Wary US ‘conquers’ Asia-Pacific waters

Posted on August 13, 2012


Russia and China have formed a close political partnership in recent years that reflects ‘shared understandings’ in relation to the United States.

With America intensifying its ‘conquest’ of Asia-Pacific waters, Beijing announced it will be more vigilant but will not lash back at the United States (US) for sending most of its warships in the region.

Currently, the US fleet is almost evenly split between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The US plans to have most of its war armada in the Asia-Pacific region (more than 60% ) by 2020.

It has already started its moves but it will not be alone in this long term exercise termed ‘the encircling’ of China by some Chinese military elements.

China fears a ‘suffocation’ of its vital sea routes by Washington and its allies, Japan and South Korea.

The US Navy has a fleet of 282 ships as of March. That is expected to slip to about 276 over the next two years before beginning to rise again towards the goal of a 300-ship fleet, according to a 30-year Navy projection released in March this year.

Beijing has long been wary of US intentions, with more hawkish voices in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) saying that Washington is bent on encircling China and frustrating its rise.

PLA Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan, who is a vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, which helps shape PLA strategy, said Beijing would not be complacent about US moves, noted a Reuters report recently.

“The second sentence (of my response) is that we should not treat this indifferently,” Ren had said.

The Chinese apparent reluctance to deal with the US ‘invasion’ of the seas is probably due to major developments in the curtailing of the ‘economic’ importance of the Asia-Pacific seas.

Russia and China are busy rebuilding the Russian Far East region which is washed by the Pacific Ocean waters from the Russia-Chinese border, by-passing Kamchatka and the Anadyr region in Russia.

However, Ren added: “We must see that we’re facing extremely complex and one could sometimes even say quite serious developments, and we must raise our awareness of peril, and prepare to cope with all kinds of complex and serious circumstances.”

China’s fast-modernising navy has stirred worries among neighbours, including in southeast Asia, where several countries are in dispute with Beijing over rival territorial claims in the South China Sea, Reuters stated.

Vital sea routes

Japan’s armed forces has had its navy upgraded with the latest anti-missile weapons from the US including the Aegis missiles and the Japanese Defense Ministry was ready early this year to test China’s resolve by sending these war ships near the North Korean seas.

A blockade of North Korea is equal to a blockade of China’s vital sea route altogether.

In the South China Sea, Washington beefed-up the marine defences of the Philippines and Vietnam, clearly supporting Manilla and the Vietnamese in their conflict with China on the Spratly Islands.

This move is seen by China as an attempt to limit its access to the South China Sea itself.

Now the Americans are bent on getting more of their ships into the Asia-Pacific waters with the aim of containing China despite claims by Washington and the Pentagon that it is a normal decision for the ‘protection’ of the United States.

The sole enemy of the US in the Pacific today could be considered to be China and North Korea. The Americans are in alliances with Japan and South Korea.

The only other reason why the US is targeting the Asia-Pacific region – besides containing China – is that it is insecure of the ‘legitimacy’ of the support it currently receives from the nations in this region.

Washington could be weary of Russia’s rise in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) and the Asia Pacific basin itself.

Russia has opened its arms to assist the countries in the region in terms of economic and security matters, while the US is barely interested in the Apec.

Russia’s Far East

A market potential of US$200 billion and another access route to the EU via the Russian Siberian hinterland in what could be a major economic shift in Asia is what the Asean states for example, should expect with the Apec 2012 in Russia.

The Asean nations are not entirely under the spell of the US and the split in the Asean movement over the Philippines attempt to mention the Scarborough Shoal or Scarborough Reef – a rocky outcrop in the sea – during their recent meet had Cambodia rejecting the idea outright.

Russia offers immense transit capabilities with great economic appeal not only to the Asean but also to all in the Apec and to China indeed.

The ‘Cooperation within Apec to promote and upgrade the Russian transportation system in the Russian Far East will undoubtedly gain economic benefits to member states but it will also curtail US powers in the Asia-Pacific region.

