Talks last week between Michèle Flournoy, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, and China’s Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army general staff, were heavy on feel-good bromides about mutual interests and peaceful cooperation in the western Pacific. However, they predictably left the issues most roiling this critically important region unresolved.
Similar high-level talks, including those held last month between Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao during the APEC summit in Hawaii, are all part of a series of top-level discussions that have been taking place over the past year that have in part been aimed at mollifying a somewhat volatile Beijing in the face of America’s return to the Pacific.
Made possible by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States’ strategic shift has come not a moment too soon for Washington's friends and allies in the region. These countries have long sought greater U.S. political support and military presence in the face of China’s aggressive employment of its growing power.
While U.S. focus has necessarily been on Southwest Asia, Beijing has been using its rapidly growing military to back up tendentious claims on energy fields hundreds of miles from its coast beneath the South China Sea. China’s attempt to mark claims lying within the Philippine and Vietnamese exclusive economic zones has sparked small-scale naval confrontations. Tensions continue to run high. China also maintains claims in the waters abutting Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
In flagrant breaches of international protocol, Chinese naval flotillas appeared unannounced near Japanese territorial waters several times over the past couple of years, unsettling Tokyo. Taiwan, a U.S. treaty partner, has also suffered from lack of attention in the security realm. The China lobby has thus far prevented the U.S. government from providing Taipei with new, sorely needed F-16 fighters. Instead, older models will be updated. Disappointingly, U.S. efforts to get Beijing to stand down the thousands of missiles pointed at Taiwan have met with little success. South Korea, another U.S. treaty partner, is both unnerved by North Korea’s continued bellicosity and frustrated by Beijing’s unwillingness to bring Kim Jong-il's regime to heel.
Though ostensibly employed to secure the transport of vitally needed energy resources, China’s “String of Pearls” strategy has still unnerved countries in the Pacific Rim. Beijing has established naval bases or secured docking and landing rights for its navy and air force in Sudan, Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Burma. Accompanying the securing of such far-flung ports is China’s push to field a true “blue water” navy capable of operating thousands of miles from home.
Since the turn of the century, China has ramped up production of oceangoing warships including amphibious assault ships and nuclear-powered submarines, to replace what had been a fleet comprised primarily of coastal patrol vessels and short-range diesel-electric subs. China recently began sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet model, and is developing its own indigenously designed and built carriers. Of particular concern is China’s DF-21D ballistic missile program, which could target aircraft carriers and other large ships. This satellite-guided weapon was clearly developed with deterring the U.S. Navy in mind.