The 18th CPC Congress Special: Tensions Run High in Asia-Pacific Before APEC Summit in Vladivostok (I)

As Asia becomes more prosperous it spends proportionally more of its new wealth on defense. All regional actors get increasingly concerned about the ability to protect their economic interests to ensure sustainable growth. The disputed island territories are a lucrative asset to struggle for. With all the turmoil going on in the Middle East the Asia – Pacific is far from being calm seas too.

Regional tensions rise

This spring the tensions were high between China and the Philippines over the disputed Scarborough islands. The warships were called off finally but a joint US -Philippines Marine Corps exercise was held shortly afterwards.

Actually, no matter significant numbers, the Philippine armed forces are mainly destined for counter- guerilla operations lacking armor units, combat aircraft, submarines and guided missile surface ships to counter an outside threat.

The US filling the void is a logical step. It’s in the air the exacerbation of tension between China and other Pacific nations over disputed islands in the South China Sea may lead to renewal of US presence in the Philippines. A range of military capabilities requested by this country is under consideration, including acquisition of F-16 fighter jets.

Vietnam’s military is a factor to reckon with but its shore economic zone with newly discovered oil deposits is a lucrative target, its claims to the SpratlyandParacelIslands need adequate military potential to support them. The US and Vietnamese navies cooperate closely, the joint exercises in 2010 was certainly an event to hit the world’s media radar screen.

The April 2011 joint Chinese and Russian navies exercise was an event to attract world media attention too. The both navies had not held a training event since 2005. India-US military cooperation is also on the rise.

The Spratly and Paracel islands are claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines. The disputes between China and the Philippines, China and Vietnam are in the active phase. In 1974 China and Vietnam were engaged in combat actions on the territory Paracel islands. It’s not that hot at present but it’s hot enough.

The US has sought to boost the Philippines’ ability to maintain its maritime security because of its ally’s concern over assertive Chinese behavior in disputed waters of the South China Sea. The ships were transferred under a program that offers «excess defense articles» to foreign partners in support of US national security and foreign policy objectives.

The Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries have accused China of bellicose behavior. Despite historical sensitivities about US troops, the Philippines would welcome further rotations by US forces on its soil and more joint exercises. The territorial disputes between China and some Asia-Pacific nations are used by the USA pretext to boost its regional military presence.

On July 24The People’s Republic of China announced the election of the first mayor of the newly- established Sansha City, a move seen to further escalate tension in the South China Sea. The election came on the heels of the government’s approval to form and deploy a military garrison there.

Earlier this month, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs had formally lodged protest over the move of China to establish Sansha City. The Philippines government finds that the “establishment of Sansha City, as the extent of the jurisdiction of the city, violates Philippine territorial sovereignty over the Kalayaan Island Group and Bajo de Masinloc and infringes on Philippine sovereign rights over the waters and continental shelf of the South China Sea.”

Back in June 21, China had announced the establishment of Sansha City, which is a prefectural-level city that administers the three disputed island groups of Nansha (Spratly Islands), Xisha (Paracel Islands), and Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) as well as their surrounding waters.

To note, the Philippines has been claiming portions of the Spratly Islands as well as the Scarborough Shoal, which is part of the Macclesfield Bank. Washington sees the Chinese action as subversive but China rebuffs all critical remarks.

The action may have far going implications and damage the Chinese oil giant CNOOC looking for its new prospects in the Mexican Gulf. The Philippines was not the only country to respond sharply.

Anti-Chinese demonstrations hit the streets of Hanoi. Brunei and Taiwan also claim the disputed territory, though their reaction was more calm.

The Chinese official press accused the USA of trying to set China at loggerheads with other countries of the region to suck advantage out of the situation. The U.S. public interference with the South China Sea dispute contributes to the region’s volatility rendering it full of conflict and discord.

US Boosts Regional Presence

Budgetary constraints make U.S. President Barack Obama draw down on the U.S.’ military operations and presence in the Middle East and Europe but not in the Asia-Pacific, where China’s economic and military rise is seen by the USA as a challenge to its power and influence.

The United States faces cuts of about 500 billion U.S. dollars in projected defense spending over the next 10 years but military presence in the Asia-Pacific region will still be enhanced. President Barack Obama announced a new global military strategy in early 2012, stressing that the United States will maintain its military superiority while shifting military focus to the Asia-Pacific region.

As a result of budget pressures the US is to make several large long-term strategic changes, including reducing the overall number of ground troops and strengthening air and naval power in Asia.

The focus for the future is to be on “the Air-Sea Battle” – the creation of forces capable of containing a rising military actor in the region. At the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore at the beginning of June 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explained the new military strategy and several measures for the U.S. military’s rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. Navy will deploy 60 percent of its surface ships and submarines in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. “By 2020, the Navy will re-posture its forces from today’s roughly 50-50 per cent split between the Pacific and Atlantic, to about a 60-40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, littoral combat ships and submarines,” said Panetta.

