US regional presence acts as a needed counterweight to China
Manik Mehta says aggressive Chinese posturing makes a rebalancing necessary
Fresh from his Asia tour, American deputy defence secretary Ashton Carter recently outlined at the Asia Society in New York the contours of the US "rebalance strategy" in the Asia-Pacific region.
Although the strategy is, obviously, a response to the growing military and economic might of China, which worries many countries - particularly those with claims to the gas-and-oil-rich South China Sea islands - Carter denied it was aimed against any country. "The rebalance is not about China or the United States. It's about a peaceful Asia-Pacific region, where sovereign states can enjoy the benefit of security and continue to prosper," he said.
Those claiming the disputed islands include the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam and Taiwan; indeed, Taiwan can invoke the Taiwan Relations Act passed by the US Congress if Beijing were to resort to force. Under the act, successive US administrations have sold arms to Taiwan despite Beijing's demands that the US follow the legally non-binding Three Joint Communiqués and the US government's proclaimed One China policy (which differs from the mainland's One China policy).
Carter described his Asia visit as an attempt "to make sure our forces and our partners understand that we are not just talking the talk … we're walking the walk", an assurance to those Asian sceptics who fear America's disinterest in the region could encourage China to intensify its aggressive posturing.
With the US defence budget facing drastic cuts, Carter explained, the rebalance would be achieved through efficient use of resources that would be released after the withdrawal from Iraq and, later, Afghanistan. Such resources, to be allocated to Asia-Pacific, will allow investments in new technology and weapon systems, innovative operational plans and tactics, and in alliances and partnerships in the region. Some 60per cent of US naval assets will be based in the Pacific by 2020.
Besides defence co-operation with Japan, South Korea and Australia, the US will deploy, rotationally, littoral combat ships, and intensify co-operation with Singapore and the Philippines. Defence co-operation with India, considered a potential counterweight to China, will also be intensified.
Beijing fears Washington's moves will challenge its dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and, particularly, the South China Sea. The foreign ministry summoned Robert Wang, Washington's deputy ambassador in Beijing, to convey its displeasure over recent Washington statements on the South China Sea.
But China's aggressive posturing and its new Sansha base in the Paracel Islands have alarmed neighbours. By seizing disputed territories, China could create a fait accompli in the South China Sea. Washington has so far maintained a "strategic ambiguity" by neither confirming nor denying that it would intervene in a conflict.
Despite the growing economic interdependence between the US and China, making an armed conflict between them highly unlikely, it would be a strategic mistake if Washington allowed Beijing to continue bullying the smaller states.
Washington needs to send a firm message that any aggression will set relations back. Communist Party functionaries should understand that any conflict would badly hurt China's economy, creating social unrest within a country already suffering differences between the rich south and the poor north. Such a scenario would be catastrophic for China.
Manik Mehta is a New York-based political commentator