China’s Achilles’ heel in Southeast Asia
15 Oct 2013|

Dying Achilles Sculpture in Achilleion Gardens, Corfu.Recent commentary on US President Barack Obama’s last minute cancellation of his trips to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Bali and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Brunei overwhelmingly reflected classical ‘zero-sum’ thinking. The common reading is that the credibility of the US ‘pivot’ has been further undermined, and that China used Obama’s absence to boost its position with the ASEAN nations.

However, international politics hardly follows such binary dynamics. Indeed, for many reasons, Beijing’s goal to bolster its position in Southeast Asia at Washington’s expense is very likely to fail. First, regional leaders understand very well that one cancelled presidential trip to Southeast Asia doesn’t equal a change in the US’s Asia strategy. Key regional powers such as Malaysia and Indonesia acknowledged Obama’s imperative to stay at home. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry attended both meetings and delivered the key message Southeast Asian countries wanted to hear: America expects China and its neighbours to peacefully resolve their territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Second, this message exposed China’s Achilles’ heel in Southeast Asia: while ASEAN claimants are eager to talk, Beijing isn’t willing to compromise on its extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea. In Darussalam, China’s Premier Li Keqiang not only reiterated Beijing’s ‘indisputable rights’ within the ‘nine-dash’ line, he also warned countries not directly involved, including Australia and Japan, to stay out of the disputes. So China didn’t make much progress in persuading Southeast Asian countries about its benign intentions. Put simply, its assertive behaviour in the South China Sea has caused an almost intractable trust deficit between Beijing and ASEAN countries. It also provides an avenue for external players such as India and Japan to increase their security role in Southeast Asia.

Third, the result is that some Southeast Asian nations show signs of  ‘internal’ and/ or ‘external balancing’ behaviour against China. With mostly Russian support, Vietnam is developing the components of an ‘anti-access/ area-denial’ (A2/AD) capability to offset China’s impressive regional maritime build-up. After decades of preoccupation with internal security issues, the Philippines is attempting to build a ‘minimum credible defense’ posture against China. Others are clearly hedging against the possibility of more tensions in the South China Sea. Singapore, for example, invited the US to forward deploy up to four Littoral Combat Ships. It’s also likely to opt for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) as its next combat aircraft, which will only increase its defence cooperation with the US.

Fourth, interpretations that Obama’s absence is evidence of a lack of commitment to the rebalance are problematic. Typically, two main arguments are advanced. The first is that Washington is too preoccupied with the Middle East and the second that the US doesn’t have the money anymore to support the Pentagon’s shift to the Asia-Pacific. The first claim doesn’t recognise that the US still is a global power with global responsibilities—just because Obama’s recent speech before the UN General Assembly had far fewer references to the Asia-Pacific than the Middle East doesn’t mean the US suddenly has lost interest in Asia.

The second claim isn’t convincing either. Despite pressures on the US defence budget, the Pentagon continues to shift key military systems into the Asia-Pacific region. In early October, US officials announced that the US will deploy Global Hawk UAVs to Japan at the beginning of 2014. And in 2017 the Marines will begin the deployment of F-35Bs to Japan, marking the first deployment of the Joint Strike Fighter outside the United States. Moreover, the US Marines are building a new, advanced command post on Palawan Island in the Philippines to monitor the South China Sea. The airstrip on the island will be upgraded to accommodate US strategic airlift (and potentially fighter aircraft). In other words, the Philippines are the latest step in America’s strategy to enhance the Marines’ rotational presence in the Asia-Pacific, significantly complicating Chinese military operational planning.

Finally, US allies appear willing to shoulder a greater burden to support America’s pivot. Australia is a case in point. Prime Minister Abbott just announced his government’s decision to share the financial costs of an enhanced US Marine presence in the North. (As Mark Thomson and Andrew Davies argued here earlier this year.) As well, his warmer approach to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (America’s other key Asian ally) at summits, which included a recognition that Tokyo needs to play a more active regional security role, earned him critical remarks in Beijing.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Australia and America’s Southeast Asian allies and partners are now on an anti-China course. But they have a key interest in maintaining an American presence in the region and an acute awareness of when to step up the plate. China is a long way from undermining America’s position in Southeast Asia.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Johanna Loock.