Around 24 years after the last American military facility closed in the Philippines, the United States airplanes and crew are back in the country this month. The Philippines had earlier announced that it would allow five American military bases under a defence deal signed in 2014. Amid overlapping claims in the South China Sea (SCS), the two started conducting joint naval patrols last month, contesting Chinese territorial claims.
The US involvement sends a message that it will work with its allies to push back Beijing’s expanding presence in the disputed SCS. But it also reinforces belief among the Chinese and many others that the US is only raising the military stakes to thwart China’s rise.
China has condemned the US moves as “the embodiment of Cold War thinking and not conducive to peace and stability”.
With almost a third of global crude oil and more than half of global liquefied natural gas (LNG) passing through the SCS each year, the struggle for its control is understandable. The SCS is also known to be rich in marine and hydrocarbon resources. Much of China’s own maritime business is conducted through this Sea.
At risk is the dominant US position in the region, which is being challenged by China’s rise. The US has therefore adopted an increasingly strident posture in support of a China pushback.
China is also wary of US courting India in this endeavour, which, despite growing economic relations with China, is also jostling for political space in the region. After a decade of negotiations, India and the US announced a logistics support agreement during the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent visit to India — his second in a year. India has, for now, refused to be a part of US-led naval patrols into the SCS. India’s naval engagements with Vietnam, Australia and Japan, egged on by the US, are also of concern to China.
Since announcing the pivot to East Asia policy in 2012, the US actions on containing China have become more pronounced. Stoking fears of China among the Southeast Asian states, the US continues to beef up its military presence in the western Pacific. The Obama administration has a declared policy of deploying 60 per cent of their ships and aircraft in the Pacific by 2020, up from the current 50 per cent. The US sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is an economic arrangement, specifically excludes China.
As China and the US jockey for regional dominance, Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) faces the challenge of acting together as a bloc or individually in self-interest. China surprised the world recently by announcing that it has agreed with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos that SCS disputes are between individual states rather than with Asean. Smaller states find it difficult balancing between the US and rising China.
Understanding the need for regional calm, the People’s Daily wrote on September 5, 2013, that China’s good neighbour policy towards Asean was not a measure of expediency, but a long-term strategic choice.
President Xi Jinping of China went further and declared in Singapore on November 6, 2015, that “there has been no problem with maritime navigation or overland flights, nor will there ever be in the future”. But Xi also repeated the claim that the islands in the South China Sea were Chinese territory from ancient times and that China would uphold its sovereign and maritime interests. No one questions China’s tenacity.
The Chinese narrative is all about restoring the country to its dominant role in the region after two centuries of western abuse and humiliation. Now, when she is poised to become the leading economy in the world, China wants to exercise all levers of power to eliminate western domination.
It is true that the global order based on overwhelming US power, has maintained peace in the SCS. But the SCS is China’s own front yard, sovereignty over which is necessary if the world is to accept China’s ascendency. Since that will be at the US’s expense, the US wants to maintain the status quo.
Many believe that the US first creates anxiety and fear among the Southeast Asian states, over China’s alleged ambitions, and then harnesses their insecurities to build a coalition to achieve its strategic objective of containing China. The recent experiences of the Gulf states are no different.
The danger is that there is a limit to which some Asean states will go to jeopardise their relations with China, merely to satisfy American strategic interests. Ideally they would not want to be forced to make a choice between the US and China.
As China increases its economic and political leverage in the region and beyond the US military posturing is likely to increase. And the US seems to be betting on China backing off in the face of mounting US presence. But China could also react to these moves by taking a more aggressive stance, challenging American actions in the region where China needs to establish its presence to protect its sea-lanes and for its power projection.
Never before in history have the two leading powers been so interweaved economically. It is in everyone’s interest to see that this co-existence continues.
This is not the ‘end of history’ — it will roll on. Like the centuries attributed to other European powers, the American century will end too. The question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’.
Sajjad Ashraf is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He was a member of the Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973–2008 and served as Pakistan’s Consul General to Dubai during mid 1990s.