Territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific frequently result in tit-for-tat war of words and provocation, in a region which sometimes feels like it’s teetering on the edge of all-out-war. The territorial disputes, often viewed by some as China asserting its regional hegemony and by others as US imperialism, have intensified throughout time, as the US pivots towards Asia.
China and the US both hold some degree of responsibility for the growing territorial tension. On the one hand China is rapidly expanding its military and has become far more assertive in how it deals with its territorial disputes. On the other hand the US not only continues to expand its military strength in the region, but also continues to sell arms to its regional allies. However, despite this much of the actions carried out by China seem to be reactionary, carried out in response to what is frequently seen as US containment.
Ever since the US pivot to Asia, the US has been expanding its military presence in the region, giving diplomatic support and arming states that China is locked into territorial disputes with. The US which plans to send 60 percent of its most advanced military to the Asia-Pacific by 2022, seems to be pushing China into a corner were military action is the only option.
Colin Clark at Breaking Defense reports that Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, chief of U.S. Air Force operations in the Pacific, has said that the first Air Force F-35’s will be deployed to the Pacific and more than likely will be stationed at bases in Misawa, Japan; Kadena, Japan; Osan Air Base, Korea; and Kunsan Air Base, Korea. Clark also points out that the USAF will send “fighters, tankers, and at some point in the future, maybe bombers on a rotational basis,” to a base in Darwin, Australia.
In another report for Foreign Policy, John Reed quotes Carlisle as saying that the USAF will also be, “sending jets to Changi East air base in Singapore, Korat air base in Thailand, a site in India, and possibly bases at Kubi Point and Puerto Princesa in the Philippines and airfields in Indonesia and Malaysia.” Reed concludes by pointing out that this means “the Air Force will send large numbers of F-22 Raptors, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and B-2 stealth bombers to the region.”
The disclosure of Carlisle reveals a strategic policy to contain China, not only by land and sea, but also by air. By positioning the most technologically advanced fighter jets, in strategic areas in East and Southeast Asia, the US can contain China’s southern and Eastern borders. The US with military bases in South and Central Asia, and new military cooperation with Mongolia, China’s Western and Northern borders are dealing with a similar containment. The US encirclement seems to be why the PLA has focused renewed attention on air defence, by establishing a new air defence force integrating reconnaissance and early warning systems.
The previous week the Philippines government announced they would re-open former US naval and air base at Subic Bay, situated just 124 nautical miles from the disputed waters of Scarborough Shoal and would allow access to both Japanese and US militaries. That same week a statement from the spokesperson from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) caused outrage in Beijing when he said that China’s “unequivocal stance” on the South China Sea dispute, made it impossible for Manila to conduct any further negotiations with China. In an editorial in the CCP mouth piece the People’s Daily, China accused Manila of playing “hardball,” and placed the blame on US influence and “internal pressure.”
On the other hand, in recent months China has reestablished diplomatic relations with Russia, holding the largest joint naval drills and joint counter-terrorist drills. China has also increased its naval and air surveillance in the disputed waters, both the South-China Sea and the East China Sea. The increased naval and air surveillance have resulted not only in accusations of Chinese bully tactics, but has also come close to armed conflict, the most recent example being Japan’s scrabbling of jets after a Chinese plane flew over disputed southern waters. Frustrated by Washington’s Asia-Pacific policy, Beijing lodged a formal complaint with the US after the U.S. Senate passed a resolution expressing concern about Chinese actions in the disputed East and South-China Seas.
The US government which is now reviewing overturning Japan’s decades-old ban on overseas arms trade is directly playing a part in insuring the continued militarization of the Asia-Pacific. It seems regional militarization is inevitable as Washington continues to militarize the region it is also forcing China into an arms race. The Japanese government which is now looking to create US Marines-style force and a fleet of drone aircraft’s to defend against threats from China and North Korea, continues to take a dramatic shift away from its post war peace settlement.
The Asia-pacific which now surpasses Europe as the world’s second largest naval market, is set to become big business for US arms companies, who are helping to push for a news arms race of naval militarization. Bob Nugent, vice president of advisory services at AMI International, a US naval analysis firm said “AMI projects that navies within the Asia-Pacific region will spend a combined [US] $180 billion, almost 800 new ships, surface craft and submarines through 2031.”
On the other hand, Raydon Gates, Australia’s chief executive of Lockheed Martin said “As US forces progressively expand their footprint in the region in response to the pivot to Asia, there are many areas of opportunity for us to develop new business in the Asia-Pacific.”
However, you may view the territorial disputes, the territory in which China has been patrolling is territory claimed by China, whether those claims are legitimate or not, is another matter, although the patrols can still be justified under China’s territorial claims. Additionally these actions are no different from the actions carried out by the US in Chinese waters over the past decade. The US a none signatory to UNCLOS, has been conducting their own maritime patrols in the Yellow Sea and despite Beijing’s claims of illegality, the US has always maintained these actions are innocent and completely legal.
Continuing to express Chinese soft power, Xi Jinping remarked on Wednesday during a high level Politburo meeting, that China would not sacrifice its core interests and would peacefully resolve disputes with its neighbours through negotiations.
“We love peace and will take the road of peaceful development, but we will not give up our legitimate interests and cannot sacrifice the national core interests,” Xi said. “We must insist that the sovereignty belongs to us, but we can shelve the disputes, pursue joint development, promote mutually beneficial, friendly cooperation, and seek and widen common interests.”
Xi’s claims that China will continue to maintain a policy of soft power, instead look like the opposite and continue to be viewed as aggressive hegemony. The frequent barrage of back and forth rhetoric and continued surveillance of disputed waters is anything but soft power. However, until these territorial disputes are settled in a court of law, China has no real choice but to be assertive against what Washington already views as baseless claims.
Nonetheless, whether you side with the US, or with China, there is no doubt that Washington’s regional policy is counterproductive for regional peace and stability. The continued arming of US regional allies and the US policy of containment, by encircling China by air and sea, is only pushing China into further militarization and a more assertive posture in how it deals with its territorial disputes. Certain incidents, such as the recent shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman, only highlight how dangerous further militarization in the region can be. With the US pledging military support to Asia-Pacific states, through a long list of decades-old Mutual Cooperation Treaties, could an event such as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand be the catalyst for all-out-war? As the US continues to contain China, arm its rivals and intervene in territorial disputes, the risk of future conflict will continue to grow.