To contain China, Washington flexes military muscle in SCS along with military agreements with India, Philippines
Over the last week in Asia, US defence secretary Ash Carter has visited two aircraft carriers, revealed new military agreements with India and the Philippines, and generally signaled that the Obama administration has decided to lean more heavily on military power to counter China’s territorial ambitions in the region.
But the newly-muscular approach on display during Carter’s tour represents a gamble. While it sends a message that the United States will work with its allies to challenge Beijing’s expanding presence in the disputed South China Sea, it also plays into fears within the Chinese leadership about US efforts to halt China’s rise.
That may mean that the more the Pentagon steps up in the region, the more China may feel it needs to accelerate its military build-up, including the construction of new islands equipped with radar and airstrips in contested waters.
With a mix of showmanship and concrete initiatives during a six-day visit to India and the Philippines, Carter left little doubt that the United States intended both to strengthen alliances and move more hardware and troops here to counter China’s growing military reach.
On Friday, he rode a helicopter to a symbol of American power projection in the Pacific, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, as it cruised through the South China Sea near waters claimed by the Chinese.
Before visiting the carrier John C Stennis, he marked the end of 11 days of military exercises between the United States and the Philippines and said some US troops would stay behind “to contribute to regional security and stability”.
He also said the United States had begun joint patrols of the South China Sea with the Philippine navy and would soon do the same with the country’s air force.
Earlier in the week, Carter toured an Indian aircraft carrier, the first time a US defence secretary had boarded such a ship, and said the United States would help India upgrade its carriers. He also revealed a new logistics agreement and said the two nations would work together on other military technologies.
Together, the measures announced by Carter hint at a potential US military resurgence in a part of the world where China believes it is destined to surpass the United States in influence. The Obama administration seems to be betting that China will back off rather than continue making moves that lead its neighbors to embrace the US military.
More than once during the last week, Carter cited China’s actions as the driving force behind tensions in the region and, implicitly, the reason for its neighbors’ increased engagement with the Pentagon.
Below deck on the John C Stennis, he said China should not see the carrier’s presence as a provocation.
“We have been here for decade upon decade. The only reason that question even comes up is because of what has gone on over the last year, and that’s a question of Chinese behavior,” he said. “What’s not new is an American carrier in this region.
What’s new is the context and tension that exists, which we want to reduce.”
But some analysts warn that China could react to the Pentagon’s moves by taking more aggressive actions, challenging America’s commitment to the region in a high-profile game of chicken and raising the risk of a military conflict.
The Chinese have been closely watching Carter’s tour, which had included a stop in Beijing before it was abruptly scrubbed from the schedule a few weeks ago. In a late-night statement Thursday, the Chinese defence ministry accused the United States of reverting to a “Cold War mentality” and said the Chinese military would “pay close attention to the situation and resolutely defend China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests.”
On Friday, China also disclosed that its most senior uniformed military commander had visited the disputed Spratly Islands, which appeared intended to signal Beijing’s resolve in the South China Sea, most of which it considers Chinese territory.
The Obama administration has declined to describe its approach toward China as a revival of “containment”, the Cold War strategy aimed at preventing the spread of communism. Instead, Carter said the new military initiatives in the region were consistent with long-standing American policy to work closely with countries that share its interests.
“America’s policy continues to be one valued on principles of peaceful resolutions of disputes, lawful settlement of things like territorial disputes like the South China Sea, or anywhere else, freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce,” he said. “These are all things the United States stands for.”
“Now countries who don’t stand for those things, who don’t stand with those things, are going to end up isolating themselves,” he added. “That will be self-isolation, not isolation by us.”
For decades, neither India nor the Philippines was particularly interested in military cooperation with the United States. As a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, India has been suspicious of alliances with other countries, particularly large world powers. And the Philippines expelled US forces in the early 1990s, ending a military presence that began with the United States’ capture of the islands from Spain in 1898.
But both countries have grown wary of China’s rising military profile — more wary than they are of the United States.
The initiatives that Carter announced with India were largely symbolic but could signal greater cooperation in the future, like joint patrols in the South China Sea and the sale of heavy weaponry and other equipment. In a significant policy shift, India is already in talks with Japan, a US ally, to upgrade civilian infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian archipelago seen as a potential strategic asset in efforts to counter Chinese naval expansion.
A sweeping 10-year deal with the Philippines, approved by the nation’s supreme court in January, will allow US forces to return to the country and build military facilities and assign personnel, planes and ships to existing Philippine bases. Carter announced that more than 200 US pilots and crew members, as well as six aircraft and three helicopters, involved in the joint exercises would remain in the country.
The developments represent a setback for President Xi Jinping of China, who has overseen the acceleration of Beijing’s buildup in the South China Sea and could be accused of needlessly drawing the United States back into the region.