US and China
Alliances of convenience have become the order of the day in the Tumultus Post-Americanus. With China laboring to intimidate her neighbors in the South China Sea, the US and still-socialist Vietnam have rediscovered each other. A busy Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also “signaled” in late June that the road was perhaps being paved for a strategically obvious US military relationship with Myanmar (formerly Burma, back when we disapproved of the ruling military junta).
If the path to reform in Myanmar continues under President Thein Sein, and the US obtains new engagement opportunities there, the Obama administration will have an important success. Its significance should not be overstated – Myanmar will remain a client of China, and we should be extremely wary of shipping arms to Myanmar under any circumstances – but having the entrée with this long-closed regime is a positive change for the US position in the region.
It is also a move China considers provocative. And the momentum from unified strategic purpose is with China at the moment. The US is all over the place: instead of stating clear interests and objectives and tending our relations with our longstanding allies on that basis, we are proclaiming the region “important,” rooting around for new allies, and effectively shifting our strategic position by abruptly but vaguely signaling new decisions on where to put forces and conduct military operations.
It’s by no means a bad thing for our military posture in the Far East to undergo changes. But the jerky, impolitic manner in which the changes have been insinuated (or blurted out) has been detrimental, overall. Rather than trying to promote a set of positive conditions in the region, we are mainly maneuvering against China – and it shows. If our desired end-state is merely a cowed China, we have chosen a narrow and negative goal, one it will be impossible to achieve. This approach is as unsustainable as the approach of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in Vietnam.
China, meanwhile, is acting on positive – if undesirable – goals. Recent reporting confirms the establishment of a new strategic missile brigade in Guangdong province, overlooking the South China Sea (SCS). Heroic claims about the capabilities of the “carrier-killer” DF-21D missile need not be given credibility for the geographic reality to be obvious: China can rain missiles down on the entire SCS and much of the archipelagic littoral surrounding it, including the Philippines, China’s rival for seabed resources off of the Philippines’ north coast.
The most basic American interest in the SCS is as a vital seaway for global commerce from the Pacific to the Strait of Malacca. Wielding influence over a sea as island- and shoal-infested as the SCS is as much a matter of influencing the adjacent coasts – i.e., the decisions of their political owners – as it is of navy-versus-navy confrontations. China’s intentions go beyond protecting her maritime claims; Beijing wants to establish a veto over anyone else’s activities in the SCS, and to that end has pursued a coordinated effort to claim mastery.
Navies leading the charge
The tactics have been modified with time, however. As recently as a year ago, the Chinese navy reportedly “harassed” an Indian warship heading through the SCS for a port visit in Vietnam. In May 2012, however, an Indian naval task group heading from the Philippines to South Korea was given an unsolicited “escort” from the Chinese navy as it transited international waters in the SCS:
[W]hen the Indian naval squadron led by ‘INS Shivalik’ was on its way to South Korea from the Philippines, the People’s Liberation Army Navy provided an unwanted escort.
Although the Indian ships were in international waters, a Chinese frigate sent a message “welcoming” the contingent to the South China Sea and sailed along for the next 12 hours.
Airborne reconnaissance patrols are one thing; we would expect China to conduct those, as we do off of our coast. An exchange of naval signals when warships encounter one another is normal. But the Chinese “escort” goes well beyond the formalities that are appropriate in international waters. It is a gesture of ownership, implying that foreign navies are in the SCS at China’s sufferance. Such a signal is not sent because China wants to start a conflict or necessarily force other navies out, but rather to create a pattern of “enforcement” and de facto governance. This Chinese initiative could clearly tip over into a posture that would become unbearable for other nations, including all those whose ships and goods move through the area.