The reason why the US could be losing more in this aspect is because the US is insisting it is trying to ‘protect’ its commerce routes with its huge naval moves.

At the moment, a major part – if not a large majority – of the freight between the East and West goes by the sea.

The dominant or near monopoly position of marine shipping companies (supposed to be protected by the US) means shippers cannot expect a reduction of their transport costs.

Rail transport on the contrary offers a reasonable economical alternative to shipment by sea. And this is where the Russian Far East plays a vital role.

Could it be that the US is more worried of the development in the Russian Far East and that is why it is moving more of its naval capacity to the Asia-Pacific?

Russia’s modernising agenda in its far east has proceeded along two main tracks.

The first involves increased state intervention in the economy of the territories, and the second involves pursuit of closer regional integration with the fast-growing economies of the Asia-Pacific region (APR), especially China.

As is known, Russia and China have formed a close political partnership in recent years that reflects shared understandings vis-à-vis the United States and the West (opposition to perceived Western “domination” in local affairs) and alignments on contentious issues such as Iran sanctions, Syria, and Nato expansion.

The countries have shored up their relations by resolving long-standing border disputes, promising “to build the border into where everlasting peace and friendship prevail”.

Amir Ali

In Asia, a wave of escalating territorial disputes

(AP/ AP ) – In this photo taken on Friday, July 20, 2012, Chinese fishing boats sail in the lagoon of Meiji reef off the island province of Hainan in the South China Sea. China has rolled out the red carpet for its newest city, on a small, remote island in the South China Sea that is also claimed by Vietnam.

TOKYO — The disputed islands and islets in Asia are, on the whole, an unimpressive bunch. Most are rocky, windswept outcroppings far from any mainland. One has a lighthouse but no people.

But these tiny territories, sweeping from southeast to northeast Asia, are fiercely contested among countries that are buoyed by nationalism and by a growing thirst for the natural resources off their shores. At a time when the United States has promised to play a greater role in Asia, some security experts say the territories represent the region’s greatest potential flash point aside from North Korea.

The territorial disputes involve nearly a dozen countries in at least three major seas, and they have set off a chaotic crisscross of conflict in some of the world’s most trafficked shipping lanes. The disputes are not all connected, but analysts say that several of Asia’s key countries — China, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines — have in recent months followed a similar pattern, turning old historical squabbles into national priorities, escalating tensions and raising the chances of a small-scale armed conflict.

The countries are driven to claim these far-flung offshore territories in part because of their growing need for the oil and gas reserves in the waters around them. Japan fears prolonged energy shortages as it turns from nuclear power, and China, already responsible for one-fifth of the world’s energy consumption, is racing to increase its share as its economy modernizes.

“Energy resources are increasingly a critical issue here,” said Rory Medcalf, director of international security at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. “Particularly from a Chinese and Japanese point of view, there’s a new sense of the need for energy security. None of these countries want to categorically give up claims to territory where there could be large hydrocarbon deposits.”

The countries are also driven by fierce, though sometimes small, nationalist movements in their own back yards. The nationalism has been intensified by social media, some analysts say, particularly in China, where hundreds of millions of Internet users can share their opinions and public sentiment is harder than ever to ignore. Countries such as South Korea and China are set for leadership changes this year, making government officials wary of backing off claims and appearing weak.

“We’ve seen over history countries go to war over territory — area that seems to be meaningless, but it’s the soil of the country,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior researcher and a Northeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation. “Even if it would appear illogical for countries to risk conflagration over rocks. . . that is what is occurring.”

Tenuous relationships

The most notable current disputes involve Japan and South Korea, China and Japan, and China and a host of southeast Asian countries, most vocally the Philippines and Vietnam.

China, with its increased military spending and naval might, is often pinpointed by foreign leaders as the regional bully, pushing its boundaries and intimidating smaller neighbors. But other countries have responded with shows of force of their own. Several southeast Asian countries have tightened alliances with Washington and conducted joint military drills. Japan realigned its Self-Defense Forces with the aim to better defend disputed waters. In July, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III asked his country’s congress to approve a massive military upgrade involving new planes and combat helicopters that could be used to defend contested areas in the South China Sea.

