Asia Pacific

The China factor

Print edition : November 15, 2013

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (right) with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, on October 9. Photo: Vincent Thian/AP

China's coast guard vessels near the disputed East China Sea islands in September. These islands are called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China. Photo: AP

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the East Asia Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan on October 10. Photo: Vincent Thian/AP

The U.S. and Japan have strengthened their existing military treaty with an agreement that will allow America to position its RQ4 Global Hawk drones, along with naval reconnaissance planes and other military equipment, on Japanese soil.

The United States has once again reverted to the Asia Pacific region as the focal area in its efforts to assert “full spectrum dominance” and arrest the growing influence of a rising China. It should be remembered that the U.S. has fought two wars in the region since 1950—first in the Korean peninsula and later in Indo-China. Before that the U.S. Army had fought in the Philippines, first against the Spanish colonial rulers and then against Filipino nationalist forces. The U.S. had, of course, played a leading role in ousting the Japanese imperial forces from the region during the Second World War. But today Japan is a principal ally in U.S. efforts to retain dominance of the region. The efforts have received a fillip under the openly militaristic government that has come to power in Japan. Washington deploys more than 320,000 military personnel, including 60 per cent of its navy, in the Asia Pacific region.

Thomas Donillon, until recently the National Security Adviser to the U.S. President, told the Asia Society earlier in the year that the first pillar of the administration’s Asia Pacific strategy was to “continue to strengthen our alliances”. He emphasised that the alliance with Japan “remains the cornerstone of regional security and prosperity” and that “there is scarcely a regional or global challenge in the President’s second term agenda where the U.S. does not look to Japan to play an important role”. America’s vision of a “global alliance” included the revitalisation of its relations with Thailand, the Philippines and Australia, he said. Besides, he pointed out that President Barack Obama had stated at the start of his second term that U.S.-India ties constituted “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century”. India has so far refused to be drawn into a full-scale military embrace with the U.S. in the way that Japan and recently also the Philippines have done.

Washington and Tokyo are already bound by a military treaty, which, according to a former Japanese Prime Minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, converted the country into an “unsinkable aircraft carrier for the United States”. The already wide-ranging military ties have been further strengthened by an agreement signed in October that allows the U.S. to position its RQ4 Global Hawk drones, along with naval reconnaissance planes, on Japanese soil. The high-flying drones, way beyond the reach of anti-aircraft missiles, can monitor the area where the Japanese and Chinese navies have been doing aggressive patrolling.

Military deployments in Japan

The U.S. Secretaries of State and Defence were recently in Tokyo to hold “2+2” talks with their Japanese counterparts. After the talks the U.S. announced that it would be stationing its new-generation combat aircraft in Japan. The other military deployments include the stationing of the X-band early warning radar in Kyoto, as part of the joint anti-ballistic missile systems. Two squadrons of MV-22 Osprey vertical take-off transport planes will be delivered to the Japanese military. This will help in the rapid deployment of troops in conflict zones. The Pentagon also announced plans to deploy F-35B vertical take-off Stealth Fighters by 2017 in Japan. This is meant to enhance America’s Air-Sea Battle Strategy in the Asia-Pacific. According to U.S. officials, the agreements signal the U.S.’ support to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hard-line diplomatic and military posturing towards China and recognition of Japan’s “greater responsibilities” in the Asia Pacific region. American commentators have said that the new drone base is yet another move by the U.S. to militarily “contain” China.

The U.S. has also supported the Japanese government’s decision to change its pacifist constitution, strengthen its military, and build security alliances with Vietnam, the Philippines and India. The U.S. has already strengthened defence and strategic links with almost all of China’s Asian neighbours, including India. All these countries have had chequered relations with Beijing.

John Reed, a U.S. security analyst, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, pointed out that the latest development came just a few months after a top U.S. Air Force General in the Pacific revealed that American fighters, bombers and tankers were constantly deployed in a string of bases in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These sites will not be occupied permanently by U.S. forces but will regularly host U.S. military units. “These temporary American bases range from Tinian to Saipan to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, India and possibly sites in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. American jets permanently stationed at dozens of U.S. bases in the Pacific—as well as bases in the U.S.—will rotate in and out of these airfields under a concept that harkens back to the Cold War,” Reed explained. The largest number of military exercises India holds every year is with the U.S. Armed Forces.

