Memo Stephen Smith: there are US bases in Australia and they are expanding

7 August 2012, 2.36pm AEST

Author Richard Tanter

  1. Disclosure Statement : Richard Tanter does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
  2. The Conversation provides independent analysis and commentary from academics and researchers.We are funded by CSIRO, Melbourne, Monash, RMIT, UTS, UWA, Canberra, CDU, Deakin, Flinders, Griffith, La Trobe, Murdoch, QUT, Swinburne, UniSA, UTAS, UWS and VU.

Richard Tanter

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3.   Senior Research Associate, Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability at University of Melbourne

Defence Minister Stephen Smith has been saying long and loud that there are no US military bases in Australia, and that anyone who says otherwise is misinformed. Last week, after Australian media reported the recommendation to the Pentagon from a leading Washington think tank to consider basing a US Navy  aircraft carrier task force at HMAS Stirling in Perth Mr Smith repeated his mantra:

We don’t have United States military bases in Australia and we are not proposing to. What we have talked about in terms of either increased aerial access or naval access is precisely that – greater access to our facilities. What we are looking at down the track is the possibility of further or enhanced naval access to HMAS Stirling.

Mr Smith, like so many of his predecessors, is misleading the public on a matter of vital interest to Australians. There are US bases in Australia – they are just not called that. All that is at issue is the degree of “jointness”.


The Australian government denies a US aircraft carrier will be based near Perth. AAP/US Department of Defence

Military hardware

The Pentagon report from the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies, written by the former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, Michael Green, looked towards “the next phase of enhanced access arrangements with Australia”. This included not only carrier group home-porting in Perth, but also lengthening RAAF runways for US bombers, and operating surveillance aircraft (as well as drones) from the Cocos Islands, and supplementing the Darwin Marines deployment with an expanded Amphibious Ready Group rapid deployment capacity.

The carrier group would include the nuclear-powered carrier, up to nine squadrons of aircraft, one or two guided missile cruisers, destroyers, nuclear-powered attack submarines, and supply ships. Though the cost would be more than $1 billion dollars for the US. Homeporting one carrier in the region would be the equivalent of having three carriers rotating the great distance from the US.

There is some ambiguity in the situation – about just how much the cash-strapped US wants the Perth deployment – but Green does not propose an alternative. There is no mistaking the change of gear: a carrier group in Perth is now being put forward as a very serious option by an experienced and respected US official. This moves the Washington policy debate about just what to deploy in Australia much further than had been conceded in Canberra after the Obama visit last year.

From the halls of Montezuma …

In fact, the Marine Air Ground Task Force is itself a bit of a furphy. While hosting 2,500 Marines in Darwin and exercising in the North Australian Range Complex was politically highly significant as an in-your-face announcement to China, militarily, such a small force is largely irrelevant.

Much more strategically salient, and equally related to the containment of China, are the continuing growth in Pine Gap’s signals intelligence capacities (symbolized by a giant 40 metre radome built last year); a separate satellite communications facility with three large radomes built for the US military global mobile phone system within the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station at Kojarena near Geraldton; and the announced building of a large US phased array space radar facility within the Harold E. Holt Naval Communications Station at North West Cape on the Exmouth Gulf.

A Marine fills in immigration documents after landing in Darwin. Cpl Christopher Dickson/Australian Department of Defence

The Rudd government announced this last move as a contribution to the global public good, as a sensor to detect dangerous debris or space junk orbiting the earth, threatening the hundreds of satellites the world relies on. Sotto voce, it barely mentioned the new North West cape facility’s much more important role for US Space Command – locating, identifying and tracking adversary satellites to be neutralised in space war.

These less noticed alliance developments tie Australia even more closely to the United States and its strategic policies – whether future Australian governments like it or not.

Spinning the truth

In the long and fine tradition of Defence Department denial and lying about US military and intelligence facilities in Australia, Smith’s repeated assertion that there are not and will not be any US bases in Australia is simply playing with words.

No doubt HMAS Stirling, like the Pine Gap intelligence base and North West Cape will have a sign at the gate labelling it a “Joint Facility”. But as with Pine Gap and North West Cape this will be a complete misrepresentation of the actual strategic reality.

Pine Gap and North West Cape are in fact US bases to which Australia has access. They were built by the United States, the core facilities are paid for and maintained by the United States, and the facilities only function in concert with the huge American investment in military and intelligence satellite and communications systems.

The “joint facility” at Pine Gap is in fact an American base to which Australia is granted access. WikiCommons

Take the last away, and nothing of significance is left. Granted, since the Hawke government, Australia gets a great deal more access to the product of Pine Gap, has more Australians working there, and can use North West Cape to communicate with submerged RAN submarines (when one gets to sea). But this is icing on the cake: like the proposed planned great expansion of HMAS Stirling, it would not exist but for American strategic purposes.

Making ourselves a target

Despite the end of the Cold War, the Defence Department recognises that Pine Gap remains a high priority target for Chinese strategic nuclear missiles in the event of major conflict with the United States.

The giant space radar sensor the Rudd government committed Australia to hosting at North West Cape would be one of only two or three such in the world, and a target only slightly less tempting in the battle for space dominance.

A carrier group in its regional homeport would also be on the list – the only question is how high up.

The question of sovereignty is central to all these facilities. Australia would have no control over the uses to which a carrier group would be put, nor at North West Cape or Pine Gap. We are at peculiarly dangerous time strategically.

Containing China?

