In the South and East China seas, an anti-China coalition is taking shape

Emanuele Scimia says, backed by the US, nations that oppose China’s growing military presence are strengthening their cooperation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2016, 8:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2016, 8:30am

In an era of widespread asymmetric warfare, in which sovereign states increasingly find themselves battling non-state or quasi-state entities, a classical geopolitical confrontation among nations is mounting in the Western Pacific. The battlefield is taking shape in the South and East China seas, where competing territorial claims are pitting China against a number of neighbouring countries, backed by the US.

READ MORE: China may send anti-ship missiles to disputed South China Sea to beef up defence: analysts

China is deepening its military presence in these contested waters; it has recently deployed missiles and fighters on a string of artificial islets in the South China Sea, as well as naval vessels off their shores. In response, Washington is increasing its action in the region, shifting military assets there and trying to form an anti-Chinese coalition with the help of long-standing allies, new partners and even an old enemy like Vietnam. In essence, the US government aims to promote freedom of navigation patrol with “like-minded nations”.

Against this backdrop, US President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia will be revealed for what it is: an attempt to contain Beijing’s military rise. Apart from its traditional security alliances with Japan and South Korea, Washington is boosting military assistance to the Philippines and a diplomatic rapprochement with Vietnam is under way. Both Manila and Hanoi are the most vocal and vigorous opponents to Beijing’s South China Sea claims.

The US government is also in talks with Australia to deploy long-range B-1 bombers and aerial tankers to the Australian Northern Territory, while the US Navy will hold joint exercises with India and Japan later this year.

More importantly, Obama’s decision to counter Beijing’s maritime activism has set up a mechanism of mutual assistance among Indo-Pacific nations sharing the US objection towards China’s reclamation drive.

READ MORE: US and India risk angering Beijing as they consider joint naval patrols in the South China Sea

Japan, which is in disagreement with China over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, is enhancing its military ties with both Manila and Hanoi. Under a recent agreement, Manila will lease five aircraft from Tokyo to help patrol the disputed South China Sea. In addition, Japan is carrying out a trilateral dialogue with India and Australia to advance maritime security and freedom of navigation.

It seems that Obama imagines his country as an “offshore balancer” in East Asia, echoing what Britain did to prevent the rise of a continental hegemon in Europe from the mid-16th century to the second world war. And the US might manage to create a balancing coalition – with deterrence capability – in the region, where it can find both credible allies and a recognisable counter-power.

Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and foreign affairs analyst