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South China Sea Conflicts Ignited United States Pivot to Asia Pacific

Paper No. 5513                                       Dated 19-Jun-2013

By Dr. Subhash Kapila

The United States possibly would have preferred to delay its strategic pivot to Asia Pacific till 2014 by which time the planned draw-down of US military forces from Afghanistan would have commenced. China seems to have forced the US hand in doing so by igniting the South China Sea conflicts, first with Vietnam and then the Philippines markedly from 2008 onwards.

China's escalation of conflictual issues in the South China Sea was a strategic gauntlet thrown by China to the United States with multiple aims, which the United States could have ill-afforded to ignore. China perceived that as the first step towards emerging as the 'strategic co-equal' of the United States on the global stage. 

Prominently, the over-riding aim seems to have been to put the United States on notice that China's naval build-up in the preceding decade had reached levels in the Western Pacific where the US naval predominance could be challenged by China and that China would eventually effect a naval breakout into the wider Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.

Counting on a flawed assessment that the United States with its 'Risk Aversion' policies towards China would hesitate in confronting China aggressive moves against Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, China felt emboldened to proceed ahead with its military brinkmanship in the South China Sea. It thus hoped that by use of coercion and force it could force Vietnam and the Philippines to submit to Chinese sovereignty claim over the whole South China Sea as per its illegal 'Nine-Dashed Line' claims. 

Attendant on the above was another strategic move to dent the United States image in the Asia Pacific in that the United States was not a reliable guarantor and committed security partner both to established US Allies like Japan and South Korea but also to reclaimed ally, the Philippines and new US strategic partners like Vietnam.

Having stated the broad parameters of China's new Grand Strategy against the United States by proxy use of South China Sea as a stepping stone, some words need to be devoted to the events leading to China's misreading of strategic events in the second half of the last decade and thereafter.

The United States could not have been unaware that China's stupendous military build-up was proceeding unabated for nearly two decades and that a strategic vacuum had set in especially in South East Asia with the United States strategically distracted and militarily stretched by its military interventions and Iraq and Afghanistan.

China has been always credited with abundant strategic foresight and strategic vision in reading the international and regional security environment before it initiates any unsettling strategic moves to secure the ends of its Grand Strategy.

China for some inexplicable reasons seems to have totally misread United States resolve, strategic priorities and commitments in relation to Asia Pacific security especially from the period 2008 onwards.

In China's perceptions and strategic calculations during this period what seems to have prevailed were faulty assessments of decline of US military power, US financial woes arising from global recession, and the US being in a militarily quagmire in Afghanistan.

China sensed that the above factors coupled with China's naval expansion and modernisation having peaked to levels where US maritime dominance could be reasonably managed, it set sail into the South China Sea with aggressive military brinkmanship and even use of armed force against Vietnam and the Philippines. 

Vietnam and the Philippines were 'frontline states' in the South China Sea contesting China's unilateral and illegal claims over the entire South China Sea virtually to the shores of Indonesia by the now infamous 'Nine -Dashed Line'. Both these nations did not have the naval and military might to deter China's unprovoked military brinkmanship in the South China Sea. 

The 'tipping point' for the United States strategic decision to make declaratory policy decisions for a strategic pivot to Asia Pacific seems to have occurred during this period.

Obviously, China had overplayed its hand by a strategic misreading of United States responses and underlying rationales of United States military embedment in the Asia Pacific.

Without awaiting the Afghanistan deadline of 2014, the United States enunciated the Obama Doctrine of a strategic pivot to Asia Pacific. It was later modified to read as re-deployment of forces and balanced US deployments. This was just a verbal concession to soften the hard contours of what was in essence a 'China Containment Doctrine' being put in place by the United States.

The United States strategic pivot to Asia Pacific having become an established fact now in 2013, a variety of attendant issues need to be addressed in terms of perspectives on United States future moves in this direction.

In the rebalancing of its security architecture in the Western Pacific wherein is located the South China Sea conflictual region, does the United States have any plans to replicate its spider web of security relationships like those with Japan and South Korea in the wider Asia Pacific?

Of the two frontline states' of South East Asia locked in conflict with China, namely Vietnam and the Philippines , the United States is already committed to the security of the Philippines as per the Mutual Security Treaty of 1952.

Would the United States be willing to underwrite security of Vietnam against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea even without a formal Mutual Security Treaty?

Or would the United States work towards a comprehensive South East Asia regional security architecture to insulate this vital region from China's existing and potential threats?

There is a nagging fear in South East Asian capitals on the intensity and longevity of the US strategic pivot to Asia fearing that both as a result of the US traditional 'China Hedging Strategy' and also because of domestic budget cuts in defence spending, the US commitment to South China Sea security may be a transient phase. How would the United States assure South East Asian countries of its resolve to contain China within its national boundaries and not let it spill its military adventurism in South China Sea region and in South East Asia as a whole?

The United States needs to remember how China muscled into South East Asia in the last decade or so when the region lay neglected by the United States. The United States could let South East Asia remain in benign neglect because during that period China's military and naval build-up levis were still maturing.

In 2013 China's military and naval build-up has reached alarming levels and consequently China has already put the United States on notice that at least in the Western Pacific wherein lies the South China Sea conflictual region is located, China is no longer a military push-over or subject to US political and military coercion.

The United States can no longer persist in following its traditional 'China Hedging Strategy' and 'Risk Aversion Strategy 'towards China. Persisting in doing so could end up in denting United States image of a credible strategic partner in Asian capitals and endanger its continued embedment in Asia.

South China Sea conflicts stood ignited by China's military brinkmanship and China's military adventurism to which the United States responded by its strategic pivot to Asia Pacific. In 2013 a higher call now awaits the United States in checkmating China's military adventurism by shedding ambiguity from its South China Sea policies.

The United States needs to take advantage of the Asian strategic polarisation which the China-generated South China Sea conflicts have brought in its wake in favour of the United States.

Robert Kaplan, the noted US Author and expert on strategic affairs has wisely observed that:

" Just as German soil constituted the military frontline of the Cold War, the waters of the South China Sea may constitute the military frontlines in the coming decades. Worldwide multipolarity is already a feature of diplomacy and economics but the South China Sea could show what multipolarity in a military sense actually looks like"

United States, it is your call now!