China May Be Rising, But America Is Not in Retreat

October 20, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaUnited StatesForeign PolicyDefenseCold War

China May Be Rising, But America Is Not in Retreat

Cold War–era Asia was a dangerous and often bloody place. But its alignments were predictable and its problems readily identifiable. No longer.

India’s post–Cold War pivot toward military cooperation with Washington has not gone unnoticed in Moscow. That, in part, accounts for changes in Russia’s policy toward Pakistan, which include the 2016 Russia-Pakistan military exercises (the first ever) and Russia’s 2014 decision to end its ban on arms sales to Pakistan. The latter step set the stage for renewed Russian arms exports to Pakistan (there were some in the late 1960s), which started with the sale of Mi-25 attack helicopters and continued with discussions on selling Su-35 fighters. On the economic front, Moscow and Islamabad have discussed boosting bilateral trade (which remains miniscule), and Pakistan has sought a free-trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.

In contrast to much of East Asia, India has welcomed the changes Abe has made in Japanese military policy. Defense and intelligence cooperation between New Delhi and Tokyo has increased substantially. Under a deal agreed upon in 2015, but not yet implemented due to unresolved differences related to technology transfer and India-based production, India would purchase two Japanese ShinMaywa US-2 naval patrol aircraft and produce ten more under license. India also expressed interest in Japan’s Soryu-class submarines, seeking, albeit unsuccessfully, to encourage Japan to bid for a $12 billion contract as part of India’s Project 75-I, which aims to add six diesel-electric submarines to the Indian undersea fleet for prolonged stealth missions.

India has also been active on China’s western flank, notably in Afghanistan. New Delhi has invested in the training and equipping of Afghan security forces. The two signed a strategic cooperation agreement in 2011, and in 2016, for the first time, India supplied offensive weapons to the Afghan armed forces: Russian-made Mi-25 attack helicopters. Of greater long-term strategic significance is the $100 million-plus, Indian-built highway running from Delaram to Zaranj, near the Afghanistan-Iranian border, and thence (in a joint venture with Tehran) to Chabahar, Iran. India has committed some $100 million to expanding Chabahar, with the view of creating a deepwater port that would reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on routes through Pakistan and provide India access to markets in Central Asia, Russia and Europe—all while bypassing Pakistan.

India still faces a raft of problems, including a significant, though decreasing, percentage of people living in poverty, antediluvian infrastructure and a school system unsuited to twenty-first-century demands. Yet India’s economic resources are increasing, and so, in consequence, is its military power. India’s defense budget ($51.3 billion) ranks sixth in the world. Even though Indian military expenditure trails that of the United States and China by a massive margin, its armed forces are highly professional and capable.

India and the United States began joint naval exercises in 1992, which since 2007 have expanded into the Malabar exercises and include Japan, Australia, India and the United States. In 2015, India and Australia commenced their own (AUSINDEX) maritime maneuvers. As part of its “Act East” policy, India has deepened security ties with Vietnam and has begun supplying it with coastal patrol boats. In 2005, India signed a strategic partnership with Indonesia and has since trained Indonesian pilots to fly Russian-made Sukhoi jets. In 2016, India bid for a contract to build frigates for the Philippines. Such cooperation will enable India to become an increasingly important player in the Asia-Pacific.

The U.S.-Vietnam relationship offers another example of changing alignments in Asia produced by China’s rise. Gone are the enmity created by America’s Vietnam War and the acrimonious period—two decades or so—that followed, a time when Washington viewed Hanoi as an antagonist and Moscow’s ally to boot. Since President George W. Bush outlined a process for normalizing the relationship, bilateral ties have blossomed. Diplomatic relations were reestablished in 1995. In 2008, the United States and Vietnam held the first Political, Security and Defense Dialogue between their foreign ministries and in 2010 commenced a Defense Policy Dialogue between their defense ministries. Both conclaves will be held annually at the vice-ministerial level. During Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2012 visit, the two countries discussed a “strategic partnership”; during Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s trip to Hanoi, they issued a “joint vision statement,” which included a commitment to deepening military cooperation. Having eased restrictions on the sale of certain nonlethal military equipment to Vietnam in 2007, the U.S. government partially lifted the ban on selling lethal weapons in 2014, and then lifted it completely during President Obama’s 2016 visit. Further evidence of security cooperation between Hanoi and Washington emerged during Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s visit. The United States expressed interest in access to Cam Ranh Bay, which during the Cold War years gained notoriety in Washington as a Soviet naval base, though American officials have debunked reports that it seeks a permanent presence.


