“After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region… Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth — the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation. ” – US President Barrack Obama, speaking in Canberra, Australia in 2011.
The United States and its armed forces are the cornerstone of Asia-Pacific economic, diplomatic and military security. By their presence, the East Asian region has been able to undergo fast paced economic growth and development in a relatively stable environment. Questions are now emerging over the future of America’s maritime supremacy, particularly in light of China’s ‘peaceful development’ and growing domestic pressures.
States across the Asia-Pacific are facing a trade off between financial and defensive stability, represented by their relations with China and the US, respectively. This struggle for power has resulted in extensive military modernisation, a dangerous trend in such a complex and dynamic multipolar region.
Alliances and partnerships that were left floundering without the strategic rationale of a mutual threat after the fall of the Soviet Union have since been re-purposed into new agreements and institutions. The concept of security as defence of domestic territory has developed into the stability and security of entire regions. This has formed the basis of new threats and challenges, such as the rise of China, the proliferation of advanced military technology and the spread of international terrorism.
US Naval supremacy is no longer set in stone, and with military spending exploding across the region, old flash-points are becoming more and more dangerous.
Since 2010, China has rapidly ramped up its military expansion and become more assertive, seizing territory and constructing naval bases across the pacific. America’s response has been cautious and measured, though this has been little relief to its regional allies with the growing influence from middle powers, such as Australia and Indonesia, who are hedging their diplomatic relations between China and the US.
Still the top dog
From the takeover of the Obama administration, Washington has clearly outlined the strategic significance of East Asia to US interests and emphasized the ‘Asia Rebalance’ as a central aspect of US foreign policy. US forces are forward deployed in order to assure allies and partners of US security commitments, discouraging Chinese coercion or North Korean aggression and increasing the security capacity of vulnerable states.
In enforcing stability in East Asia, China is encouraged to peacefully integrate further into the region and to reassure South East Asian States that there is no binary choice between the US and China. It should be noted that South East Asia has largely benefited from China’s rise, most notably from the ASEAN-China free trade agreement in 2010. Since the deal came into effect, trade between ASEAN and China rapidly expanded from US$59.6 billion in 2003, to US$192.5 billion by 2008.
In order to safeguard this new economic development, these nations are welcoming US military involvement to protect the balance of power in the region. In 2015, U.S. Secretary of Defence Ash Carter outlined the next phase of the ‘Asia Rebalance’ as having increased capabilities and investment in forward defence, new partnerships, and the development of the Trans Pacific Partnership. As nearly every state in East Asia is undergoing military modernization, it is important for the US to step up and continue to do the same if they want to remain the leader of regional security. The key for the US is to manage this Asian rebalance without targeting China or compromising any economic relationships.
China presents the greatest threat and opportunity to East Asia and currently forms the basis for US military engagement. Many regional leaders are calling for the US to act as a guarantor against China; hoping to place the two giants against one another without compromising their own relationships or economic interdependency with the great powers.
The assertiveness and unpredictability surrounding China’s actions has caused players such as Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia to draw closer to US military efforts without becoming outright allies so as not to upset their long-standing economic partnerships with China. An example of the delicate balancing these countries have undertaken is in Singapore, where US naval deployments are welcomed, however, their 2006 Strategic Framework Agreement refuses official bases on their territory, loudly defending their desire to be neutral in the Sino-US debate. At its core, the US military is required by East Asian nations to balance against Chinese influence over hotspots in the region but must do so without acting too forcefully or too gently in the face of China’s ‘peaceful development’. The link between threat perception and alliance building is apparent as the increased awareness of tensions has served to strengthen US relationships with regional leaders, particularly in the South China Sea.
- China’s navy is playing a dangerous game of land grabs in the South China Seas
- The Trans-Pacific Partnership is shaping up to be the most controversial trade agreement in living memory
The South China Sea
The United States involvement in the South China Sea is central to preventing outbreaks of armed conflict and maintaining the balance of power between states. The maritime hotspot is strewn with territorial disputes and includes some of the most strategically significant sea lanes in the world. For instance the choke-point of the Malacca Strait connects the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and sees over 60 000 vessels and over 30 000 gross tonnes passing through each year, around 20 000 of which are carrying oil resources from the Middle East to East Asia. It is bordered by Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, the latter two of which have contested claims over sovereignty. China and Philippines likewise claim ownership over maritime areas with one dispute arising over the Scarborough Shoal archipelago in April 2012. This places the United States at a crossroads as it has no territorial claims and Asian states are reluctant to allow foreign personnel in the already volatile area.
US defence policy is in a bind – unwilling to engage in regional disputes directly but with a national interest in the stability of East Asia. This is evident in the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty of 1952. Relations between the two states broke down between 1992 to 1999 to the point that US military bases were forcibly shut down permanently by the Philippine government. In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence in ties following China’s increasingly aggressive expansion into Filipino territory. What is unclear is how the treaty now applies in the Scarborough Shoal archipelago and whether the US would side with China or the Philippines should an armed skirmish break out.
Others countries, such as Vietnam, may not have chosen US involvement had it not been for Chinese assertiveness over sovereignty claims. Vietnam conflicts with China over the Spratly Islands and Paracels archipelago and so closer military ties to the US are now seen as a means of containing China’s ambitions. These ties are explored with caution, with Vietnam limiting US navy port calls in order to prevent undermining their economic relationship with China in a careful balancing act that has not always succeeded.
US troops are seen to be an advantage to South East Asian nations in the South China Sea as they act as barriers and balancers to the outbreak of armed conflict and to China’s territorial demands. As such, Washington’s pre-eminent defence strategy is a means of maintaining intricate bilateral and multilateral ties to maintain their superiority in the region.
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