U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Honolulu to attend the APEC summit is merely the latest step in what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has dubbed a “pivot” or re-focus of U.S. interest in Asia. But as the United States looks to follow through on the pledge so clearly outlined by Clinton in her Foreign Policy essay in September, attention is again inevitably turning to Asia’s looming economic and military giant – China.
There has been much discussion and speculation in recent commentary over China’s rapid maritime rise and strategy for dominating large swaths of the Pacific, including one I recently penned for The Diplomat. China’s maritime rise is symbolized by the sea trials this summer of its first aircraft carrier, the ex-Ukrainian Varyag, the launch of which is part of a ship building program not seen since Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered Imperial Germany’s High Seas Fleet at the turn of the last century.
China’s naval buildup will soon give Beijing the means to use military force to back up its expansive territorially claims to essentially the entire Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea. In response, Southeast Asian nations, Japan, India and Australia have all embarked on significant defense force modernization programs of their own, increasing their budgets for major air and naval platforms. Submarines are in particular demand.
Despite using the term “peaceful rise” for almost a decade to describe its global diplomatic, economic and military growth, China hasn’t hesitated to support its territorial claims in the Pacific with what senior American officials have repeatedly labeled as “aggressive” naval action by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy), Air Force and auxiliary forces. While individual incidents at sea have been reported in regional, maritime, military or, on occasion, the mainstream press, the full extent of China’s efforts to exert control over nearby international waters hasn’t been widely covered in the West. Governments, on the other hand, are increasingly concerned about China’s naval behavior in the region. Indeed, Japan accused Beijing, for the first time, of “assertiveness” in an official government white paper issued in July. Japan’s characterization of Chinese action in an official government document is certainly blunt in “diplospeak.”
As China asserts its claims in the Pacific, it has made no secret of its opposition to U.S. freedom of navigation operations in nearby international waters, and it hasn’t confined its unhappiness to mere diplomatic protests. Instead, Chinese forces have confronted the world’s leading navy at sea in some well-publicized incidents.
Such challenges aren’t wholly new. The first major incident between U.S. and PLA forces occurred just several years after the fall of the Soviet Union. In July and August 1995 and March 1996, in response to certain measures in Taiwan interpreted by China as moves toward Taiwanese independence, China conducted “missile tests and other military exercises” near the Taiwan Strait. In March 1996, the United States responded by sending two carrier strike groups toward the region. China seemingly backed away from confrontation, but many analysts have suggested this was a turning point in PLA thinking.