President Barack Obama’s emphasis this week on restricting the use of the military abroad risks an unintended consequence: deepening concern about fading U.S. engagement among Asian nations locked in disputes with China.
Obama’s defense chief, Chuck Hagel, leads the U.S. delegation to an annual security conference in Singapore that started today, two days after Obama said the armed forces can’t be the “primary component of our leadership.” The gathering concludes a week that’s seen China’s fighter jets challenging Japanese planes and the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat after a collision with a Chinese vessel.
The incidents underscored China’s determination under President Xi Jinping to press territorial claims against Japan and the Philippines -- two U.S. allies -- and Vietnam, a former American foe that now welcomes U.S. military visits. While the Obama administration says it’s “rebalancing” toward Asia, Asian governments may seek greater assurances of support.
“U.S. officials will be under considerable pressure to clarify how, if it all, the U.S. would seek to enforce its admonition about China forcing changes in the status quo,” said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University in California. “At what point, others may rightfully ask, do Chinese actions in the South China Sea constitute a threat to that order and what, if anything, would the U.S. do about that?”
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has called for a “stronger voice” from the U.S. against China after clashes between coast guard vessels near an oil rig that China placed in contested waters off Vietnam’s coast. The Philippines, dwarfed militarily by China, has sought support from the U.S. and the United Nations to counter China’s encroachment into shoals off its coast.
The annual Shangri-La security dialogue in Singapore brings together defense ministers and military leaders from around the globe. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will give the keynote address this evening while China sent Fu Ying, a former deputy foreign minister, alongside a retinue of People’s Liberation Army officers.
Obama during an April visit to Asia affirmed that U.S. treaty obligations with Japan covered islands in the East China Sea also claimed by China and said U.S. commitments were “iron clad.” But in a speech May 28 during commencement at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, Obama said not every problem “has a military solution.”
“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures,” he said.
“President Obama’s West Point speech will not ease misgivings among Asian partners about the U.S. commitment to the region’s security,” said Rory Medcalf, Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “The speech sits uneasily with the idea of a rebalance to Asia. It sends out mixed signals to Asian countries about what really constitutes an American core interest in this region.”
The administration faces distractions in the Middle East and the Ukraine crisis. The exit in stages of the U.S. army from Afghanistan after the longest war in U.S. history, along with budget cuts and the failure to wrap up a U.S.-led Pacific trade pact have further raised doubts about its Asia focus at a time when China is pressing its agenda in the region.
“There is a tendency that we misread each other, that we misunderstand each other,” Fu, chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, said of China and the U.S. during a debate today at the forum.
“I think we don’t have any other choice, we have to work together. And there are no differences that are big enough for us to separate from each other and to go confrontationally about each other,” Fu said.
During a visit to Beijing in April, Hagel was told by his counterpart, General Chang Wanquan, that China would make “no compromise, no concessions” in disputes with Japan and the Philippines. Standing alongside Hagel at a briefing, Chang said “the Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win.” China can’t be contained, Chang said, and the Pacific is “huge enough” to hold both countries.
The U.S. has “a huge interest” in keeping sea lanes in the region open for commerce, Hagel told reporters on board a military aircraft heading to Singapore. Hagel said he planned to discuss the South China Sea tensions in “some specific terms” and sees areas where China is “overplaying its hand.”
China’s official defense spending, while less than a third of the U.S., is narrowing the gap. Its military budget will rise 12.2 percent this year as Xi seeks a more combat-ready army and a Navy with broader reach throughout the Pacific.
The U.S. has 38,000 troops stationed in Japan, with about half on Okinawa, and 28,500 in South Korea. There are about 80,000 U.S. soldiers in the Pacific region, according to the U.S. Army Pacific’s website, and Secretary of State John Kerry said in January the U.S. would send a further 800 troops to South Korea with upgraded equipment.
The U.S. has urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China to agree on a code of conduct for the South China Sea and called China’s actions “provocative” after the clashes with Vietnam. Even nations that have kept out of the territorial disputes are now being drawn in, with Indonesia noting China’s nine dash-line map, which covers a large part of the South China Sea, touches on waters in the Riau province.
During Hagel’s trip to Singapore “I expect he will review some of the specific policies and actions the U.S. is taking,” said Bonnie Glaser, Senior Adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “In recent years the U.S. Secretary of Defense has not criticized China harshly at the Shangri-La Dialogue, but this year could be different.”
The U.S. could deploy more capacity to the region, such as extra aircraft carriers, according to Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Still, “China would have to really do something heinous before the United States would actually take military action,” he said. “I would say the United States would be trying more likely to play nice, to talk about common security and stuff like that” at the Singapore meeting.
China has sent its defense minister only once to the summit, in 2011, according to Glaser from CSIS. “Usually they send a deputy chief of the PLA general staff,” she said. “Sending Fu Ying is a departure from that practice. She has a reputation for being a tough ‘iron lady’.”
Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of general staff of the PLA, will lead China’s military delegation.
Sending Fu could indicate China expects a hostile audience in Japan. Abe plans to make his case at the summit for Japan broadening the scope of its military, he said in parliament in Tokyo this week.
“I’ll be interested to hear what kind of message he’s going to send to the region, including to the Chinese public,” Fu said of Abe’s speech. “After he came to office he did not show a lot of interest in addressing the Diaoyu island disputes,” she said of the East China Sea islands Japan calls Senkaku. “He has made it into a bigger issue. That is China as a country is posing a threat to Japan as a country.”
“With that as an excuse, trying to amend the security policy of Japan, that’s what worrying for the region and for China.”
Abe on May 28 called China’s actions “extremely dangerous” after Chinese fighter jets flew unusually close to Japanese military planes near the islands.
With tensions high “the U.S. needs to reinforce President Obama’s recent assurances to allies in Asia,” said the Lowy Institute’s Medcalf. “But it will take more than another speech to manage the quiet misgivings in Asia about America’s willingness to take risks in support of partners or even allies.”