First, a U.S. naval vessel visited Vietnam, then the U.S. announced in June that it is stationing new Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore. President Obama then announced the deployment of Marines to Australia in November, and now the U.S. seems to be on the brink of a deal that would allow its troops and naval vessels to operate out of the Philippines. The common trend regarding these developments is that the U.S. and these nations feel the need to try to counterbalance the rise of China.
This need has not arisen out of nowhere. China’s GDP continues to rise and may become the largest economy in the world by the end of the decade. Along with this, China’s neighbors may feel uneasy about its rise in military spending. While these two facts alone may be a bit ambiguous to cause too much concern, China’s disputes with many countries in the Pacific add reasons to worry.
China is locked in disputes with several nations over rights in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Tokyo and Beijing have been fighting over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has also sailed through the Strait of Malacca in a sign of strength, a worrying sign for Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. China and India have an ongoing clash over the border between their two countries. In the past, this dispute has ended in armed conflict.
What should become clear is the growing consensus to contain and counterbalance the rise of China. Despite the claims of China’s peaceful rise to power, these disputes provide evidence to the contrary. In response, these countries have been turning to the U.S., logically seeing the world’s most powerful navy as the proper anchor for any attempt to stymie Chinese ambitions.
This rising sentiment could be a hurdle for China. Unlike the U.S., China lives in the most crowded corner of the world, with some of the world’s largest nations on or near their border. Smaller countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan are next to sea-lanes extremely critical for China’s economic future. While there is no formal coalition between many of the East and Southeast Asian nations, one critical link between all of them is a strong and/or strengthening relationship with the U.S.
What could become a hurdle for China may be a great asset for the U.S. The relationship is mutually beneficial for both sides – the Asian nations get a greater guarantee of security from the world’s only military superpower, while the U.S. maintains its ability to project its influence onto one of the most important regions in the world. As the U.S. faces cuts in each of its military branches, these relationships will become even more important, providing staging areas and additional ships and troops that can act as force multipliers in both military and diplomatic crises.
China may have an economic advantage for the near future, but through a somewhat confrontational foreign policy on its periphery, it has made it much easier for the U.S. and her allies to attain a position of continued military superiority. At least for the foreseeable future, the Pacific Ocean will be less an area seriously contested by China and more likely resemble the ‘American Lake’ of the past.
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