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How the U.S. Pivot Towards Asia is Exacerbating Tensions With China

Under the pivot strategy, the U.S. is set to commit several thousand troops to Asia in addition to the 320,000 troops already in the region.

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In last month’s Australia-U.S. Ministerial Meeting, Clinton sought to calm Chinese nerves by stating, “We (the U.S.) welcomed a strong, prosperous and peaceful China, which plays a constructive role in promoting regional security and prosperity… We do not take a position on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.”

The U.S. Navy also invited China to join the large-scale, U.S.-led ‘Rim of the Pacific Exercise’ by 2014.

Yet an unconvinced China, under its new leadership, has nudged up its claims. Recently, authorities in the southern Chinese Island of Hainan have issued new laws, whereby beginning next year, they will have the authority to intercept and board any foreign vessel seen to violate China’s ‘sovereignty’ over all claimed features in the South China Sea.

In response, Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Surin Pitsuwan warned that such a decision “…has increased a level of concern and a level of great anxiety among all parties, particularly parties that would need the access, the passage and the freedom to go through.” Beijing subsequently insisted that the new authority was not aimed against sea-borne commercial traffic.

China’s new passport design, incorporating disputed territories in the South China Sea under the country’s official map, has also sparked renewed concerns among some of its southern neighbours.

In the face of what it sees as Chinese provocations, however, a deeply divided ASEAN has failed to make any meaningful progress in crafting a legally-binding regional Code of Conduct to resolve disputes, as strongly urged by Washington.

If the pivot is seen in Beijing as a provocation, it has also encouraged greater assertiveness on the part of some of its neighbours.

While the Vietnamese have stepped up their energy exploration projects in disputed territories, and the Japanese government decided to purchase from its private owner one of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, the Philippines has pushed to upgrade its military ties with the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, and South Korea to defend its own claims.

“While we are all aware that the U.S. does not take sides in disputes, they do have a strategic stake in the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Filipino President Benigno Aquino stated at last month’s East Asian Summit, prodding further U.S. involvement in the South China Sea disputes.

How Washington will react to these kinds of pressures, particularly given its own fiscal challenges that have already resulted in nearly 500 billion dollars in cuts to its projected military budgets over the next ten years, adds yet another level of uncertainty to the calculations of the contending parties in the region.

Already, the pivot is being attacked by the U.S. right as insufficient. “This reallocation of military and diplomatic resources was supposed to guarantee stability in a region seeking to balance China’s rise. In reality, this strategic shift is less than it appears,” argued Michael Auslin in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. “In reality…it won’t solve Asia’s problems and may even add to the region’s uncertainty by over-promising and under-delivering.”

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