Battle for strategic supremacy in East Asia: Who will win?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Warship South China SeaSimmering tensions in the South China Sea have reached a state of uneasiness as of late. Long-standing territorial disputes between China and several regional states have been followed by an unrelenting Chinese policy of land reclamation and aggressive militarisation. Hotly contested specks of land such as the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal have become the front line of a battle for economic and strategic supremacy in Southeast Asia.

The South China Sea acts as a nautical highway for $5.3 trillion of annual trade, in addition to possessing precious natural resources such as fisheries and oil reserves. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie below the ocean depths of the South China Sea.

In a race to lay claim over the invaluable real estate, China has built airstrips, deployed fighters and cruise missiles to the Spratly Islands and is expanding its territory through reclamation at a steady pace. In opposition, the US seeks to maintain freedom of navigation and to support its allies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that have been adversely affected by Chinese aggression in the region.

The Obama administration’s long-awaited policy “pivot” to East Asia has seemed to arrive in the form of military coordination, state visits and multi-lateral economic policy. However, critics argue that the recent actions of the US have come too little too late.

The standoff in the South China Sea comes at a crucial juncture in the course of US foreign policy and the policy of its allies in Asia-Pacific. Should the tone of the US and its allies be conciliatory? Or should it be swift and powerful? Recent developments suggest that the Chinese adherence to realist political doctrine calls for the latter.

Fishing boat South China Sea
Indonesia blows up an impounded Chinese fishing vessel caught illegally fishing in the South China Sea

The East Asian “pivot” has become somewhat of a buzzword amongst policy makers in Washington. First coined by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a 2011 piece she authored for the political journal Foreign Policy, the term is meant to represent the shift of US military and diplomatic focus to East Asia.

In Clinton’s words, the future of US economic and strategic interests lie in Asia, not Europe or the Middle East. Her view was widely accepted as the ‘new wave’ amongst policy makers and the US public. The administration followed suit, with a full withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and a return of troops from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Cold War policy of a stand-off between East and West is no longer pertinent since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But unexpectedly, the US and its NATO allies would find themselves drawn into foreign policy crises on two familiar fronts.

In late 2010, a demonstration against dictatorship in Tunisia led to a sweeping movement that was poised to destabilise nations across two continents, from Algeria to Yemen. However, the Arab Spring (2010-2012) actually had a much greater, global impact. As conflicts in Syria, Egypt and Libya spiraled into chaos, the US intervened on behalf of the rebels to varying degrees. The burgeoning war in Syria soon spilled over into neighboring Iraq, still reeling from eight years of US occupation. The resulting rise of ISIS, an organisation with an ambition for terror but also territory, has bogged down US interests ever since, and will likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The resurgence of Russian aggression added to the foreign policy woes that have sidetracked the US objective of supremacy in Asia-Pacific.

As Barack Obama enters the final months of his presidency, the rise of China and the tensions brewing in the South China Sea have inexorably been thrown to the forefront of his administration’s priorities. Detractors argue that the US has failed to secure its strategic objectives in the region. China acts recklessly and with impunity to secure its interests, while disregarding those of key US allies such as Taiwan and the Philippines. While that argument is valid, progress has been made as well.

Hillary Clinton laid out six courses of action for her planned “pivot”. Most important amongst these: “Strengthening bilateral security alliances; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; deepening the US’s relationships with rising powers; and expanding trade and investment.”

In February this year, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was finalised and signed amongst twelve Pacific-rim nations. The treaty aims to promote investment, reduce and eliminate trade tariffs and to set rules and regulations amongst the member nations. Obama’s administration touted the treaty as having “eliminated 18,000 taxes and tariffs on US made exports” while “solidifying US leadership and competitiveness in Asia”.

South China Sea_claims_mapAmongst the nations included were Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia. Notably missing was China. In late May, in a state visit to Vietnam, President Obama announced the lifting of an arms embargo in place since the end of the Vietnam War and also revealed agreements for $16 billion of commercial investment in Vietnam. Many speculated that this move was a clear response to the Chinese build-up in the South China Sea, and it appears to be exactly that.

Progression has been made on the military front as well for the US. The Philippines, perhaps the US’s oldest and most faithful ally in Asia, has recently come to terms with the US military. In early 2016, The Philippine Supreme Court sanctioned a bill to allow the US military to station men and materiel on a rotational basis at five airfield ands two naval stations. The initiative, spearheaded by US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, will act as a deterrent to Chinese expansion according to both US and Filipino supporters. These improved logistical bases will supplement an already strong US presence in Asia-Pacific, with bases in South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Guam and Marshall Islands.

Increased US involvement in Asia-Pacific, both economic and militarily, will undoubtedly provoke a Chinese reaction. What exactly that reaction will be is subject to debate. Will China recede diplomatically and increase its hostile behaviour towards its neighbours? Will it scale-back its belligerency and engage in dialogue? All that we can ascertain is that the tensions between the ASEAN-US block and China will come to a tipping point in the near future, and ground zero will be the South China Sea.

Whether China backs down or holds steady will ultimately determine who will be the regional hegemon. How China reacts will rely on the policy of the new administration coming to Washington D.C. in January 2017 and how rigorously they plan to enforce their policy in Asia-Pacific.

