Implications for the U.S. “Rebalancing” to Asia
The foregoing analysis underscores the predicament of many Southeast Asian states if they faced China on their own. Not surprisingly, many regional capitals look to the United States as a bulwark against Chinese advances. They recognize that American primacy in maritime Asia will be the crucial arbiter of Chinese ambitions. Washington, for its part, has delivered very public pronouncements about its own stake in Asian waters. The Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia sought to reassure audiences in the region that the United States will not abdicate the stabilizing role it has long played.
Fortunately, there is still time to maximize this convergence of interests and organize an effective response. China is at least a decade away from amassing the type of preponderant seapower that can keep the United States out of the South China Sea while running roughshod over Southeast Asian states. In the meantime, Washington can adopt measures to ensure that regional submission to China’s wishes is not a foregone conclusion.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
First, Washington and its allies should actively help Southeast Asian states help themselves. Local actors must possess some indigenous capability to cope with Chinese encroachments at sea. The U.S. transfer of 1960s’ vintage coast guard cutters to the Philippines is a modest step in the right direction. The timing of the deliveries turned out to be fortuitous: the first Philippine vessel to respond off Scarborough Shoal was flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the former USCGC Hamilton. But, hand-me-downs are not enough to meet Manila’s needs. More modern and capable platforms are necessary to match China’s vessels. Japan’s recent offer of twelve brand new patrol boats to the Philippines is another encouraging sign that outside powers are seeking to right the regional balance of power.
Second, the United States should encourage the development of a region-wide effort to keep track of China’s maritime forces. Unmanned aerial systems, for instance, could furnish a common picture of the nautical domain on a more-or-less permanent basis to coastal states surrounding the South China Sea. By tapping into such technologies, an information sharing arrangement that make Asian waters both figuratively and literally more transparent would go a long way to shore up regional confidence and deterrence. It is worth noting that Tokyo has been doing a signal service on behalf of the region by publicly reporting detailed accounts of Chinese naval transits through international straits and other activities near Japanese waters.
Third, the United States should draw up plans that would enable the U.S. military to rapidly deploy units armed with maritime-strike capability, such as anti-ship cruise missile batteries, on friendly or allied soil. Possessing the option to surge defensive forces onto allied territory at short notice would reassure U.S. allies in peacetime while substantially bolstering the U.S. capacity to act effectively in times of crisis. American reinforcements would steady nerves while stiffening the resolve of local defenders. The United States should also encourage allies and friends to develop or strengthen their own maritime-strike options.
Finally, the U.S. Navy should revisit prevailing assumptions about its ability to command the global commons. Years of post-Cold War permissiveness induced an airy confidence that made it seductively easy to take sea control for granted. Arguably, the last time that the U.S. Navy fought a serious foe was at Leyte Gulf in 1944. As China marches to the seas, a far more lethal nautical environment lies in store. For a service long accustomed to uncontested waters, coming to terms with risk to the fleet will be an ever urgent priority.
Networking the Region
These steps would help construct a layered and inter-connected defense posture that begins with the local actors themselves. As frontline states, they must be empowered to perform as first responders to Chinese moves at sea. Information sharing among the coastal states would underscore the shared stakes in the maritime commons while promoting collective action. A network of players alert to Beijing’s maneuvers stands a far better chance of deterring, and, failing that, reacting more quickly to Chinese actions. The United States, for its part, would provide a strategic backstop to Southeast Asian partners with low-profile, small-footprint military assets that pack a punch and serve as potent symbols of American commitment to the region.
Raising the costs of—and risks to—Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea would complicate Beijing’s calculus while inclining Chinese leaders to think twice before they act. Inducing Chinese caution, moreover, would apply a brake to Beijing’s momentum at sea, brightening the prospects for restoring equilibrium to the region and for retaking the strategic initiative.
Toshi Yoshihara holds the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. This article is a revised version of Dr. Yoshihara’s testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs delivered on September 12, 2012. The views expressed here are his alone.