“If someone enters your yard and told you he owns it, will you allow that?” Aquino said. “It’s not right to give away what is rightfully ours.”

Managing the territorial disputes has become a fraught issue for Asian leaders. One much-criticized move came Friday when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, in an apparent ploy to boost his low support ratings, traveled by helicopter for a 70-minute visit to the Dokdo (or Takeshima) islets, also claimed by Japan.

“Dokdo is genuinely our territory,” Lee said on the island, where he laid flowers in front of a monument commemorating Koreans who died defending the territory.

“Why did he visit there at a time when we need to consider issues from a broad viewpoint?” Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said soon after. “It is extremely regrettable.”

Security experts say the Japan-South Korea dispute has little chance of escalating into violence, because the two countries — Washington’s closest allies in Asia — are mostly cooperative economic partners, despite lingering animosities from Japan’s 35-year occupation.

Disputes with China

But other areas in the region are more troubling, particularly those claimed by China. A recent report from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group described how China is patrolling the sea with “nine dragons,” a tangle of conflicting government agencies, many of them trying to increase their power and budget.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy tends to take a background role in sea disputes, the report said, allowing a greater role for civilian law enforcement or paramilitary agencies. An increasing number of rogue Chinese fishing vessels are also operating in contested areas, as seen in an April standoff between Beijing and Manila that started when Chinese fishermen were caught poaching near the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

Eventually, China won the standoff and the fishermen made off with their catch.

Washington has tried to stay neutral in the various disputes but has emphasized the importance of freedom of navigation. During a June meeting with Aquino, President Obama urged Asian countries to settle on a “strong set of international norms and rules governing maritime disputes in the region.”

Regional leaders, though, have failed to agree on any set of rules, and at a July foreign ministers’ meeting in Cambodia, conflicts about the South China Sea prompted the leaders to walk away without even a basic communique.

A recent Pentagon-commissioned proposal by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, pointed out that “stakes are growing” in the region because of China’s aggressive maritime activities.

The think tank’s proposal on U.S. strategy in Asia raised the possibility of basing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier on the Australian coast, allowing the U.S. a second carrier strike group in the region.

But Australia’s defense minister quickly rejected the idea, and analysts in Australia suggested the country was unwilling to antagonize China, its largest trading partner.

Chico Harlan

The Resurgence of the U.S.- Japan Relationship

While some focus on recent tensions, Tokyo and Washington have been quietly strengthening their security alliance.

The recent reciprocal visits of top U.S. and Japanese defense officials underscore how much the bilateral security relationship has rebounded from earlier tensions over local opposition to the proposed relocation of the Futenma Marine Air Station and the new Japanese government’s striving to pursue a more balanced policy between Washington and Beijing.

The focus of Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto’s August 3rd visit to Washington, his first foreign visit since being appointed in June, was the flight he took on the 12 MV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft that the Pentagon wants to incorporate into Marine Corps operations based in Japan. The tilt-rotor Osprey can take off and land like a helicopter but also has wings and can fly like a plane.

The dozen Ospreys were delivered to Iwakuni Air Station, the only U.S. Marine Corps station in the main Japanese islands in Yamaguchi Prefecture, in July for test flights before their deployment with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) at Futenma, which is located in a densely populated district of the city of Ginowan in Okinawa Prefecture. Their full operational capacity is scheduled for October.

Two recent Osprey crashes, in Florida and Morocco, resulting in the deaths of two people and injuring another five, has deepened Japanese concerns regarding the aircraft’s safety. The plane had a trouble-prone research & development history but the Pentagon considers the Osprey sufficiently safe to warrant its replacing older, less effective Marines helicopters such as the CH-46 at Futenma. Defense Department officials briefed a visiting Japanese delegation on the incidents in June.