Speaking in Tokyo, U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said America’s commitment to the security of Japan “is a critical component of our overall relationship and to the Obama administration’s rebalance to the East”. Obama announced with much fanfare last year that the U.S. military forces were “pivoting to the East”. However, the U.S. finds it difficult to extricate itself from the quagmire, largely of its own creation, in West Asia, but continues to increase its already substantial troop presence in the Asia Pacific region. Last year, the U.S. announced that it would station an additional 2,500 marines in Australia.

Conflict over islands

China and Japan are locked in an acrimonious dispute over a group of small islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The U.S. had a role in allowing the dispute to fester. The Japanese had first seized the islands during the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. After the Second World War, two international treaties recognised Chinese sovereignty over the islands, but the U.S. chose to hand the islands over to Japan. Beijing and Tokyo had then agreed to put the issue on the back burner and eventually come to a negotiated settlement. But last year Japan suddenly upped the ante by allowing a group of right-wing nationalists to purchase the islands.

China views the islands as part of its defence parameter and considers the U.S./Japanese manoeuvres as part of their overall strategy to isolate it militarily. There are fears that the occasional face-offs between the navies of the two countries since last year could escalate into a military confrontation. The U.S. is bound by treaty to come to the aid of its military ally if there is an open war between the two countries. The U.S. has a similar treaty with the Philippines.

The right-wing government in Japan has also said that it will extend military help to South-East Asian nations to preserve their territorial integrity. During a recent visit to Manila, Shinzo Abe described the Philippines as a “strategic partner” and said Tokyo would provide “capacity building to the Philippine Coast Guard” by supplying 10 patrol ships.

Some ASEAN member-countries, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, are also locked in maritime territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. China wants to negotiate separately with the countries concerned. The Obama administration has said that it wants to mediate in the dispute but at the same time it has actively encouraged Vietnam and the Philippines to take tough negotiating positions. China reacted by stepping up its maritime patrols and preventing hydrocarbon explorations by the other claimants to the disputed Paracels and Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. China also objected to a joint India-Vietnam venture exploring for gas near the Paracels.

The new leadership in China seems to be more flexible in its approach to the South China Sea dispute. At the just concluded ASEAN summit in Brunei, China agreed to talk to the regional grouping on framing a Joint Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, told the East Asian Summit that countries that are not party to the dispute should not get involved and stressed that “freedom of navigation in the South China Sea has never been an issue and never will be one”.

In the first week of October, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman warned the U.S. and its two main allies in the region, Japan and Australia, against intervening in the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. During a trilateral dialogue held in Bali, the U.S. Secretary of State, along with the Japanese and Australian Foreign Ministers, had issued a statement opposing “coercive or unilateral actions” that could change the status quo in the East China Sea. The joint statement also called on all countries involved in territorial disputes in the South China Sea “to refrain from destabilising actions”.

However, some close military allies of the U.S., including South Korea, want relations with Beijing to be on an even keel. South Korea, at this juncture, is not even amenable to stage joint military exercises with Japan after the return to power of Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The refusal of Abe and many of his senior colleagues to acknowledge war crimes committed by the Japanese army when Korea was a colony of Japan and later on during the Second World War has angered Seoul and fuelled anti-Japanese public sentiment. The two countries also have a maritime territorial dispute of their own to boot. South Korea enjoys very good relations with China at the moment.

The U.S. and Japan have jointly announced that they will be “ready to deal with coercive and destabilising behaviour” in the region. The statement did not name China, but the U.S. Defence Secretary reiterated in Tokyo that the disputed islands were covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Tokyo that Washington recognised Japan’s administrative control over the disputed islands and that the U.S. was “very clear about our interests and those things that we think represent lines that we think should not be crossed”. Kerry was of course, careful not to say “red lines”, after the Obama administration was tripped on Syria. And China is not Syria.