Sunday, January 20, 2013

US pivot sparks Asian arms race
By Richard Heydarian

MANILA - Against the backdrop of renewed large-scale US military sales to Asian allies, and with newly re-elected US President Barack Obama choosing the region as his first official foreign destination, regional maritime disputes between China and Southeast Asian states are poised to intensify in the months ahead. 

Under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, China has progressively buttressed its maritime claims across the South and East China Seas on both diplomatic and military fronts. Other Pacific powers, namely Japan and India, have also begun to deepen their strategic engagements with Southeast Asian partners, including through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) multilateral mechanisms. 

The Obama administration signaled the formal commencement of

the US's "pivot", or what officials in Washington commonly refer to as a "rebalancing" towards Asia, in November 2011 when the president stated to the Australian parliament: "As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future." 

The key strategic aim of the "pivot", experts contend, is to contain China's maritime assertiveness and protect freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific, a global artery for trade and energy transportation. Yet the US's strategic re-focus on Asia has paradoxically not only strengthened the hands of Chinese hawks calling for a more muscular counter-strategy but also emboldened the US's regional partners, namely Japan, Philippines, and Vietnam, to push their claims more aggressively. 

Washington's recent decision to equip its regional allies with an expanded package of sophisticated military hardware, featuring state-of-the-art warplanes and anti-missile systems, could aggravate an already combustible regional dynamic and extinguish any prospects for a peaceful resolution of the ongoing disputes. The dramatic boost in US military commitments to the region also underlines the Obama administration's growing reliance on a primarily military-oriented - as opposed to trade- and development-driven - approach to re-asserting US primacy in the Pacific. 

Military-industrial pivot
Growing Sino-American frictions over Asian territorial disputes promises to define both countries' foreign policies in the years ahead. The US's recent big-ticket military sales to regional allies also underscore the degree to which the American industrial-military complex has been energized in the process. The US pivot is thus reinforcing a large and growing network of vested interests in the ongoing disputes. 

Among the biggest beneficiaries of recent US commitments is the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), a massive trade group that includes top Pentagon suppliers such as Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co and Northrop Grumman Corp. Fred Downey, vice president for national security at the AIA, recently said: "[The pivot] will result in growing opportunities for our industry to help equip our friends." 

Facing an anemic economy and reeling from deepening fiscal woes, the Pentagon has initiated across-the-board budget cuts, expected to amount to almost US$500 billion over the next 10 years. This has not only raised questions over the US's capacity to rein in China's perceived expansionism and aid troubled allies but has also evoked deep worries about where future profits will arise among American arms suppliers. 

As Ken Lieberthal, director of the Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institute and former president Bill Clinton's top China adviser, puts it, "The most important single element to our success in Asia will be whether domestically we get our house in order, whether domestically we're able to adopt and integrate a set of policies that will effectively address our fiscal problems over time and show that we can actually function effectively politically." [1] 

To buttress its expressed commitment to regional security and freedom of navigation in international waters and revive the domestic defense industry, Washington has stepped up its increasingly sophisticated military sales to the region. Since 2011, the same year that President Obama formally launched the pivot, the US's worldwide military sales have hovered above US$60 billion, with a $6.9 billion acquisition deal with India in 2011 and $13.7 billion in overall sales to Pacific partners in 2012

This year's sales feature, among other things, a $5 billion Lockheed Martin radar-evading F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft deal with Japan, a $1.2 Northrop Grumman high-flying RQ-4 "Global Hawk" spy drone deal with South Korea, and a $1.85 billion Lockheed Martin-led retrofitting of Taiwan's 145 F-16A/B fighters with advanced radars and electronic warfare suits. [2] 

The US has also encouraged further self-reliance and inter-operability among allied Asian nations, creating an inversed "wall of China" on Beijing's adjacent waters. 

With the recent election of a right-wing administration in Tokyo under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has responded to Washington's call for a more assertive Japanese role in regional affairs. The new Japanese government is considering revitalized defense ties with Asian partners, sales of advanced military hardware such as stealth diesel-powered submarines and seaplanes, and enhanced inter-operability with major naval powers in the Pacific. 

