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  • Jul 28, 2014
  • Updated: 5:13pm

Piecing together the Pacific pivot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2012, 12:00am

The military elements underpinning the US tilt back towards the Asian region are fast moving into place.

While the headlines surrounding the so-called pivot involve future big-ticket deployments -new US coastal fighting ships to Singapore, 60 per cent of all US naval assets in the Pacific by 2020 and the eventual posting of 2,500 marines to northern Australia - lesser noticed moves show the shift is well under way. And it is already expanding in scope and reach.

Recent moves in the Philippines, Vietnam, Guam, Myanmar and even New Zealand are all being closely watched by Chinese diplomats and the military.

'The US says over and over that it does not want to contain China, but their actions are sending a different message than their words,' said one PLA strategist recently. 'The pivot is all about China.'

Military planners on both sides know that such long-term shifts take place over decades, rather than specific US election cycles - meaning renewed US interest in the region will be a factor for years.

'Behind all the headlines of the pivot, some people forget that the US has always been in Asia anyway,' said one senior Pentagon planner. 'What we are doing is essentially recalibrating our assets and relationships for the future.'

That traditional presence - which includes the 7th Fleet based in Japan and some 27,000 personnel in South Korea - has long meant that the US is the most powerful military power in Asia.

But useful smaller nations are not being ignored, either.

As the Philippines seeks to refurbish its long-standing defence treaty with the US amid its intensifying dispute with China over rival claims in the South China Sea, the move is already serving the ends of the pivot.

Professor Carl Thayer, a veteran South China Sea scholar with the Australian Defence Force Academy, noted that the appearance in Philippine ports in May and last month of US nuclear-powered attack submarines speaks to broader Washington-Manila talks about increased access to local bases and ports.

The appearance of the USS Louisville and USS North Carolina carried symbolic weight as tensions over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which the Chinese call Huangyan, reached their height, analysts and military attaches believe. With Guam - the closest US territory to China - now serving increased numbers of US submarines, the two vessels hardly needed to stop for vital servicing.

While the US is unlikely to revisit the cold war days of large bases such as Subic Bay, it does need increased air and sea port access under its 'places not bases' strategy.

That is also expected to see increased use of the Philippines by US surveillance aircraft - even though recent reports of a Manila request for US 'spy planes' to patrol the disputed waters was denied.

Then there are ongoing Washington-Manila talks about the provision of coastal radars to the Philippines as further evidence of the pivot in practice.

While the Philippines-US relationship reflects an old alliance, the military friendship between Vietnam and the US - formerly bitter enemies - is far more recent.

Both sides are feeling their way, with the Vietnamese eager to court the US to counter its giant northern neighbour without ever going as far as any formal alliance.

It was telling that US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Hanoi for talks before arriving in Phnom Penh last week for regional Asean meetings dominated by the South China Sea issue.

While Clinton pushed Vietnam on human rights, she also quietly attempted to ease fears of conservative Communist Party elements wary of a too-swift courtship.

'We've reached a level of engagement that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago,' Clinton said.

'And our military-to-military ties ... are also intensifying. We are working toward a strategic partnership agreement that will give us a framework to deepen and broaden this engagement.'

The timing of such a partnership remains unclear, with uncertainties on both sides.

Even without it, increased intelligence sharing and more regular ship visits - including to Cam Ranh Bay - are likely.

While Vietnamese officials remain touchy about human rights issues being a formal part of the deal, they are keen for the US to pledge to lift long-time congressional bans on weapons sales to Vietnam.

'If the ban were lifted, Vietnam most likely would seek to acquire coastal radar, air defence missiles and maritime patrol aircraft in addition to spare parts for its inventory of Vietnam war-captured American equipment,' Thayer said recently.

Meanwhile, recent reforms in Myanmar have paved the way for initial steps towards a fledgling US-Myanmese military relationship.

Just as the search for missing US servicemen was used in a crucial first step to normalise ties with Vietnam in the 1990s, such a mission for second world war remains is already under discussion.

With several congressional hurdles to be overcome, new military ties are unlikely to grow swiftly. That said, new US ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, does have experience in the Pentagon under both the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

And Washington is starting from scratch, competing against the long and deep relationship between PLA brass and Myanmar's once-omnipotent ruling generals.

Warnings from Chinese analysts also serve as a reminder that it may not all go Washington's way in the region, as China seeks to counter an expanding US presence with moves of its own.

Already an improved relationship with Thailand is one indication.

However, the US-Thai relationship, if not yet sliding, is at least standing still.

For decades during the cold war, Thailand was not just one of Washington's most important allies in the region - its bases were used to bomb Vietnam - but it has also been China's closest friend in Southeast Asia.

As the US pays closer attention to Southeast Asia's key maritime states such as Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, some analysts note a sense of neglect and frustration creeping into Washington's dealings with Bangkok. Thailand, after all, is still focused on domestic politics, given the uncertainties surrounding the twilight of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's reign.

Dr Ian Storey, a scholar at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore who specialises in security issues, noted a clear contrast between recent moves by Beijing and Washington.

'The one area in which the US has singularly failed to make progress is with Thailand,' he said. 'That alliance continues to drift and be held hostage to political infighting in Bangkok.'

The Sino-Thai military relationship, meanwhile, is humming along, reflecting a strong commercial relationship. Several hundred Thai and Chinese marines recently staged joint manoeuvres in Guangdong while Thailand is again eyeing expanded military equipment sales from China, including potentially its first submarines.

Diplomatically, Thailand has questioned, within Asean, the strong stance taken by the Philippines and Vietnam against China in the South China Sea.

Amid military and political diplomacy this year, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said during a visit to Beijing in April that she 'understands China's concerns' about the South China Sea issue.

The pivot, meanwhile, has even reached to New Zealand, where a long-dormant military relationship between the one-time allies is springing back to life.

Washington and Wellington last month signed a fresh military accord, and have embarked on their first joint military exercises - albeit limited - in two decades.

New Zealand Minister of Defence Jonathan Coleman recently travelled to Washington to sign the deal to boost co-operation with his US counterpart Leon Panetta.

Analysts on both sides pointed to mutual concerns about a growing Chinese presence in the Pacific as a driving factor.

New Zealand forces fought alongside US troops in every major conflict of the last century - including Vietnam - but the alliance was put on ice in the 1980s as New Zealand effectively banned US ships from its ports when it went nuclear-free.

The deal doesn't extend to US ship visits but includes a wide range of collaboration, including 'military domain awareness' - intensified intelligence gathering and sharing of naval movements. The intelligence relationship has never been buffeted by the winds that knocked the broader military relationship.

While a renewed NZ-US relationship is hardly a big development in strategic terms, Chinese envoys confirm that they are watching closely. China has growing commercial and diplomatic interests across the South Pacific, the one area where Wellington remains an influential player.

It is just one more sign that the pivot continues apace.

 

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