Obama’s Asia Trip – containing the dragon in the South China Sea?

Obama’s Asia Trip – containing the dragon in the South China Sea?

(Image credit: Ted Aljibe, AFP)

As Obama’s Asia trip drew to a close a couple of weeks ago, the future of the – now infamous – South China Sea disputes is called into question.

The trip, which included visits to Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea, pointedly excluded China from the itinerary.

Whilst the tour was somewhat eclipsed by other pressing international events: the recent flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and the escalating crisis in Ukraine, it could be said that the latter situation draws a parallel to China’s claims over the Spratly and Paracel islands. Perhaps the US policy response to Russia’s claims to Crimea may provide China with an indication of how the US will see fit to address South China Sea disputes.

Despite online media criticism that the tour agenda was rather ambiguous, others believe it sent a thinly veiled warning to China. The fact that three out of the four host countries are currently embroiled in territorial disputes with China, set a decidedly ominous tone for the US ‘Asia Pivot’, and its planned future involvement in the region. Whilst the US has shown a clear commitment to bolstering Japanese sovereignty in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute, it appears that it is now officially extending its support to Southeast Asia. This serves as a reassurance not only to littoral states involved in the South China Sea disputes, but to the wider ASEAN community in an attempt to assuage mounting fears of an increasingly assertive China. Developments and agreements forged during the week-long tour are entirely consistent with a reinforcement of US commitment to ‘rebalancing’ the region (i.e. counterbalancing China’s regional influence).

During the tour, a US-Philippine agreement to provide greater access to Filipino air and naval bases was announced. Whilst in Manila, Obama also explicitly confirmed US commitment to its mutual defence treaty with the Philippines, which requires that the US supports its reaffirmed ally in the event of an attack – whether on land or in the surrounding Pacific area. This wide net expands to include the South China Sea and increases the scope of US military presence in the region. In no uncertain terms, the US will thus be provided with a ticket – under the guise of an obligation – to involve themselves in any escalation in the disputes.

After Hilary Clinton’s claims that the disputes were of “national interest” to the USA during her 2012 Asia-Pacific tour, questions regarding US commitment to involvement were raised. At the time, many criticised the statement as the ultimate rhetorical blunder. Concerns developed that the Philippines and other littoral states had inadvertently been given the ‘go ahead’ to engage in direct maritime conflict with China, with the expectation that the US will rush in to back them up if things got out of hand. It appears that Obama’s recent message has verified Clinton’s statement, but in directing the address to China, he has explicitly condemned the use of violence in the resolution of the disputes.

In the event of an escalation in tensions, the worst-case scenario for China would be that the individually weak Southeast Asian claimants banded together with the US to deflect a Chinese advance. China has displayed hostility to US naval and military movement in these waters in the past (the Impeccable Incident), and has vehemently discouraged US involvement in the disputes. The new Philippine bases will strengthen US interest and military strength in the region, and pose a greater challenge to China. The possible implications of this are dire, as the move to counterbalance China may signal an end to China’s peaceful rise. The past decade of positive engagement with neighbouring Southeast Asian states has been tarnished by an increasingly popular perception of intensified Chinese ‘assertiveness’ and ‘aggression’ in its foreign policy – a perception that has been widely propagated by US media. The peaceful trajectory along which China claims to be developing is increasingly renounced internationally. By feeding into existing fears of the threatening shadow cast by China over Asia, the US has positioned itself to gain greater access to involvement in Asia, a region in which it has had limited say in the past.

The US must proceed carefully in this precarious balancing act between trying to achieve greater influence in Asia and avoiding antagonising China, the primary stakeholder in its own volatile economy.

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