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Simmering tensions in the South China Sea have reached a state of uneasiness as of late. Long-standing territorial disputes between China and several regional states have been followed by an unrelenting Chinese policy of land reclamation and aggressive militarisation. Hotly contested specks of land such as the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal have become the front line of a battle for economic and strategic supremacy in Southeast Asia. The South China Sea acts as a nautical highway for $5.3 trillion of annual trade, in addition to possessing precious natural resources such as fisheries and oil reserves. Conservative estimates suggest...

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Warship South China SeaSimmering tensions in the South China Sea have reached a state of uneasiness as of late. Long-standing territorial disputes between China and several regional states have been followed by an unrelenting Chinese policy of land reclamation and aggressive militarisation. Hotly contested specks of land such as the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal have become the front line of a battle for economic and strategic supremacy in Southeast Asia.

The South China Sea acts as a nautical highway for $5.3 trillion of annual trade, in addition to possessing precious natural resources such as fisheries and oil reserves. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie below the ocean depths of the South China Sea.

In a race to lay claim over the invaluable real estate, China has built airstrips, deployed fighters and cruise missiles to the Spratly Islands and is expanding its territory through reclamation at a steady pace. In opposition, the US seeks to maintain freedom of navigation and to support its allies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that have been adversely affected by Chinese aggression in the region.

The Obama administration’s long-awaited policy “pivot” to East Asia has seemed to arrive in the form of military coordination, state visits and multi-lateral economic policy. However, critics argue that the recent actions of the US have come too little too late.

The standoff in the South China Sea comes at a crucial juncture in the course of US foreign policy and the policy of its allies in Asia-Pacific. Should the tone of the US and its allies be conciliatory? Or should it be swift and powerful? Recent developments suggest that the Chinese adherence to realist political doctrine calls for the latter.

Fishing boat South China Sea
Indonesia blows up an impounded Chinese fishing vessel caught illegally fishing in the South China Sea

The East Asian “pivot” has become somewhat of a buzzword amongst policy makers in Washington. First coined by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a 2011 piece she authored for the political journal Foreign Policy, the term is meant to represent the shift of US military and diplomatic focus to East Asia.

In Clinton’s words, the future of US economic and strategic interests lie in Asia, not Europe or the Middle East. Her view was widely accepted as the ‘new wave’ amongst policy makers and the US public. The administration followed suit, with a full withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and a return of troops from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Cold War policy of a stand-off between East and West is no longer pertinent since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But unexpectedly, the US and its NATO allies would find themselves drawn into foreign policy crises on two familiar fronts.

In late 2010, a demonstration against dictatorship in Tunisia led to a sweeping movement that was poised to destabilise nations across two continents, from Algeria to Yemen. However, the Arab Spring (2010-2012) actually had a much greater, global impact. As conflicts in Syria, Egypt and Libya spiraled into chaos, the US intervened on behalf of the rebels to varying degrees. The burgeoning war in Syria soon spilled over into neighboring Iraq, still reeling from eight years of US occupation. The resulting rise of ISIS, an organisation with an ambition for terror but also territory, has bogged down US interests ever since, and will likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The resurgence of Russian aggression added to the foreign policy woes that have sidetracked the US objective of supremacy in Asia-Pacific.

As Barack Obama enters the final months of his presidency, the rise of China and the tensions brewing in the South China Sea have inexorably been thrown to the forefront of his administration’s priorities. Detractors argue that the US has failed to secure its strategic objectives in the region. China acts recklessly and with impunity to secure its interests, while disregarding those of key US allies such as Taiwan and the Philippines. While that argument is valid, progress has been made as well.

Hillary Clinton laid out six courses of action for her planned “pivot”. Most important amongst these: “Strengthening bilateral security alliances; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; deepening the US’s relationships with rising powers; and expanding trade and investment.”

In February this year, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was finalised and signed amongst twelve Pacific-rim nations. The treaty aims to promote investment, reduce and eliminate trade tariffs and to set rules and regulations amongst the member nations. Obama’s administration touted the treaty as having “eliminated 18,000 taxes and tariffs on US made exports” while “solidifying US leadership and competitiveness in Asia”.

South China Sea_claims_mapAmongst the nations included were Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia. Notably missing was China. In late May, in a state visit to Vietnam, President Obama announced the lifting of an arms embargo in place since the end of the Vietnam War and also revealed agreements for $16 billion of commercial investment in Vietnam. Many speculated that this move was a clear response to the Chinese build-up in the South China Sea, and it appears to be exactly that.

Progression has been made on the military front as well for the US. The Philippines, perhaps the US’s oldest and most faithful ally in Asia, has recently come to terms with the US military. In early 2016, The Philippine Supreme Court sanctioned a bill to allow the US military to station men and materiel on a rotational basis at five airfield ands two naval stations. The initiative, spearheaded by US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, will act as a deterrent to Chinese expansion according to both US and Filipino supporters. These improved logistical bases will supplement an already strong US presence in Asia-Pacific, with bases in South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Guam and Marshall Islands.

Increased US involvement in Asia-Pacific, both economic and militarily, will undoubtedly provoke a Chinese reaction. What exactly that reaction will be is subject to debate. Will China recede diplomatically and increase its hostile behaviour towards its neighbours? Will it scale-back its belligerency and engage in dialogue? All that we can ascertain is that the tensions between the ASEAN-US block and China will come to a tipping point in the near future, and ground zero will be the South China Sea.

Whether China backs down or holds steady will ultimately determine who will be the regional hegemon. How China reacts will rely on the policy of the new administration coming to Washington D.C. in January 2017 and how rigorously they plan to enforce their policy in Asia-Pacific.

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