The End of U.S. Primacy in Asia

Washington is being outmaneuvered in the Pacific.

The world is steadily confronting the prospect of full-fledged Chinese domination in the world’s most important waterway, the South China Sea. America’s decades-long naval hegemony in Asia, as we know it, may soon vanish into thin air as a resurgent China reclaims primacy in the region. Though economically vulnerable, Beijing has lacked nothing in terms of geopolitical assertiveness. In a span of two months, China has dramatically redrawn the operational landscape in adjacent waters.

China kicked off the year with a bang, conducting several test flights to its newly built airstrips in the Spratly chain of islands. This was followed by China’s decision to (once again) deploy a giant oil rig, Haiyang Shiyou 981, into Vietnamese-claimed waters in the South China Sea, just as Hanoi deliberated on a high-stakes leadership transition. When President Barack Obama, during his “short-sleeve” summit with Southeast Asian leaders in Sunnylands, sought to mobilize regional diplomatic pressure on China, Beijing upped the ante by redeploying an HQ-9 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system to the disputed Paracel chain of islands.

Days later, China also dispatched fighter jets to its military facilities in the area. More worryingly, China has placed high-frequency radar facilities across four artificial islands, which could allow Beijing to, as reported by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, eventually “establish effective control over the sea and airspace throughout the South China Sea.” Chinese officials, however, have adamantly downplayed the strategic relevance of these developments.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi characterized them as "limited and necessary self-defense facilities," while the Chinese defense ministry dismissed all criticisms as Western media "hype." Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying took a step further, comparing China’s recent military maneuvers as perfectly routine and “not substantively different from the United States defending Hawaii." In fact, China tried to justify these military deployments as a response to America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), with the latest one targeting China’s excessive sovereignty in the Paracel chain of islands. Yet China’s actions clearly contradict President Xi Jinping’s pledge, during his visit to Washington last year, to avoid militarizing the disputes.

Beyond the diplomatic obfuscations, however, the bottom line is clear. Having built a sprawling network of dual-purpose facilities, and dispatching advanced military platforms to artificial islands under its control, China is laying down the foundations of an Air Defense Identification Zone. Not only is China chipping away at American naval primacy in East Asia, thanks to its rapidly advancing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, but it is transforming the South China Sea into a national lake.

 The Obama administration has tried, with limited success so far, to rein in Chinese maritime ambitions by mobilizing a diplomatic and military coalition in the region. But America and its allies are running out of safe and easy options. And they will soon have to take more decisive countermeasures.


Courting the Smaller Powers

A crucial component of the Obama administration’s “constrainment” strategy against China is the mobilization of regional diplomatic support on the South China Sea issue. Historically a Chinese backyard, Southeast Asia has emerged in modern times as a theatre of fierce competition among great powers vying for dominance in Asia. The end of Cold War paved the way for what appeared as uncontested American hegemony in the region, but China’s rapid economic rise has allowed it to partially recreate a Sinocentric order in its backyard.

President Obama, who has visited Southeast Asia more than half a dozen times, vigorously engaged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) well beyond any of his predecessors. Shortly after coming to power, the Obama administration appointed the first permanent mission by an outside power to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. It also signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the foundational document of the regional body, while energetically supporting multilateral “constructive engagement” with a liberalizing Myanmar.

The Obama administration also launched the Lower Mekong Initiative in order to enhance American development footprint in Indochina, while inviting a rising Indonesia to join the elite G20 club. Sensing a strategic opening, it also established a blossoming security partnership with Vietnam, which has desperately sought to decouple from a domineering China.