CHINA’S CONDUCT in recent years has done little to reassure its neighbors. It has claimed ownership of much of the South China Sea, backing it up with frequent and bold maritime patrols near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the Spratly and Paracel (Nansha and Xisha) archipelagos. Never mind that Japan also asserts rightful ownership of the former and various Southeast Asian states parts of the latter. Undeterred, China has reclaimed land; built ports and military installations on the Spratlys (notably, on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef); opened numerous offshore energy fields to foreign investments, despite their being within Vietnam’s two-hundred-mile Extended Economic Zone (EEZ); and moved a deepwater drilling rig into the area in 2014. Amidst rising tensions with Vietnam, which have led to confrontations between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in 2014 and 2016, China has continued to unilaterally declare bans on fishing—north of 12 degrees latitude, no less—in the South China Sea. In 2013, the Chinese government proclaimed an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea that cuts into those of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, and also encompasses disputed islands (Ieodo/Suyan, claimed by South Korea and China as well as the Senkaku/Diaoyu cluster). Close encounters between Chinese and Japanese military aircraft have occurred within China’s ADIZ. In June 2016, Indonesia’s navy fired warning shots at Chinese fishing boats operating in its EEZ off Natuna Island—China recognizes Indonesian ownership over the island, but the maritime economic zones of the two countries overlap—and detained their crew in what was the third confrontation within six months. Similarly, through displays of air and naval power and construction on site, China has asserted ownership of the Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines also claims. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, to which the Philippines had turned, rejected China’s claims to these and other South China Sea islands and reefs. Beijing summarily dismissed the tribunal’s ruling as “a farce.”

These moves have made for worry in East, South and Southeast Asia—and have drawn the attention of the United States. Even in South Korea, whose suspicions and ill will have traditionally dwelt on Japan, apprehension over China’s rising power and assertiveness has started to shape public opinion, notably among younger people. Seventy-three percent of South Koreans surveyed regarded China as a military threat in 2012 and a still-high 66 percent did so in 2014. South Koreans may not yet see China as a direct threat to the homeland (though Beijing’s backing for North Korea comes close to posing one), but they do worry that its growing power will trigger arms races and conflicts in East Asia. Despite Chinese protests, South Korea has proceeded with plans to deploy the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and joined Japan and the United States in a missile defense exercise off the coast of Hawaii, marking its first participation in such a tripartite venture. The naval maneuvers occurred against the backdrop of North Korea’s 2015 ballistic missile tests, but that did not stop China from condemning them.

For its part, the United States will face pressure to increase its military presence in East Asia and to assure its allies that it remains a dependable source of security—the vacuous catchall of credibility will doubtless be trotted out at home and abroad. Yet more likely than not, American leaders will have to take these steps amidst adverse economic circumstances, reduced public support for far-flung military commitments and growing Chinese military capabilities.

This combination—China’s increasing confidence and capabilities and America’s need to demonstrate its continued credibility and resolve—could set the stage for three classic, and dangerous, dynamics that are common in international politics: the security dilemma (tensions ratchet up as adversaries regard each other’s defensive moves as offensive gambits that must be countered), conflict spirals (isolated incidents that escalate and lead to unintended clashes) and misperception (hardening stereotypes and worst-case calculations that distort the processing of information about the actions of rivals and, as a result, produce crises).


THOUGH INCHOATE, an Asian countercoalition has begun to emerge around China’s vast perimeter. The United States will play a major role in its future, working with Asian states, some of whom it previously regarded as adversaries.

Should China manage to avoid economic upheavals at home and continue its ascent, the strategic interests of India, Australia, Japan, the United States, Vietnam and Indonesia will continue to converge. China’s challenge will be to keep increasing its power and influence while simultaneously convincing Asian states that they have nothing to fear. Beijing will try to prevent the rise of a cohesive opposing coalition by attempting to reassure and co-opt its members, using trade, investment and aid, and by addressing territorial and maritime disputes with individual states rather than with a group, making selective concessions.