The Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral features great land masses, peninsulas, islands, straits, rain forests, mountains, and river basins—all separated by water. This diverse and fragmented geography has nurtured civilizations that over the course of many centuries have learned to excel at, and depend upon, sea-based trade. As a result, the region's economies have become extremely interdependent—with one nation's success fueling expansion for its neighbors. This focus on trade and regional interdependence has enabled the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean nations to bring the productivity of their national infrastructures to unprecedented levels during the final decade of the 20th century—with incredible economic growth continuing through the foreseeable future.

This fragmented geography is a source of strength, but it also is a potential weakness. The nations in the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral rely on a steady flow of strategic raw materials and resources—such as oil—to fuel their burgeoning economies. These resources must move along the sea lines of communication, through the straits, and near the islands and peninsulas of their economic, cultural, and military competitors. If these resources become scarce, or the demand for them cannot be met, these geographic features can become choke points, taking on new strategic significance. The region's unique geography can help a desperate or aggressor nation interdict, divert, or deny the flow of resources to its competitors. Considering oil, for example: More than 80% of Japan's oil imports must transit not only through the Strait of Hormuz but also past Pakistan, India, Myanmar, through the Strait of Malacca, and past Vietnam, the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, China, and Taiwan. With regional demand for oil projected to outstrip supply early in the ?Ist century, the potential for regional tension is likely to rise.

Economic Growth . By the year 2020, the global economy's center of gravity will have shifted from North America to Asia, with 80% of the world's largest economies located along the Pacific and Indian Ocean rim. Today, in China and India, we are watching the emergence of two economic superpowers that together will have a major impact on the global economy. Both have burgeoning high-tech industries, an expanding middle class, and a limitless pool of inexpensive labor that will compete strongly with other manufacturing and service-- based economies in the world. Current projections show that China's economy will be 40% larger than that of the United States by the year 2020.

At present, Japan has the region's strongest economy, with a growth rate of more than 4% per year. But Japan's economic preeminence is being challenged by such other economic and industrial powers as China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which have annual rates of growth of more than 6%. These competitors are beginning to erode the Japanese market share of high-technology exports.

The wealthier states in the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral are generating economic growth throughout the rest of the region by underwriting industrial initiatives in less-wealthy nations and by improving the regional transportation infrastructure (e.g., the new superhighway in between China and Hong Kong). The effects of these initiatives are most noticeable in China's Guangdong and Fujan provinces, where cross-border investment from Hong Kong has generated economic growth rates exceeding 15% per year. This spreading development will continue to gain strength, owing largely to the region's economic interdependence, which is growing at more than 2.8% per year.

Energy Requirements . Fueling this economic growth is oil, and the demand for it—by the region's existing economic powers and the newly industrialized economies—is increasing rapidly. At present, the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean nations use 23% of the world's energy, up from 18% ten years ago. Moreover, the region's rate of oil consumption is forecast to continue growing at 4% per year. One of the by-products of the region's economic growth is the creation of a middle class, which now has the means and the desire to purchase consumer goods. This year, Chinese workers will buy 300,000 new automobiles; that number will increase to 3,000,000 by the year 2000. In order to fuel these vehicles and support its growing industrial sector in the next century, China must increase its regional oil imports from 10.9% to 19.4%. With a finite supply of oil, an increase of this magnitude could provide the tinder for a flare-up of regional instability.

Most of these regional powers lack adequate oil reserves, and even today's oil producers—such as Indonesia—will be net importers by the year 2000. Today's relative peace in this region could be shattered by any constriction in the supply of oil in the near term. Over the long term, there will not be enough oil to meet the region's demand unless alternative energy sources are developed. This future shortfall is cause for concern, because it could lead to a regional arms race. The national security of these nations hinges upon the health of their respective economies, and their economies have a voracious and growing demand for oil.

Security . The current security environment in the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral is laced with contradictions. On one hand, the region seems to be fairly stable, bolstered by surging economies, and unprecedented multilateral political cooperation. But on the other hand, longstanding political, economic, military, and cultural disagreements are fomenting uncertainty and anxiety in the region. India and Pakistan have gone to war several times in the past half-century, and still are fighting—albeit on a limited scale—on the Siachen Glacier. China, which already possesses the world's largest standing army, is increasing the size and quality of its forces, and has made threatening overtures in the past year toward Taiwan. North Korea's military forces still pose a threat to Asian stability, and its precarious economic and agricultural situation could generate massive migrations toward South Korea and China. North Korea's military posturing is a source of anxiety today, but many in the region also are concerned about the future military potential of a reunified Korea. The region is wracked with such territorial disputes as those over the Indian Kashmir and the Spratly Islands. In addition, overlapping maritime claims in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the Sea of Japan, and the Gulf of Thailand all contribute to a heightened level of anxiety and sow the seeds of distrust and conflict. These insecurities and anxieties have caused many of the regional powers to upgrade their military arsenals.

