The Not So Pacific.....China's Military Bullying
March 12, 2012
What is your opinion about the military threats in the Asia-Pacific region?
By Alan W. Dowd
Pacific region is not living up to its name. In fact, Asia-Pacific
nations are growing less peaceful by the day. Many of the region’s
tensions are related to China, which has claimed much of the oil-rich
South China Sea, bullied its neighbors, and carried out a breathtaking
military buildup in recent years.
But China might have overplayed
its hand and forced the Asia-Pacific region into closer cooperation. The
result is the emergence of a region-wide hedge against Beijing that
could deter China, circumscribing its power and keeping the Pacific
relatively peaceful. It all hinges on America’s military muscle and
Fareed Zakaria argues many observers are guilty of “wildly exaggerating
China’s capabilities” and points out Beijing “is still spending a
fraction of what America does, at most 10 percent of the Pentagon’s
But there is an emerging sense that friction among
various Pacific powers is inevitable. As military author, scholar, and
Defense Policy Board member Robert Kaplan said in the 2005 article “How
We Would Fight China” for The Atlantic, “The Chinese navy is
poised to push out into the Pacific” and could trigger “a replay of the
decades-long Cold War, with a center of gravity not in the heart of
Europe but, rather, among Pacific atolls.”
Just consider Beijing’s military buildup;
to a Pentagon report on the Chinese military, Beijing increased
military spending by 12.7 percent in 2011, resuming 10 years of
double-digit increases. (The year 2010 was an anomaly because of the
With those resources, Beijing is deploying
aerospace, cyberspace, and naval capabilities “to deter or counter
third-party intervention, including by the United States,” according to
the Pentagon. Among China’s growing arsenal of “anti-access and
area-denial weapons” are carrier-killing missiles with a range exceeding
1,500 km, upgraded bombers armed with new long-range cruise missiles,
75 surface combatants, more than 60 submarines, and emerging stealth and
“China increasingly will be able
to project power in East Asia and therefore interfere with U.S. freedom
of access to the region,” according to the U.S.-China Economic and
Security Review Commission (ESRC).
That’s no small matter, given
the U.S. has dominated the Pacific since World War II. Beijing is trying
to loosen that hold. Adm. Mike Mullen, USN-Ret., has said China’s new
weapons systems “seem very focused on the United States Navy and our
bases that are in that part of the world.”
Indeed, it appears
China’s goal is to nudge the U.S. out of the Asia-Pacific region or,
short of that, dissuade the U.S. from getting involved in areas of
interest to China.
That brings us to China’s new found
assertiveness. The Pentagon notes “China’s broad claim to potentially
all of the South China Sea remains a source of regional contention.” For instance:
*Beijing recently claimed territories within 50 miles of the
Philippines. China has built permanent platforms in Philippine waters.
And Chinese frigates intruded six times into Philippine waters in 2011,
firing on fishing boats in some cases. *Chinese ships have
rammed Vietnamese ships and violated Vietnamese territorial waters,
prompting Vietnam to ram Chinese ships and conduct live-fire naval
drills. *The Chinese navy ordered an Indian warship operating in
international waters off Vietnam to explain its presence in “Chinese
waters. *After the first violation of Taiwanese airspace by
China since 1999, Taiwan scrambled fighters in July 2011 to intercept
Chinese warplanes. *China has made outlandish claims on the
waters near Japan. Chinese vessels violated Japanese waters 14 times
from late 2010 through late 2011. Ten Chinese warships sailed into
waters near Okinawa in 2010. Chinese aircraft encroached on Japanese
airspace 83 times in the first half of 2011, forcing Tokyo to scramble
interceptors. *In 2009, there were six incidents involving U.S. and Chinese vessels. *Simmering
beneath all of these new tensions is the Cold War legacy problem of
North Korea, made all-the-more perilous by Kim Jong-Il’s death. But
that’s a subject for another article.
Beijing’s aggressive behavior, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
declared in 2010 “the United States has a national interest in freedom
of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for
international law in the South China Sea.”
incensed China, but they were welcomed elsewhere in the Pacific, largely
because China’s neighbors are threatened by China’s behavior. As a
consequence, they are making heavy investments in military hardware.
- Australia is in the midst of a multibillion-dollar buildup of naval and air forces and is doubling its submarine fleet.
is investing $8 billion in new warplanes and adding six new submarines
to its fleet. Tokyo recently elevated the Defense Agency to a
- India will christen 75 new warships by
2019, deploy new missiles and military units on the Chinese border, and
acquire squadrons of AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and 126
- The Philippines is scrambling to rebuild its
woefully under equipped military, recently purchasing new helicopters and
a decommissioned U.S. cutter to monitor its swath of the South China
Sea. Another destroyer is on the way, courtesy of the U.S.
- Vietnam is purchasing anti-ship missiles, attack submarines, and Su-30 warplanes.
1,600 Chinese missiles trained on the island, Taiwan is deploying
anti-sub and anti-ship missiles, precision land-attack missiles, and a
missile capable of striking Beijing.
