US President Obama was hard pressed to play the pacifist at a rather fractious ASEAN summit in Cambodia, where discussions on the maritime disputes of some of the grouping’s 10 members with China boiled over. The three-day annual summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations concluded on 20 November without resolving the dispute between these countries and a by far militarily superior China. The impasse thwarted the 45-year-old grouping’s efforts towards deepening cohesion within this economically vibrant region and its aspirations of transforming itself into an EU-like community by the end of 2015.
Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over almost the entire South China and East China seas have sparked disputes with its neighbours such as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam. Apart from Japan and Taiwan, the rest are ASEAN member countries, as also Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand. The bone of contention has been the various island enclaves, not of much value in themselves, but the possession of which would provide strategic, resource-rich continental shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) that extend 200 nautical miles from the low-water shoreline.
Neither the United States nor China is a member of ASEAN, but each has votaries in the group. The flashpoint at the summit was the draft statement of the chairman – Cambodia, a staunch ally of Beijing – that pointed to a consensus against internationalising the South China Sea issue. This agitated the representatives of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, in particular, rose to challenge what he said was Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s attempt to preclude any debate on the territorial disputes and divert the focus onto economic issues instead.
Cautioning against allowing such disputes to escalate, Obama urged the gathering to take steps to ease tensions. He, however, avoided any talk on this issue in his meeting with outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the last day of the summit. Washington has nevertheless advocated a “code of conduct” that would avert any clashes in the disputed territories.
China has long held the position that whatever disputes that may arise should be resolved through consultations and negotiations by the concerned sovereign states. In Phnom Penh it, however, said it was open to debating the issue within ASEAN, though without the involvement of any other parties, an oblique reference to the United States.
Coincidentally or not, China’s maritime disputes with its neighbours in the littoral have been gaining global attention ever since Obama’s announcement in January 2012 of his country’s “pivot” strategy in the Asia-Pacific. These developments are posing a threat to this fastest growing economic region in the world and its vital waterways, confounding diplomatic efforts, rousing hostilities and heralding a geopolitical power struggle between the world’s two leading economies – the United States and China.
Further, anti-Japan street protests swept across China in September as the two largest economies in Asia sparred over a disputed island territory in the East China Sea which each claimed as its own. Potentially vast gas and oil fields have been estimated off the shores of the island, called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan. The two neighbours strove to keep the naval conflict from spiralling, mindful of their entrenched commercial ties that have resulted in two-way trade reaching a record $345 billion last year, China being the biggest trading partner of Japan.
While the Asia-Pacific has hitherto been driven by commercial interests, the widening unrest in the sea lanes that are the lifeline of this region may eventually compel the validity of a military front on the lines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Much in the manner in which China’s growing might is being perceived today, the 28-member NATO had been founded in 1949 in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union, with its prioritised purpose having been to deter Soviet expansionism. NATO had codified cooperation in military preparedness among the allied signatories by stipulating that “an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all”.
Though Asia-Pacific countries are keen on safeguarding their territorial interests, they are at the same time anxious not to let regional conflicts flare into Asia’s next war. However, to lay the foundations of overall peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, a NATO-like security structure would need to be inclusive, having China within its ambit.
The return of Asia-Pacific to the centre of world affairs is the great power shift of the 21st century. This economically integrated region is traversed by half the world’s commercial shipping worth $5 trillion of trade a year. More than 4.2 billion people live there, constituting 61 per cent of the world’s population. And apart from straddling vital supply chains, it holds dense fishing grounds and potentially enormous oil and natural gas reserves, though at present it is a net importer of fossil fuels. Energy-hungry export-driven economies in the region, heavily dependent on raw material and fuel imports, are keen on exercising their suzerainty over the regional Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) that are critical to the survival of the entire Asia-Pacific community.
Washington’s “pivot” strategy is juxtapositioning its desire to be neutral with the imperative to raise its already formidable profile in the Asia-Pacific. Its numerous military bases in the region include 17 in Japan and 12 in South Korea, while it also has a presence in Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, Guam and Singapore. Obama’s “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific entails the relocation of 60 per cent of America’s naval assets – up from 50 per cent today – to the region by 2020. The drawdown in Afghanistan, according to US deputy Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, will release naval surface combatants as well as naval intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and processing, exploitation, and dissemination capabilities, as also more Army and Marine Corps. EP-3 signals reconnaissance aircraft have already moved from CENTCOM (Central Command) to PACOM (Pacific Command). There will be a net increase of one aircraft carrier, seven destroyers, 10 Littoral Combat Ships and two submarines in the Pacific in the coming years. America’s military outpost of Guam is being readied as a strategic hub for the Western Pacific and Marines are being forward-stationed there. A full US Marine task force will also be established by 2016 in Australia, a key Asia-Pacific partner of the United States. The US Air Force will shift unmanned and manned reconnaissance aircraft from Afghanistan to the Asia-Pacific, apart from space, cyber and bomber forces.
The question remains whether this “rebalance” is aimed at containing China’s growing economic and military might or bolstering the American presence in the region. Beijing views Washington’s proposal as an attempt to curb Chinese influence across the region and to embolden countries to brazen out Beijing on the maritime disputes.
America’s concerted force multiplication in the region betrays the intent to forge some sort of a military front like NATO. “There is no multilateral organisation like NATO in the region,” notes Ashton Carter. “And in the absence of an overarching security structure, the US military presence has played a pivotal role over those last past 60 years, providing nations with the space and the security necessary to make their own principled choices.”
A NATO-like platform may not evolve soon, but appears inevitable in light of the rising volatility in the region. The similarities between now and at the time of NATO’s creation cannot be lost, notwithstanding the fact that the United States and China have very high stakes in their relationship, unlike the Cold War that had riven Washington and Moscow. Be that as it may, while announcing America’s renewed engagement in the Pacific, Secretary Clinton told the Pacific Islands Forum that “the Pacific is big enough for all of us”. There’s a lot of merit in keeping it that way.