for US naval build-up in South China
Sea By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - While much of the world's
attention has been focused on United
States-Iranian tensions over the Strait of Hormuz,
a key think-tank is urging Washington to devote
more focus and resources on another important hub
for international commerce several thousand
kilometers to the east.
In a major report
released here on Tuesday, the Center for a New
American Security (CNAS) called for Washington to
pursue a policy of "cooperative primacy" in the
South China Sea in order to both avoid future
conflict with Beijing and preserve freedom of
navigation and the independence of smaller
countries in the region.
report, "Cooperation from Strength: the United
States, China and the South China Sea", also calls
for the US to increase its naval fleet from 285
warships to 346 vessels over the
coming years in order to
counter regional perceptions that it is a
"Diplomatic and economic
engagement with China and others will work better
when backed by a credible military posture,"
according to the report, which was pulled together
by Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the
Asia-Pacific Program, who also stressed that any
naval build-up "must be contingent on healthy
economic growth in the future - a strategic
priority for the United States".
decades-old rules-based system fostered by the
United States is being called into question by a
rising China, the South China Sea will be the
strategic bellwether for determining the future of
US leadership in the Asia-Pacific region."
The report follows last week's release by
President Barack Obama of a new, cost-cutting
national defense strategy that confirmed his
intention to "pivot" or "rebalance" Washington's
global military forces "toward the Asia-Pacific
region", and is certain to be read carefully by
regional specialists due to the close ties that
exist between CNAS and the administration.
CNAS's co-founder, for example, was Kurt
Campbell, the senior Asia aide at the Pentagon
during the Bill Clinton administration, who
currently serves as the top Asia hand at the State
Department. CNAS's other co-founder, Michele
Flournoy, served in the top policy post in the
Pentagon under Obama before stepping down late
Like the Strait of Hormuz, the
narrow passage that connects the Persian Gulf to
the Arabian Sea and wider Indian Ocean and through
which about 40% of the world's exported oil
passes, the South China Sea is considered one of
the world's most valuable and strategic bodies of
Long a rich fishing ground and now
perhaps the world's single-most important trading
route, the South China Sea connects the Indian
Ocean to the Western Pacific through the Strait of
Its seabed covers at least seven
billion barrels of proven oil reserves (China has
calculated as much as 130 billion barrels) and 900
trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making its
waters and the tiny, rocky Paracel and Spratley
island chains that dot its surface the subject of
conflicting or overlapping territorial claims by
no less than eight countries: China, Taiwan,
Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei
and the Philippines.
Over the past two
years, China has become increasingly aggressive in
asserting its sovereignty claims over virtually
the entire Sea, sometimes taking military action
to enforce them, such as last May when its coast
guard cut the cable being laid by a Vietnamese oil
Coupled with the rapid
build-up of its naval capabilities, Beijing's
actions and intent have spurred growing concern
among the other claimants, driving some of them,
notably Vietnam and the Philippines, to seek
closer security ties with Washington.
were heartened in July 2011 when Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton declared at an Asian forum
that Washington itself had a "national interest"
in preserving freedom of navigation in the region
and open access to its maritime commons. She also
suggested that Washington could "facilitate"
regional talks to resolve territorial disputes.
Beijing was infuriated by her statement
both by its assertion of a US national interest so
far from its borders and its implicit endorsement
of a multilateral approach to addressing the
conflicting claims that Vietnam, the Philippines,
Malaysia and Brunei had long favored. China has
preferred to address disputes with each country on
a bilateral basis.
Since then, Washington
has, among other steps, upgraded military ties and
conducted joint exercises with Vietnam and the
It has also reached an
agreement with Singapore to base two littoral
combat ships there and another, announced during
Obama's swing through the region in November, with
Australia to continuously rotate up to 2,500
marines on a military base closest to the South
China Sea in the Northern Territory in the first
long-term expansion of the US military presence in
the Asia/Pacific region since the Vietnam War.
The CNAS report's authors clearly approve
of these steps but suggest that more will be
needed in order to reassure the smaller states
that Washington stands by them even as China will
likely expand its own military and naval
capabilities at a faster rate.
inability of the United States to project
sufficient power into the South China Sea would
alter the security calculus for all of the
countries in the region," according to the report.
Such a situation, it went on, could lead to the
"Finlandization" by China of the littoral
countries states, a reference to Finland's
Soviet-enforced neutrality during the Cold War.
"We want the US to maintain the present
correlation of forces," said Robert Kaplan,
co-author of the report's introductory chapter
which compared Beijing's larger strategic
ambitions in the South China Sea to Washington's
at the end of the 19th century.
it was dominance of the Greater Caribbean Basin
that effectively gave turn-of-the-20th-century
America's dominance over the Western hemisphere,
with power to spare for affecting the balance of
power in the Eastern Hemisphere. Something similar
might ensue were China to ever become the hegemon
of the South China Sea," according to the report.
To maintain its primacy, Washington should
not only reverse the decline of its navy,
according to the report, but also encourage its
partners and allies in the region to strengthen
their own military capabilities and establish new
security partnerships with each other so that the
burden on the US is reduced.
in South China Sea countries such as Vietnam and
Indonesia - as well as countries further afield
like India, Japan and Korea - may be the best
basis for stitching together common interests in a
loose, almost invisible network of like-minded and
increasingly capable maritime state that are
willing to deflect Chinese hegemony," the report
At the same time, Washington
should be respectful of the desire by those states
to remain on good terms with Beijing.
"With China striving to dominate the
Western Pacific, East Asian countries are keener
than ever to partner with the United States,"
according to the report. "Yet these same countries
also wish to avoid conflict with an increasingly
powerful China that is also a principal trading
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