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.
Tensions would again escalate shortly after the inauguration of U.S. President George W. Bush in 2001. The Chinese interception of an American EP-3 surveillance aircraft flying in international airspace over the East China Sea forced the damaged plane to land at a Chinese military base, triggering a diplomatic incident.
In October 2006, the USS Kitty Hawk was stalked by a 160-foot Chinese Song-class diesel-electric attack submarine, which culminated in the surfacing of the Chinese sub within torpedo firing range of the U.S. carrier. More recently, in late June of this year, Chinese Sukhoi-27 fighters shadowed an American reconnaissance plane, causing Taiwan to scramble two F-16 fighters to intercept the Chinese jets near the central line across the 113-mile wide Strait, the first such incursion by China in 12 years.
But the United States isn’t the only country to have been at the receiving end of Chinese assertiveness. In March, two Chinese gunboats tried to drive away a Philippines Department of Energy research vessel from the Reed Bank in the vicinity of the Kalayaan Island Group, controlled by the Philippines, which is part of Spratlys. The incident prompted the Philippine government to file a diplomatic protest that was summarily dismissed by China. In May, Chinese ships allegedly cut cables on a Hanoi-chartered survey vessel working for foreign oil and gas exploration firms in the South China Sea.
One of the most famous “incidents” relates to reports that circulated from July of this year, when the Indian amphibious ship Airavat was on a show-the-flag mission before being challenged as it sailed from Vietnam’s Nha Trang port near Cam Ranh Bay. A purported Chinese naval officer reportedly radioed the ship that it was entering Chinese waters as it approached Haiphong. While it’s likely that the call was not in fact made by the PLA Navy, the incident has “calcified into fact among Indian commentators” and underscores the danger that incidents at sea can escalate.
As the United States and Asian nations now consider the implications of China’s massive naval buildup and expansive territorial claims in the Pacific, they must do so in light of China’s proven willingness to use its armed forces as a means to enforce such claims. The list of incidents at sea involving the PLA Navy, Air Force and auxiliary forces is especially remarkable in that the confrontations have taken place during a period in which the U.S. Navy has been dominant in the region.
As the PLA Navy continues its impressive growth, and as the United States Navy shrinks as a result of significant cuts in American defense spending, it’s quite possible that Chinese-initiated confrontations will increase if the PLA Navy determines that the balance of forces in the region has tiltedin China’s favor. Indeed, China’s party-controlled press seems to foreshadow such a situation. Discussing the refusal of Asian nations to accede to China’s South China Sea “core interest” claims, China’s Communist Party Newspaper warned last month that if neighboring nations “don’t change their ways with China, they will need to mentally prepare for the sound of cannons. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved.” This course is fraught with peril for not only the United States and Asian nations, but for an assertive China as well.
In responding to China’s assertiveness, the United States and Asian nations should recognize that maintaining a balance of forces, in which the risk of escalation is too great for China to engage in such conduct, is the best way to deter potentially violent incidents at sea. In an era of a smaller U.S. Navy, achieving this balance can be accomplished, for example, by deploying a greater percentage of American naval resources to the Pacific. This approach is already underway, but should be complemented by encouraging our regional allies to build and/or purchase the air and naval platforms necessary to defend themselves. These allies could also increase their training tempo and the number of joint exercises with the United States military to ensure smooth joint operations in the event of a future conflict.
Yet despite the obvious advantage of assisting the efforts of its friends to enhance their defensive capabilities, the United States has refused to sell Japan and Australia, two of its closest allies, the F-22 Raptor, a fifth generation fighter jet. The United States also bowed to Chinese pressure and refused to sell Taiwan the F-16C/D variant Fighting Falcon, which is a defensive fourth-generation fighter jet. The refusal to arm our allies sends the wrong message to China and our allies. Of course, it also undermines the American military-industrial base, which is already under siege from large cuts in the U.S. defense budget.
On the diplomatic front, the United States must make clear that it will scrupulously honor its defense treaty commitments to Pacific partners such as Australia, Japan and the Philippines. The United States should also continue to side with ASEAN nations who seek to protect their maritime rights under international law and their rights to freely navigate international waters. ASEAN’s effort to implement the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is also worthy of American support. The July 2011, Bali Guidelines are a small step forward on this front, but more must be done. Backed by American diplomacy, ASEAN’s hand in its negotiations with China on the Declaration of Conduct will be strengthened.
The best ally of peace in the Pacific is a strong United States that is committed to working with its allies to ensure that China’s maritime rise really is a peaceful one.
Robert C. O'Brien is the Managing Partner of Arent Fox Los Angeles. He served as a U.S. Representative to the United Nations. He can be followed on Twitter @robertcobrien. The author notes with appreciation the research work of Richard Buckley on this article. The views herein are his own.