Recent military sales are allowing the US to gradually pass the buck to Asian partners, prodding the latter to bear a growing share of costs associated with deterring China's perceived expansionism, including in the South China Sea. 

Diplomatic trade-off
The biggest losers in the US-China driven escalation will likely be the political moderates who have called for a more sanguine, diplomatic resolution of the decades-long maritime disputes and deeper pan-regional economic integration. 

In the 2012 Australia-US Ministerial Meeting's joint communique, outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to reassure her Chinese counterparts of Washington's intentions by stating, "We welcome 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." 

In addition to the US Navy decision to invite China to join the large-scale, US-led "Rim of the Pacific Exercise" in 2014, Obama's choice for the next heads of the defense and state departments, namely Senator Chuck Hagel and Senator John Kerry, have underscored the importance of a symbiotic Sino-American dynamic. 

"... We need China, and China needs us. We have to get this relationship right. After all, we are talking about our connection to one-sixth of humanity," Senator Kerry stated as the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US Senate. "The most serious problems we face today, from nuclear proliferation to climate change, can't be solved alone. And, economically, our futures are deeply intertwined and will remain so." [3

During the NATO summit in Chicago last May, Senator Hagel praised China for its socio-economic progress and called for the alliance to welcome it as a normal emerging competitor. "They are a great power today, and they are going to continue to be a great power, and that's okay. But we shouldn't cower in the wake of that, or we shouldn't be concerned that they're going to take our place in the world," said the two-term senator, who will most likely be Pentagon's next leader. [4] 

The overtly military aspects of the US's pivot, however, have vindicated hawks in Beijing who have consistently downplayed American reassurances of peaceful coexistence and an amicable global partnership. 

"Although American political leaders regularly deny it, the US military is working to contain China in the Asia-Pacific region. American military planners have developed a posture in Asia that is designed with the obvious purpose of putting China's seaborne commerce at risk," said Justin Logan in a recent report by the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank. "The first problem with American strategy is that its 'congagement' [containment and engagement] approach is built on contradictory policies." [5] 

The new Chinese leadership under Xi is also intent on consolidating domestic power by appeasing hawks in both the military as well as other fiercely nationalistic quasi-civilian quarters. This explains recent measures by Beijing in both the East and South China Seas, whereby Chinese military and paramilitary elements are reported to have taunted Japanese forces patrolling the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and harassed Vietnamese vessels conducting energy-exploration surveys in the South China Sea. 

China has also stepped up its diplomatic offensives, not least through the issuance of controversial maps and passports that lay overt claim to disputed territories. In addition to its controversial passport design, bearing the full-extent of Chinese territorial claims across Asia, in November China published a map claiming territories that fall within Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The provocation was followed by two other official maps released in January featuring the Japanese-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as well as maritime areas within the Philippines' EEZ under Beijing's sovereignty. [6] 

By rallying regional allies against China and equipping them with state-of-the-art military equipment, the US pivot risks intensifying Chinese anxieties while emboldening strategic partners such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan - and even India - to push Beijing into a corner. [7] 

Despite all its imperfections, ASEAN is still the region's best shot at establishing a workable dispute-settlement mechanism to resolve the ongoing disputes. With Brunei assuming the chairmanship of the regional bloc, there is a new opportunity to build on prior diplomatic efforts under Vietnam's (2010) and Indonesia's (2011) leaderships to develop a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. 

But a US-driven arms race in the region, one that benefits Washington's military-industrial complex, could torpedo any chance at patient, peaceful diplomacy. 

1. Understanding the US pivot to Asia, The Brookings Institution, January 31, 2012.
2. US arms sales to Asia set to boom on Pacific "pivot", Reuters, January 4, 2013.
3. Click here.
4. Hagel looks ready to work with China, China Daily, January 8, 2013.
5. Click here.
6. China publishes new maps highlighting islands being claimed by PH, Japan, Interaksyon, January 12, 2013.
7. Barry Desker, Defusing Tensions in the South China Sea, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, RSIS Commentaries, December 3, 2012. 

Richard Javad Heydarian is a foreign affairs analyst focusing on Iran and international security. He is the author of the upcoming book The Economics of the Arab Spring: How Globalization Failed the Arab World, Zed Books, 2013. He can be reached at

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