Trends in Regional Military Procurement . The end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union have not led to a reduction in military spending in this region. In fact, the nations of the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral are increasing the size and capabilities of their military arsenals. It is clear that the traditional Cold War powers have reduced their defense spending drastically, while the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean regional powers are increasing theirs at a rapid rate.

One current trend in these weapon-procurement programs is the change from arsenals designed primarily to combat insurgents to ones focused on guaranteeing national sovereignty, backing territorial claims, and protecting sea lines of communication. India, already a regional naval power, is improving the capabilities of its fleet. Japan, the nation with the biggest oil appetite in the region, already has a strong navy, and is in the process of building an even stronger one. China is developing amphibious power-projection forces, has fortified the Spratly Islands, and has built forward air bases on Woody Island in the Paracels—allowing its Su-27s to cover these islands with fighter aircraft support. Most telling though, are the newly industrialized economies' weapon-procurement programs. Such countries as Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia are investing heavily in naval assets. Amphibious shipping, attack submarines, mine-countermeasures ships, ski-jump equipped small-deck aircraft carriers, and aircraft armed with antiship missiles are flowing into the region's expanding arsenals. In addition, these countries can afford top-line equipment in large numbers, because of excess capacities of their economies. Although these weapon-procurement programs are designed to protect national sovereignty and livelihood, they also could lead to a regional arms race, which would be destabilizing.

The nations in this region have a valid requirement to protect their sea lines of communication from interdiction. But they must be aware of additional threats that lurk in the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral. These are internal threats, which reside within the growing economies, feeding the flames of domestic and regional chaos: cultural, ethnic, and religious conflict; environmental pollution; rapidly increasing urbanization; drug cartels and organized crime; food and clean-water shortages; population explosions; and large-scale unemployment for unskilled labor are creating friction and challenges that can undermine regional stability. The geography of the region lends itself to ethnic and religious splintering, similar to what we have seen in the former Yugoslavia. Armed with high-technology weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, these ethnic enclaves, positioned along the world's busiest sea lanes, could not only interdict their ethnic or religious opponent's flow of trade, but in the process they also could interdict the trade of the entire region. Small-scale ethnic battles over resources could trigger larger regional conflagrations, much more devastating than any scenario envisioned for the Balkans. Chaos in these littorals would affect much more than just the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean region. The effect would be global.

Importance of Regional Stability

Leaving aside the possibility that a 21st-century regional conflict could escalate into a large-scale conventional or even a nuclear confrontation, we still should recognize that both the stability and security of the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral are of great importance to the national security interests of the United States. Our National Security Strategy defines our most basic vital interests as the defense of our territory and citizens, our allies, and our economic well-being, which in turn is tied inextricably to the economies of the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean region. Today, 40% of U.S. overseas trade is with Asia, and U.S.-Pacific trade outstrips U.S.-European trade. By the year 2000, our Asian trade will double our European trade. Instability in the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral—whether fed by resource shortages, territorial or cultural disputes, or chaos—will affect our economy, our citizens, and our national interests. We also should remember that the nations in this region include some of our best and most respected allies, and it is vital to our national interest that we work together with our allies to maintain regional security and stability.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies has identified four vital national interests in this region. We must:

  • Ensure that a regional hegemon does not emerge and upset the balance of power.
  • Ensure the security of the Korean Peninsula.
  • Ensure commercial, political, and military access throughout the region.
  • Contain the growth and proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons throughout the region.

The best way for the United States to protect these vital interests in the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral is by remaining politically, economically, and militarily engaged in the region. The key to this engagement is presence.


The United States is, and will continue to be, the critical guarantor of regional political stability. At the same time, we cannot assume that we can continue to conduct business as we have in the past. The Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean nations have matured both politically and economically over the past 50 years. The methods and strategies through which we established presence earlier in this century may no longer work in this region. The political leaders of our regional allies still rely on the United States to provide military forces to maintain stability and security, but they are coming under increasing pressure to reduce the numbers of U.S. land-based personnel and their support infrastructure. Whether this is a short-term phenomenon or a long-term trend remains to be seen, but in the past ten years we have lost our bases in the Philippines, and we recently have consolidated certain U.S. bases on the island of Okinawa—a result of local pressures, among other things.

The region's security and stability require that the United States maintain a credible military presence, but regional political dynamics may deny us access to, or the use of the traditional land bases and facilities we have used for years. Nonetheless, we still must ensure that we have the flexibility and the means to project decisive military force, appropriate for use across the full range of conflict—and a force whose basing posture is acceptable to our allies. Without question, the forces best suited to provide this flexibility and acceptability are provided by the Navy and Marine Corps.

Why the Naval Services?

