By Benjamin Cost
The already testy South China Sea waters just got a little choppier. The US has proposed expanding its military presence in Southeast Asia with the pretty apparent (though undisclosed) goal of contesting China’s clampdown in the region. The protocol calls for strengthening US alliances with Southeast Asian nations, and increasing its military operations in the area without establishing permanent bases in the region so as to avoid another Okinawa debacle. Asia Times Online reports:
The US intends to station four new US Navy Littoral Combat ships and increase ship visits and base surveillance aircraft in Singapore. In addition, upgraded military relations with Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei will support already existing US plans with Australia, Singapore and the Philippines.
Whereas the US’s regional focus has long concentrated on Northeast Asia, that gaze is now shifting somewhat to Southeast Asia. In a briefing on Asia-Pacific military issues in Washington on January 27, Admiral Robert Willard of the US Pacific Command said, “I look at where the forces are and where they need to be present day to day, we are biased in Northeast Asia. And when we look at Southeast Asia and South Asia, the pressure is on Pacific Command to deploy and sustain forces there day to day.”
He added “initiatives such as Australia offered, or such as Singapore offered, to allow us to rotate forces from locations that are closer and more adjacent to Southeast Asia affords Pacific Command the opportunity to more conveniently have its presence there and felt, and not rely so terribly much on sustainment at great cost in the region… but there’s no aspiration for bases in Southeast Asia.”
The refocus on Southeast Asia is a subcomponent of President Barack Obama’s “strategic pivot” to the Asia-Pacific in 2011. The policy pivot has involved signing onto the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, establishment of a mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta, confirmation of a special representative and policy coordinator for Myanmar, and a deepening of US bilateral relations with different regional nations.
In that same spirit of engagement, the US participated for the first time as a full-fledged member of the East Asian Summit in November 2011 in Bali, Indonesia. The initiatives have helped to counter earlier official perceptions in Southeast Asia that the US neglected the region in favor of pursuit of its global “war on terrorism” and more strategically volatile Northeast Asia.
Not so shockingly, this US shift of focus from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia comes right around the time that China is tightening its grip on the South China Sea region in an effort to
show how well-endowed their navy is secure trade routes and oil and gas reserves. The US proposal could even be a response to the recent rally for help by the Southeast Asian nations against China’s clampdown.
If the US does assume control over the territory, it could be seen as a savior by the Southeast Asian Nations, a reputation it has historically failed to achieve in the region – even if its goal is also to foment trade, profit from the area’s resources, and gain a couple inches in the China-US naval pissing contest.
And since China has repeatedly warned the US not to interfere with its operations in the region, we could see some upcoming tension on the high South China seas.