In a move that could prove as momentous—and dangerous—as President Truman’s 1947 decision to initiate a cold war with the Soviet Union, President Obama has chosen to commence a military buildup in the Asia Pacific region aimed at reasserting US primacy and constraining China. Announced in Canberra, Australia, on November 17, the buildup will include deploying 2,500 US marines at Darwin, on Australia’s north coast, and an expanded naval presence in the South China Sea. Along with this shift is a fresh US drive to bolster alliances with countries on China’s periphery, including Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand. None of this is explicitly aimed at China—indeed, Obama insists he still seeks good relations with Beijing—but it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the White House has decided to counter China’s spectacular economic growth with a military riposte.
The policy, described by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns as a “strategic pivot toward the Pacific,” rests on several key precepts. First is a belief that the Pacific has become the “center of gravity” of global economic activity and that the United States must remain the dominant actor in this region if it expects to retain its status as the world’s paramount power. Second is the realization that China has taken advantage of America’s ten-year obsession with Iraq and Afghanistan to establish powerful economic ties with the nations of Southeast Asia, supplanting the United States as the dominant regional actor. And third, there is the conviction that the United States must make up for lost time and contest China’s recent gains by any means necessary. And because Washington lacks Beijing’s economic clout, it must rely on its one remaining strength: military power.
“As we end today’s wars,” Obama declared in Canberra, “I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority…. Our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in this region. The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”
This strategic shift has several key features, some announced during Obama’s trip to Asia, others still being formulated. Most specific is the decision to establish a base at Darwin, on the Timor Sea, a strategic body of water connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The administration also seeks to bolster US military ties with Indonesia and the Philippines, which both adjoin the South China Sea. While Obama was in Australia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the Philippines to sign the Manila Declaration, a joint statement pledging closer US-Philippine cooperation in military affairs, especially in the maritime arena.
These moves and others—including a new regional trade pact that purposefully excludes China—are part of what the administration describes as a “redistribution” of US military capabilities in the region, placing somewhat less emphasis on the northwest Pacific and the areas around Japan and more on the southwest Pacific and the South China Sea.
The South China Sea has had increased prominence in Washington’s strategic calculus in recent years as China has asserted its interests there and as its importance as an economic arena has grown. Not only does the sea sit atop major oil and natural gas deposits—some being developed by US companies, including ExxonMobil—it also serves as the main route for ships traveling to and from Europe, Africa and the Middle East to China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The Chinese say the South China Sea is part of their national maritime territory and that the oil and gas belongs to them; but Washington is insisting it will fight to preserve “freedom of navigation” there, at whatever cost. Whereas Taiwan once topped the list of US security challenges in the western Pacific, Hillary Clinton said on November 10 that “ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea” is now Washington’s principal challenge.
Focusing on the South China Sea achieves several White House goals. It shifts the emphasis in US security planning from ideological determinism, as embedded in the increasingly unpopular drive to impose American values on the Middle East and fight a never-ending war against Islamist jihadism, to economic realism, as expressed through protecting overseas energy assets and maritime commerce. By dominating sea lanes the United States poses an implied threat of economic warfare against China in any altercations by cutting off its access to foreign markets and raw materials. And, through its very location, the South China Sea links US strategic interests in the Pacific to its interests in the Indian Ocean and to those of the rising powers of South Asia. According to Secretary Burns, a key objective of the administration’s strategy is to unite India with Japan, Australia and other members of the emerging anti-Chinese bloc.
Chinese officials following these developments must see them as a calculated US effort to encircle China with hostile alliances. How, exactly, Beijing will respond to this onslaught remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that it will not be intimidated—resistance to foreign aggression lies at the bedrock of the national character and remains a key goal of the Chinese Communist Party, however attenuated by time. So blowback there will be.
Perhaps the White House believes that military competition will impede China’s economic growth and disguise US economic weaknesses. But this is folly: China has far greater economic clout than the United States. To enhance its position vis-à-vis China, America must first put its own house in order by reinvigorating its economy, reducing foreign debt, improving public education and eliminating unnecessary overseas military commitments.
Ultimately, what is most worrisome about the Obama administration’s strategic shift—which no doubt is dictated as much by domestic as foreign policy considerations, including the need to counter jingoistic appeals from GOP presidential candidates and to preserve high rates of military spending—is that it will trigger a similar realignment within Chinese policy circles, where military leaders are pushing for a more explicitly anti-American stance and a larger share of government funds. The most likely result, then, will be antagonistic moves on both sides, leading to greater suspicion, increased military spending, periodic naval incidents, a poisoned international atmosphere, economic disarray and, over time, a greater risk of war.