What to Make of US Military Presence in the Asia Pacific

Much to China’s chagrin, recent statements have made it clear that the US plans to be a major player in the South China Sea debate. The US has recently encouraged its allies in the region to stand up to China in regards to disputed claims on the South China Sea, and earlier this week President Obama announced plans for imminent US military presence in Australia. From the New York Times:

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama announced that the United States planned to deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia to shore up alliances in Asia, but the move prompted a sharp response from Beijing, which accused Mr. Obama of escalating military tensions in the region.

The agreement with Australia amounts to the first long-term expansion of the American military’s presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War. It comes despite budget cuts facing the Pentagon and an increasingly worried reaction from Chinese leaders, who have argued that the United States is seeking to encircle China militarily and economically.

“It may not be quite appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interest of countries within this region,” Liu Weimin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in response to the announcement by Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia.

To further consolidate Chinese suspicion that the US is “seeking to encircle China militarily,” there has also been talk of US Naval deployment in Singapore, a city-state directly bordering the disputed maritime region. From the Washington Post:

If China is unhappy with the Obama administration’s decision to send a handful of Marines to northern Australia, wait until the U.S. Navy starts basing warships in Singapore, on the edge of the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

The United States and Singapore are in the final negotiating stages of an agreement to base some of the U.S. Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships at the Changi Naval Base. Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced in June that a deal was near to deploy the ships to Singapore, and a Pentagon spokesman said this week that officials “remain excited about this opportunity.”

While China views US military presence in such a sensitive area as a threat, other Asian countries find a sense of security in these recent developments in US policy, as can be seen in this article from the Times of India:

The US move to create a naval base in northern Australia close to the South China Sea can actually mean more dollars in the Indian kitty, and put more strategic and business opportunities in New Delhi’s way, sources said. The first piece of evidence has come by way of Australia’s decision to sell uranium to India.

The US move will provide a sense of protection to East Asian countries including Japan, who have serious conflicts with China but buy vast amounts of Chinese goods. The new found protection will encourage East Asia to reduce its dependence on China for goods and enhance economic ties with India, sources said.

[…]”This is God sent. The more US ramps up its military presence in South China Sea, the more it will divert Beijing’s attention from India,” [Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, research officer at the Institute of Conflict Studies in New Delhi] said.

China has spoken directly to this optimism, and an article in the state-owned Global Times seems to suggest that it may not be in the greater interest of other Asian countries to support US military campaigns in Asia:

[…]These acts bring great pressure to China and it is now expected that China will take some countermeasures.

The US is carrying out smart power diplomacy that takes China as its target in Asia. Stopping it is not realistic, but it is equally unrealistic to expect China to stand idly by and indulge Asian countries as they join the US alliance to guard against China one by one. Confronted with such frictions, which has the most resources and means at its disposal? Is an all-out confrontation possible? These should be the real concerns.

As the US prepares to take part in this weekend’s East Asia Summit (for the first time), we can expect this to be a hot issue – despite Beijing’s desire to steer clear of the topic. For more about recent US policy in the Asia Pacific, see America’s Incoherent Asia Policy, via CDT. Also see prior CDT coverage of the South China Sea debate.

For another opinion on what the South China Sea debate means in the long-term, see Robert D. Kaplan’s The South China Sea is the Future of Conflict.

November 18, 2011 5:03 PM
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