The Philippines had challenged Chinese sovereignty in waters that have, at best, insignificant mineral deposits. And it was foolish to think that China would submit to the decision of five men sitting in Europe and relinquish its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea; China ignored the court’s ruling. But the Philippines had isolated itself in Southeast Asia because, with the partial exception of Vietnam, the region refused to support Manila, and it incurred Chinese diplomatic and economic sanctions and faced the Chinese Coast Guard’s exclusion of Philippine fishing boats from disputed waters.
Duterte reversed Philippine policy. He stated that the court’s decision was irrelevant to the Sino-Philippine dispute and that the dispute was best ignored, rather than negotiated. He also reduced U.S.-Philippine naval cooperation in disputed waters and expanded Chinese naval access to Philippine ports. During his visit to China, he declared that, in economics and military affairs, “America has lost.” In response, China restored economic cooperation, pledged $24 billion in aid, provided military assistance to the Philippines’ battle against its Muslim insurgency and allowed Philippine fishing boats to return to disputed waters.
The Obama administration expanded U.S.-Vietnam naval cooperation. In 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that U.S. access to Cam Ranh Bay “is a key component” of U.S.-Vietnam relations. In 2014, the administration lifted the ban on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam, and in 2015, it agreed to expand U.S. exports to Vietnam of defense equipment and technologies, provided aid to Vietnam to purchase U.S. ships and included Vietnam in its Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, helping Vietnam bolster its maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. In 2018, a U.S. aircraft carrier anchored off the Vietnamese coast near Da Nang.
Like South Korea and the Philippines, Vietnam has responded to Chinese pressure by accommodating Chinese interests. After heightened tension in 2011–12, Vietnam jailed anti-Chinese nationalists, restrained its support for the Philippines in its dispute with China and assured China that it would not involve the United States or international law in its dispute with China. In 2014, when Chinese oil drilling in disputed waters led to a maritime confrontation and to anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hanoi, Vietnam expressed regret for the protests and assured China that it would not challenge the status quo in the South China Sea. In 2017, China compelled Vietnam to end its joint oil drilling with a Spanish company in disputed waters. Symbolic U.S. naval cooperation with Vietnam cannot offset overwhelming Chinese ground-force superiority on the Vietnamese border.
China has also expanded defense cooperation with Southeast Asian countries. In 2015 China and Malaysia held their first joint military exercise, and in 2017 they established a high-level defense committee to expand cooperation. In 2017 China and ASEAN agreed to hold their first region-wide naval exercise. Chinese-led naval exercises pale in comparison to the size and sophistication of U.S.-led exercises, but they are part of a larger trend of region-wide security cooperation with China.
The only steadfast U.S. ally in East Asia is Japan; it is the only country that has resisted the pull of Chinese power and more closely aligned with the United States. But given the contrasting long-term trajectories in Chinese and Japanese demography, economics and military spending, Japan cannot contribute to balancing Chinese power.
Faced with China’s challenge to U.S. alliances and naval superiority in East Asian seas, the U.S. Navy seeks greater cooperation with Japan, India and Australia in its “Indo-Pacific strategy.” Japan, India and Australia cannot help balance Chinese naval power, but the U.S. Navy requires access to air and naval facilities far from China’s mainland and secure from Chinese missiles and submarines. It is expanding the range of its aircraft to enable naval operations far from the South China Sea. U.S. defense strategy is adjusting to the rise of the Chinese navy.
TRENDS IN U.S. politics and economics suggest that America’s decline in the maritime balance of power will deepen over the next decade. The U.S. Navy is committed in two years to operating 60 percent of its ships in East Asia, but this will be 60 percent of a shrinking fleet. Moreover, the Navy is already significantly stressed by its current responsibilities in East Asia, and requires more ships to sustain its current level of operations. It has established an independent agency to monitor the fleet’s training, readiness and standards, and has imposed regulations to ensure that sailors get sufficient rest.
Over the next decades, to meet the Chinese navy’s challenge to U.S. regional security, the U.S. Navy will have to concentrate 70 to 80 percent of a smaller fleet to East Asia, so that it will not be able to sustain a significant naval presence in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The new U.S.-China balance of power will challenge American security interests and regional stability, not just in East Asia, but throughout the world.
China faces severe economic difficulties that will challenge its ability to sustain its rise. Its economic growth has declined from 10 percent per year to less than 7 percent per year. It has yet to reform the party-controlled financial system, and its national debt is approaching 300 percent of GDP and continuing to grow. At the recent Nineteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping called for greater party control over the economy and strengthening of state-owned enterprises. Rather than enhancing the role of market, China is retreating from the market economy.
But China will not have a crash landing. The Chinese Communist Party will prop up the banks and the state-owned industries. The decline of the Chinese economy will be a protracted process. Over the next ten to twenty years, China will continue to increase naval spending and strengthen its capabilities vis-à-vis the United States. The United States cannot count on China’s increasingly dysfunctional economic system to rescue U.S. security in East Asia.
Without a radical and improbable restructuring of the U.S. federal budget or defense budget, current trends in the East Asian balance of power will continue and the United States’ ability to contend with the Chinese navy will diminish. In these circumstances, proposals for how to deter China, contain China or balance the rise of China and how to strengthen U.S. alliances are illusionary. Rather than hold on to outdated notions of U.S. preeminence, the United States will have to adjust to the new balance of power in East Asia.
Robert S. Ross is a professor of political science at Boston College and an associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. His research focuses on Chinese security policy and East Asian security, including the rise of China, Chinese use of force and U.S.-China relations.