- The U.S. is in the midst
of a $15 billion upgrade of military facilities on Guam. And the
Pentagon’s new AirSea Battle concept is tailored to countering China.
nervous neighbors increasingly recognize that only by pooling their
resources can they build a credible deterrent. That’s where the emerging
security structure in the Asia-Pacific region comes into play. This is
not a single alliance like that of Cold War Europe but rather an
alliance of alliances, with the U.S. as the common denominator to each.
- Japan, has deepened security partnerships with the U.S., South
Korea, Australia, and India; has dispatched warships into the South
China Sea for maneuvers with Australia and the U.S.; has contemplated
intervening in contingencies in the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean
Peninsula; and even has mulled developing nuclear weapons, according to Defense News.
U.S. and Australia inked a landmark deal in late 2011 granting the U.S.
broad access to Australian ports and bases. Some 2,500 Marines will be
based in northern Australia, and the U.S. is prepositioning weaponry in
- The U.S. plans to base littoral combat ships in Singapore.
and the U.S. increasingly view one another as a counterweight to China,
each providing strategic depth vis-à-vis Beijing. The two have
conducted large-scale military maneuvers since 2002. India is supporting
Vietnam’s claims on energy deposits in the South China Sea. And Vietnam
has granted India port access.
- The U.S., India, and Japan held their first-ever trilateral security talks in late 2011.
- Vietnam and the U.S. Navy have a deepening relationship, including training exercises and regular port visits by U.S. warships.
a tectonic shift from the 1990s, when the Philippines sent the U.S.
packing, Manila has sought clarification on whether the 1951
U.S.-Philippine defense treaty would cover Chinese aggression in the
South China Sea. “We are determined and committed to supporting the
defense of the Philippines,” Clinton declared in 2011.
- The U.S. and Indonesia restarted military-to-military cooperation in 2010.
U.S. led 18 major exercises enfolding 27 of Pacific Command’s partner
nations in 2011. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the U.S. is
“looking at increasing exercises in the Pacific region.”
short, the U.S. military is pivoting toward the Pacific. As President
Obama puts it, “The United States is stepping up its commitment to the
entire Asia-Pacific region.”
“We’re concerned about China,”
Panetta says. “The most important thing we can do is to project our
force into the Pacific — to have our carriers there, to have our fleet
there, [and] to be able to make very clear to China that we are going to
protect international rights to be able to move across the oceans
Clarity is essential to keeping the peace. Yet China’s
motivations are opaque at best. Citing the “pace, scope, and structure
of China’s military modernization,” the Australian military worries
about the “the possibility of miscalculation.” Likewise, Mullen has
warned, “Ongoing incidents could spark a miscalculation and an outbreak
that no one anticipated.”
Misunderstandings already abound in the
South China Sea. For example, Beijing expects others to observe its EEZ
as sovereign Chinese territory, even though it refuses to respect the
EEZs of other nations. Just ask Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines.
EEZs are not sovereign territory, which explains why the U.S. military
sometimes operates close to China’s shores. In doing so, Washington
contends it is keeping the sea-lanes open, while Beijing views it as
This difference of opinion, as the ESRC warns,
“could lead to further incidents involving the U.S. military” — the very
kind of incidents Mullen worries about. Navy Vice Adm. Scott Swift,
commander of the Seventh Fleet, describes such incidents as a “tactical
trigger with strategic implications.”
Some argue the risk of war —
even an accidental, unanticipated war — is precluded by the economic
links between China and its neighbors. After all, China needs the
Asia-Pacific region’s markets, and the region needs China’s cash. China
owns $900 billion in U.S. debt. China’s annual trade with the U.S. is
some $450 billion, with Japan $300 billion, with South Korea $200
billion, and with Australia $90 billion.
We can hope such
intricate trade ties mitigate the likelihood of conflict, but it pays to
recall that European nations enjoyed deep commercial connections a
century ago. German iron-ore imports from France, for instance, grew
“almost 60-fold from 1900 to 1913,” according to historian Dale
Copeland. Then came the summer of 1914.
Forces Command noted in 2008 China has “a deep respect for U.S.
military power.” We cannot overstate how important this has been to
keeping the peace. But with the U.S. in the midst of massive military
retrenchment, how long will that reservoir of respect last?
before Washington forced hundreds of billions in cuts onto the Pentagon,
the size of the U.S. combat fleet had shrunk to 285 ships. Pressed by
budget-cutters, the Navy might decommission aircraft carriers and
lengthen the carrier procurement cycle. Just 45 percent of the Navy’s
deployed aircraft are combat-ready. One in five ships are deemed less
than satisfactory or unfit for combat. There are plans to cut Marine
Corps end strength below 187,000.
Yet given the capabilities of
the U.S. military, the balance of power still would seem to favor the
U.S. — that is until one considers that America’s military assets and
security commitments are spread all around the globe, while China’s are
concentrated solely in its neighborhood.
China, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno warns, “We’ll have those
who attempt to exploit our vulnerabilities, if we’re required to cut
too much. … They will challenge our credibility, and they could
Those words should sober all Americans. An
atrophied, hollow force makes miscalculation more likely — and a
peaceful Pacific far less likely.
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