The armed forces, including troops, warships, and aircraft, will be present in friendly countries on short rotations, instead of building new permanent bases. He explained the rotation of military units costs less, and can ease the opposition from the people of its allies. Part of military forces will be transferred from Japan and South Korea to Hawaii, Guam, Darwin (Australia) and other sites.

The number and size of military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region will be increased, as well as port visits across a wider area. Secretary Panetta thinks a military exercise is a quick and relatively cheap way to show presence and deter other countries. The United States will expand its network of military partnerships in the region.

On the one hand, it will strengthen relations with traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia to serve its strategic interests. On the other hand, it will enhance partnerships with India, Vietnam, Singapore, and other countries as part of rebalancing effort.

The US “power projection” in the region would be enhanced by investments in new technologies, he said. Panetta hopes that the rebalancing strategy will generate the greatest deterrent effect with the minimum input. Under the plan, the U.S. military will have the ability to project its forces anywhere in Asia.

No doubt with the center of global economic gravity shifting to the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. interests are inextricably linked to the fortunes of this part of the world. But Asia is also home to some of the world’s potential flashpoints: the tensions on the Korean Peninsula and across the Taiwan Strait, the overlapping territorial claims involving China in the South China Sea and the North China Sea.

Facing cuts in manpower and overall defense spending global control is beyond the US capabilities so it’s one direction power projection policy is to be enforced in.

To my view as someone who remembers the Cold war days, the US military presence in Europe is going to become a far cry from what iswas back then. Two army brigades and three Air Force wings of reduced strength is more a token sign presence than a strike force to count with.

The US Middle East and Near East presence is also to go down according to the existing plans. New Army, Marine Corps and Air Force units are to be deployed in the Asia-Pacific theater of operations.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited CamRanh Bay naval base in June of 2012, the first visit by an American official of cabinet rank to Vietnam since the Vietnam War. The agreement was reached on US warships port calls to the base on a regular basis for rest, replenishment and maintenance.

On July 11 the commander of the Pacific Fleet said the US Navy would be sending its most advanced warships, submarines and fighter jets to the Asia-Pacific region as China modernized its own naval forces at breakneck speed. «It’s not just numbers – it’s also what those platforms, what those units, bring to the table,» Admiral Haney said in an interview at his headquarters in Pearl Harbor.

He cited as an example the littoral combat ship that could operate in shallower waters than other vessels. The US Navy plans to deploy one such ship to Singapore next year. Singapore has agreed to the U.S. request to forward deploy up to four littoral combat ships to its port on a rotational basis.

The Pacific Fleet commander said squadrons of the EA-18G plane – which could jam enemy air defenses and fly faster than the speed of sound – would also soon be coming to the region.

Also the US Navy’s most advanced submarine is up for deployment in the region – the Virginia-class, several of which are based at Pearl Harbor. The US Navy now has about 285 ships evenly divided among the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Six of its 11 aircraft carriers, however, are already assigned to the Pacific.

Meanwhile, former and potential military bases are of great interest to the U.S. high-ranking American officials frequently visiting countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines etc.The Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are discussing the issues related to US military presence on their territory. The request by the U.S. to use Thailand’s U-Tapao Air Base serves as another good example.

The issue is under consideration by Thailand’s government and parliament. The U.S. Navy is also interested in using U-Tapao Airport to establish a base for «disaster-relief operations. The airport is the place where the Cobra Gold exercise is held.

According to the Washington Post, the U.S. Navy plans to deploy the P-8A Poseidon, the newest anti-submarine patrol and maritime surveillance unmanned aircraft, in the Pacific region. The U.S. is currently seeking potential partners willing to purchase the aircraft. The use of a Thai airport by the U.S. is likely to worry neighboring countries.

Besides the Southeast Asian region, the U.S. is seeking to deploy new military bases in Australia and Japan. Though the U.S. agreed to reduce the size of its force in Okinawa, it is still planning to deploy thousands of Marines there, to reach its highest level since the Cold War.

Besides Japan, another important Pacific pivot for the U.S. is Australia. 2,500 U.S. Marines will be placed there by 2016-2017. Not too many but it reflects the tendency. Australia is considering the development of Cocos Island as a U.S. military base that can be used to land unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.

It’s clear that the U.S. has reactivated many military bases that surrounded China not only because it wanted to promote its military power in the Asia-Pacific region, but also because it planned to establish a military alliance with China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, which is so-called «acting with a hidden agenda».


(to be continued)


Andrei AKULOV | Strategic Culture Foundation

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