Nonetheless, local opposition to the deployment remains high and partly reflects aversion to the continued U.S. military presence at Okinawa, which accounts for less than one percent of Japan’s soil but hosts about one-half of all the American forces in Japan. The Japanese and U.S. governments in 1996 reached an agreement on the return of Futenma base, but the deal was never implemented. Hence, a bilateral agreement was signed in 2006 stated on building an alternative facility in the coastal city of Chinook, north of Nago on the island of Okinawa

After the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) came to power in 2009, pledging to move Futenma base outside Okinawa, the situation took a turn for the worse. The Japanese Prime Minister at that time, Yukio Hatoyama, sought to move the base to Tokunoshima Island of Kagoshima County, located south-west of the Japanese territory, but opposition arose from the local population and Washington alike.

A solution may have been found this April, when the Pentagon announced plans to transfer 9,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, Hawaii, and Australia, while returning much of the land that they occupy to the Japanese.

Nonetheless, the governments of Iwakuni and Okinawa have supported protestors claiming that the Ospreys are unsafe. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has stated that he will not allow any Osprey tests flights until his government determines that the planes do not threaten the residents.

U.S. officials pledged that the Ospreys will not be used in Japan (though they will remain usable everywhere else) until Japanese safety concerns are satisfied. With DM Morimoto by his side, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the Department was reviewing the reasons for the crashes and would share the investigation’s results with the Japanese government.

Morimoto and other Japanese officials back the Osprey deployment because it will enable the Marines to fly farther and faster, which would help them defend Japan’s remote islands as well as support other East Asian contingencies in a region the Pentagon has identified as having increased strategic priority.

Although the Japanese-U.S. security relationship has evolved considerably since the end of the Cold War, the fundamental bargain enshrined in their mutual security treaty is that the United States will defend Japan from external aggression while the Japanese will facilitate this process by hosting U.S. military bases and contributing to their own self-defense.

After his Pentagon meeting, Morimoto flew a MV-22 to the nearby Marine Corps Base at Quantico, VA, where the Marines displayed the Osprey’s operations along with those of other Marine helicopters they use in Okinawa.

Prior to Morimoto’s visit, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter traveled in Japan on July 21 as part of his Asia-Pacific tour to discuss defense strategy. He also visited Thailand, India, and South Korea, but in an effort to reassure the Japanese about their value to Washington, Carter described Japan as the United States main ally in Asia, explaining that was why, “Naturally I come here first, to Tokyo.” During his trip, Carter expressed his hope that, by cooperating to resolve the Osprey issue, the United States and Japan could strengthen their mutual trust.

Another major topic of Carter’s discussions was Japan’s role in manufacturing the F-35 stealth fighter. Both the United States and Japan are counting on the new plane to play a major role in  air fleets during the coming decades. Carter stressed that  Lockheed Martin Corporation, the primary contractor of the fighter aircraft, will choose which countries will make parts of the fighter, based on economic efficiency. It will be Lockheed Martin, rather than the U.S. Defense Department, which will negotiate directly with Japan on the issue.

Japanese-U.S. security relations stalemated for several years after the DJP assumed power in 2009 and publicly pledged to relocate the Futenma Air Base “outside of the prefecture.” It was not until the dispute was finally resolved that a DJP prime minister, Yoshita Noda, was able to make an official visit to the White House in April 2012.

The Japan-U.S. Joint Statement during Noda’s visit affirmed the harmony of the two countries regional security and economic goals based on liberal democratic principles. Indeed, the Obama administration’s strategic rebalancing to Asia and the DJP’s commitment to developing a dynamic defense force can likely reinforce one another by facilitating their shared goal of promoting peace and stability throughout East Asia through an elevated security presence and measures to maintain access to the global commons such as freedom of navigation and secure cyber networks.

The common strategic objectives included several related to China, such as promoting defense transparency and adherence to widely accepted international norms of behavior, discouraging the acquisition of destabilizing military technology, promoting multinational security cooperation, and ensuring access to global commons of the sea, air, space, and cyberspace. The Joint Statement also called for bilateral measure to strengthen U.S. extended deterrence guarantees, increase joint training and exercises, and expand information sharing and joint intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) activities, and deepen cooperation regarding humanitarian missions as well as space and cyber space security.

