US seeks to build a tacit alliance against China
Since 1971, the US has led an international maritime warfare exercise biennially in the Pacific. But this year, the ongoing Rim of the Pacific war games, or Rimpac, is distinct from previous games in three important ways: its participants, its message and its timing, not to mention its size (22 nations, 40 ships, six submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel).
The exclusion of China from this year's exercise, when Russia and all other regional powers (Australia, India, Japan and South Korea) and even non-regional ones (the UK and France) are present, suggests the US considers China a rising threat in the Asia-Pacific region.
Russia's participation for the first time, after previously attending as an observer, is especially significant. Rimpac sought for years to contain the Soviet Union, and later Russia. The country's debut in the games shows it has been replaced by another power as the major threat in the region.
The US is clearly aiming to contain China by creating a tacit regional alliance of all those who, for one reason or another, are concerned about China.
Washington's economic and non-economic concerns are also shared by many of its Western and Asian allies (Japan and South Korea) in essence, despite differences over how to deal with them.
India and Russia co-operate with China within the context of BRICS, an association of leading emerging market economies. Separately, their bilateral relations with Beijing can be said to be relatively tension-free and trade is also substantial. Even so, their common borders and history of conflicts with China are of concern. There is also implicit economic and political competition as both wish to gain (India) or regain (Russia) super-power status.
While Russia's and India's concerns are mainly long-term, those of certain Asean countries (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) are immediate as they have been engaged in disputes over the ownership of the oil and gas-rich islands of the South China Sea. The latter two have experienced low-level naval flare-ups with China since last year as Beijing has shown an interest in using its naval superiority to settle in its favour any ownership disputes.
For these countries, an American military presence is becoming a more plausible necessity since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a regional organisation has proven incapable of defending their interests. It refused to offer any tangible support to Vietnam and the Philippines or even show its solidarity with them after being challenged by the Chinese navy last year. The annual Asean foreign ministers' meeting, held in Phnom Penh earlier this month, failed to release a common statement at its conclusion.
Serious disagreements among the 10 members' ministers on taking a firm stand towards territorial disputes with China, especially those involving Vietnam and the Philippines, indicated the absence of a common objective in the group's links with China, with whom the majority have extensive and expanding economic ties.
China's opposition to a code of conduct in the South China Sea beyond one to reduce tension and prevent the disputes' internationalisation has justified the participation of five Asean countries (Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand) in Rimpac. It's only a matter of time before Vietnam, currently seeking Russia's help to develop oil and gas fields in the region, joins Rimpac.
Dr Hooman Peimani is the head of the Energy Security Division and a principal fellow at the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore