SINGAPORE – The pieces of a new strategic kaleidoscope in the Asia-Pacific region are starting to fall into place as allies and security partners of the United States seek to deter China from using or threatening force to achieve its expansive aims, particularly in the South China Sea, which forms the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
A contingent of about 200 U.S. Marines will soon arrive in Darwin, northern Australia. They are the forerunners of a bigger force of up to 2,500 marines agreed in November by leaders of the two allies.
Singapore has offered basing facilities to several high-speed Littoral Combat Ships being brought into service with the U.S. Navy, while U.S. ally the Philippines is negotiating with Washington to hold more military training exercises with the U.S. in the Philippines and increase U.S. Navy access to Philippine ports.
Vietnam is in the midst of a major military buildup to protect its interests in the South China Sea, following similar moves by Malaysia.
The U.S. Marines will rotate through bases in northern Australia for training and exercises, underscoring what President Barack Obama said was U.S. determination to play a larger and long-term role in shaping the region and its future, despite looming hefty cuts in America’s defense budget.
Obama reaffirmed in South Korea recently that reductions in defense spending would not come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific. “America’s armed forces are going to stay ready for the full range of contingencies and threats,” he said.
Japan and the U.S. are expected to finalize an agreement later this month to relocate 4,700 U.S. Marines from the Japanese island of Okinawa to Guam, a U.S. territory and major military base in the western Pacific.
The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the new force layout would divide the Marine Corps command, ground force, air and logistic units into an arc of bases forming a flank along the eastern seaboard of China.
Marines are the spearhead of U.S. forces deployed in the Asia-Pacific region. The Yomiuri said that spreading them more widely across the region was designed to make any foreign attack on their bases more difficult, counter the growing military strength of China, and better prepare for any future disaster relief and humanitarian aid efforts.
The U.S. is also realigning its forces in the western Pacific to focus more of them on maintaining stability in Southeast Asia and protecting the shipping and energy supply lines that run through the Indian Ocean to East Asian economies that are key drivers of global growth.
China has also indicated that it wants to restrict foreign military operations in large areas of the South China Sea, alarming the U.S., Japan and many other regional countries that depend on freedom of navigation. Much of Australia’s trade, including vital energy imports, pass through the South China Sea and, like the U.S., Japan can only give full support its security partners in Asia if it has unrestricted access to international waters in the area for its naval and air self-defense forces.
In addition to the new U.S. Marine presence, Australia will increase U.S. access to military airfields in northern Australia and to its main Indian Ocean naval base near Perth. In the longer term, it may allow the U.S. to use an upgraded airfield on its Cocos and Keeling Island territory in the Indian Ocean south of Indonesia for long-range maritime reconnaissance flights by unmanned aircraft.
Although both the U.S. and Australia have been careful not to cast their strengthening security cooperation in anti-China terms, Beijing sees it as part of a regional containment strategy. The China Daily said on March 29 that “the prospective new base (on Cocos island) will allow U.S. spy flights over the South China Sea.”
China evidently aims to dominate its “near seas” — the Yellow, East, and South China seas — turning them into an extended security buffer protecting the Chinese mainland and enabling China to exploit valuable fisheries and seabed resources, including oil, gas and minerals.
The three seas contain the vast majority of China’s outstanding territorial claims against its neighbors, as well as all its disputed maritime claims.
Beijing’s claims in the 3.5 million square km South China Sea are by far the most extensive. Beijing asserts sovereignty over the main contested archipelagos and their surrounding waters and seabed. It also asserts other forms of jurisdiction in its claimed zone of control, which covers about 80 percent of the sea.
Chinese mapping authorities said recently that they would clarify Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the state-owned company that leads the search for oil and gas in the area said that deepwater resources there would boost the firm’s growth in the medium and long-term.
“The majority of the disputed waters used to be beyond our reach because we seldom put our claims into action,” Zhang Yunling, director of the Institute for International Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times. “By drawing a (more precise) map, the country can reinforce its jurisdiction claim in the South China Sea, and further actions may follow, such as exploiting resources near the Nansha Islands.”
These widely scattered islands, known in the English-speaking world as the Spratlys, are also claimed in full by Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. All but Brunei have garrisoned the main atolls, creating a powder keg should China try to forcibly evict any rival claimants.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.