In large measure, the cultures associated with the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean region look to the sea for their livelihood, their defense, and their international relations. The sea provides the common ground for the military interaction vital to regional collective security. This factors very heavily in what the regional powers find acceptable in terms of U. S. military presence. Traditionally, naval forces have been looked on as politically and culturally acceptable because they are viewed as transitory. At the same time, it is the presence of the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps in this region that provides our allies with a tangible symbol of both our commitment and capability to remain engaged for the long term in the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral.

Naval forces are unique in the range of options they provide for the National Command Authorities (NCA) to respond to national security challenges. In many ways, these air, land, and sea forces can be used as a rheostat for the NCA, providing an on-scene combined-arms team with a wide range of force-application capabilities, which can be tailored to meet any contingency. Whether that means simply deterring a threat to stability by maintaining presence, ensuring the integrity of sea lines of communication, conducting humanitarian assistance operations or participating in a major regional contingency, naval forces allow the NCA to operate across the full range of conflict. Forward deployed, on-the-scene Navy and Marine Corps forces offer the NCA the ability to respond quickly and decisively respond to a conflict in its incipient phase. The wide range of force-application capabilities resident in these naval forces allows the NCA to employ precisely the right amount of power required to deter an aggressor, resolve the conflict, or secure access for follow-on forces. Because these naval forces can respond so expeditiously, operate freely from land or sea bases, and employ such a diverse set of tools, they allow the NCA the luxury of choosing from a wide range of options—turning up or down the power setting as needed to achieve their objectives. If the NCA were forced to wait for the deployment of U.S.-based combat forces, their range of options could be diminished greatly.

Forward-deployed naval forces are expeditionary by design. They are organized specifically for forward deployment as a part of their normal mission, and as a result there is little or no additional cost associated with their commitment to a contingency. As a crisis unfolds, these naval forces can reposition, to be immediately responsive to the orders of the NCA. Since their forward deployment already has been funded, the Department of Defense will not have to ask for heavy supplemental funding to cover the costs associated with pop-up contingencies. With the defense budget already pared to the minimum, we cannot afford to ignore the economies resident in naval expeditionary forces.

Implications for the Naval Services

Look at a map of the region. What are the potential challenges? Where are the choke points? Look closely at the distances involved in projecting military power to the region. What bases might we be able to use today? Will they still be available into the 21st century? Geography will not change—the tyranny of distance in Asia will remain a factor. Distance equates to time; time equates to political leverage.

We know that the future political landscape of this region will be quite different from today's. Maintaining presence there will require agile, competent, and capable naval power-projection forces, able to conduct operations ranging from submarine warfare and mine-clearing operations to high-intensity land and air combat, simultaneously with humanitarian operations. In addition, these naval forces must be able to operate in surroundings that range from open seas to urban slums. Most important, they must be able to accomplish their missions from their secure sea bases.

We cannot avoid the geostrategic reality of the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean region, whose geography places a premium on naval presence, access, and flexibility. Since presence in this littoral is best provided by forward-deployed, on-scene, Navy and Marine Corps forces, this translates to an increased emphasis on naval amphibious shipping, maritime prepositioned forces, and land and air combat systems that can operate from austere land bases and naval platforms. Contingencies in this region could range from small-scale humanitarian operations to large-scale conflict, but irrespective of the scope of the conflict, our ability to respond will depend directly upon our access to the region's port and air facilities. Forward-deployed naval forces will be responsible for guaranteeing such access, enabling the introduction of conventional follow-on forces, humanitarian organizations, and additional logistics support. Naval forces offer a flexible operating posture that is uniquely suited to the region's geography, political, and social dynamics. This becomes increasingly important in situations where a host nation decides that it will not (or for political reasons cannot) allow U.S. forces to operate within its borders or airspace. In such cases, the land and aviation forces that were operating ashore simply redeploy back to their sea bases and continue operations.

We must ensure that our naval expeditionary forces are properly organized and equipped to provide the National Command Authorities with a relevant force-application rheostat. To maintain security in this region in the 21st century, Naval power-projection forces must be visible and on the scene, working together with our allies, providing presence, deterring potential aggressors, dampening the forces of chaos, and promoting stability and peace.

As the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean littoral economies grow and become more interdependent, instability—anywhere—becomes less and less tolerable. This is why a continued credible forward presence is so vital. By underwriting stability, by providing the security foundation upon which economies can grow, free from pressures to invest in massive military establishments, we help reduce the potential for conflict by reducing the need for states to arm against one another. This is not just their gain; it is ours as well. We ultimately profit economically while enhancing regional security. Markets replace threats, and trading partners replace former enemies.

Since regional stability is so critical to our economic health and national security it is imperative that we invest adequately in our presence providers-the naval services. In the words of then-National Security Advisor Anthony Lake: "…we must be a Pacific power, or no power at all."

To be a Pacific power, we must be a naval power.

General Krulak is the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps. 


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