The June 2011 meeting of the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee (“2+2”) meeting issued a list of the “common strategic objectives” of the two countries in the final Joint Statement, “Toward a Deeper and Broader U.S.-Japan Alliance: Building on 50 Years of Partnership.” It somewhat widened the goals enumerated in the February 2005 and May 2007 “2+2” meetings as well as recommitted the two governments to their 2006 Joint Roadmap for Realignment Implementation.

The 2010 revision of the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) also identifies cooperation with other partners and broader multinational security cooperation (such as participation in UN peacekeeping operations) as well as Japan’s own efforts as essential for achieving an effective deterrent. Australia, South Korea, and especially the United States were identified as key allies due to their shared values and interests.

Several new trilateral initiatives have been launched in recent years involving Japan, the United States, and another partner. Progress has been greatest with Australia, with the launching of joint foreign and defense ministerial (“2+2”) meetings in 2007 and the signing of a 2010 Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement. Despite shared concerns about North Korea, Japan’s bilateral and trilateral cooperation involving South Korea has made less progress due to historical tensions and other differences. The United States has sought to facilitate this cooperation but has limited leverage in this regard.

With the current disputes in abeyance, it is now time to consider making further progress on critical Japan-U.S. defense issues. During his recent visit, Morimoto and Panetta discussed collaborating more on drone technology and to establish permanent joint training bases in the U.S. South Pacific territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, such as Tinian. The United States and Japan should continue to look for opportunities to consolidate defense facilities as the U.S. basing posture in Asia continues to evolve away from the long-term bases that have long characterized the American military presence in Japan.

The two governments are also considering allowing Air Self-Defense Force and Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel to serve as liaison officers to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Office of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force to help the SDF become more familiar with U.S. military tactics, techniques, and procedures. Such a step would prove helpful given the two national forces aim to work closely together in coming years and that the U.S. strategy and plans for Asia are now in a state of flux due to the general strategic rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan’s commitment to joint ballistic missile defense (BMD) research & development with the United States has led its policymakers to modify constitutional interpretations that would prevent it from  using any new capabilities to defend the United States homeland or U.S. forces located outside Japanese territory. But further progress is needed on developing joint capabilities and refining the multilateral rules of engagement for missile defense given indications that North Korea will not soon transform into a less aggressive state. The two defense establishments should continue to refine their crisis-management coordination as well as integrate their command and communications systems for joint operations.

Another area warranting further joint attention is cybersecurity. It was only during the September 2011 session of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee that the first Japan-U.S. working-level dialogue on cybersecurity issues occurred. Thus far the only concrete cooperation is an agreement to share more information about cyber attacks and threats. Since both militaries are so dependent on computer networks for their operations, they would both profit from more robust cybersecurity initiatives, such as holding more joint military exercises in cyber degraded environments. The importance of their information assurance and security systems will grow over time as U.S. and Japanese forces increasingly rely on one another’s cyber networks for net-centered operations.

Unfortunately, both their domestic political systems are stalemated on the issue, which is complicated by the dominant role of private sector actors in managing the cyber networks in both countries. The U.S. Congress recently failed to enact necessary cybersecurity legislation despite the efforts of congressional and executive branch leaders to make this a priority.

For similar reasons, outer space defense infrastructure is another area for further joint initiatives. The two armed forces rely increasingly on space satellites for surveillance, navigation, and other enabling capabilities. For the last few years, Japan has been expanding its space defense architecture to support the country’s expanding security interests and activities. Although the initial objective was to provide Japan with a military space capability independent of the United States, with this goal accomplished, the two countries can now pursue more cooperation in this area to exploit synergies. With China’s demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities, the two countries should develop enhanced means of allowing their militaries to exchange information and use one another’s systems in degraded space environments.

Richard Weitz

Posted in: Economy, Politics