Here, as in many other aspects of Australian defence policy, the Rudd and Gillard governments have been so identified with US approaches to the region – especially China – that they have effectively fused together Australian and US forces in the region.

With even less doubt than in Washington, Canberra has decided to throw in our lot with the hawks in Washington and collaborate in the framework for the containment of China. Not only is neither warranted by the realities of China’s actual external posture, it is wholly unlikely to succeed.

As Hillary Clinton asked Kevin Rudd, how do you get tough with your banker? But more importantly for Australia, the return to a cold war mentality is likely to produce the worst possible relationship with China that we could possibly have.

As Peter Van Ness, a veteran ANU specialist on Chinese foreign policy put it to me recently, “From China, the problem is not American bases in Australia, it is that Australia is an American base.”

Reinforcing Washington’s Asia-Pacific Hegemony

By Joseph Gerson,

September 13, 2012

Foreign Policy in Focus


In the coming weeks and months, Foreign Policy in Focus will run weekly features on the Obama administration’s military “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, examining both its geopolitical impacts and the response from regional civil society groups. This is the first piece in the series.

A year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled a major transformation in U.S. foreign policy in an article titled “America’s Pacific Century,” which announced the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, the Pacific, and the strategically important Indian Ocean. “One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade,” she wrote, will be “to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise— in the Asia-Pacific region.” The increased engagement, she wrote, would be underwritten in part by “forging a broad-based military presence.”

Shortly thereafter, the Pentagon published its new “strategic guidance” paper, which, signaling at a shift away from Iraq and Central Asia, named the Asia-Pacific region and the Persian Gulf as the nation’s two geostrategic priorities. To emphasize the new commitments, Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and President Barack Obama made high-profile visits to allied Asian and Pacific nations. Republicans, in Mitt Romney’s foreign policy white paper, upped the ante, insisting that the United States “expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific” and pressure its allies to “maintain appropriate military capabilities.”

The Continuing Pursuit of Asia-Pacific Hegemony

The pivot is best understood as an extension of a century and a half of U.S. foreign and military policies. In the 1850s, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward argued that if the United States were to replace Britain as the world’s dominant power, it would first have to dominate Asia – hence the purchase of Alaska, the northern route to Asia. By the 1890s, Washington had finally assembled the navy needed to challenge Britain’s mastery of the seas. Meanwhile, amidst an economic depression and related domestic turmoil, policymakers saw access to the Chinese market as a way to put the unemployed to work while increasing corporate profits and establishing the United States as a global power. The turn-of-the-century sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor provided an excuse for the United States to declare war on Spain, seize the Philippines and Guam (as well as Puerto Rico and Cuba), and annex Hawaii to secure the refueling stations needed to reach China.

After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, the Pacific became an “American Lake.” Hundreds of new U.S. military bases were established in Japan, Korea, Australia, the Marshall Islands, and other Pacific nations to reinforce those in the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii, which were greatly expanded. Together these bases “contained” Beijing and Moscow throughout the Cold War, serving as launching pads for the Korean and Vietnam wars as well as for military interventions and political subversion from the Philippines and Indonesia to the Persian Gulf.

In the late 1990s, when China was first seen a potential strategic competitor for Asia-Pacific hegemony, the Clinton administration adopted a two-track policy of engagement and containment. Deng Xiaoping was welcomed to Disneyland, President Clinton was welcomed in Beijing, and China was given the green light to join the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, the U.S.-Japan military alliance, which has long functioned as the NATO equivalent in East Asia, was reinforced. The Clinton administration sent nuclear-capable aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait and accelerated missile defense deployments designed to neutralize China’s missile capabilities. Before they were sidetracked by the “war on terror,” President George W. Bush and company promised to “diversify” U.S. Asia-Pacific military bases, reducing their concentration in Northeast Asia in order to distribute them more widely along China’s periphery.

Although the Bush administration extended the “war on terror” to Indonesia, the Philippines, and southern Thailand, it otherwise largely neglected Asia and the Pacific. This opened the way for growing Chinese influence, deepening the integration of ASEAN nations into China’s surging economic orbit. With the pivot, the Obama administration has signaled its determination, according to the Guardian’s Simon Tidal, “to beat back any Chinese bid for hegemony in the Asia-Pacific,” even at the expense of a new Cold War. As General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it, “the U.S. military may be obliged to overtly confront China just as it faced down the Soviet Union.”

The New Cold War and Its Footprint

Joseph Nye, Bill Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of Defense and a primary author of U.S. Asia-Pacific policy, previewed the pivot’s intellectual foundations in a piece for the New York Times. He warned of the potential dangers of rivalry between rising and declining powers. Twice during the 20th century, Nye noted, the United States and Britain failed to integrate Germany and Japan into their world order, resulting in two catastrophic world wars. To avoid an apocalyptic repeat of history, he urged the United States to simultaneously engage and contain China. Months before the “pivot” was launched, in words reminiscent of the 1890s, Nye wrote that “Asia will return to its historic status, with more than half of the world’s population and half of the world’s economic output. America must be present there. Markets and economic power rest on political frameworks, and American military power provides that framework” (emphasis added).

Now, even as the Obama administration repeats that “a thriving China is good for America” and pursues engagement via various diplomatic channels, it is hedging its bets.

Military alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand, which serve as “the fulcrum for our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific,” are being revitalized. Having adopted an air-sea battle doctrine, the Pentagon has committed to deploying 60 percent of its nuclear-armed and high-tech navy to the Asia-Pacific. According to the New York Times, this includes “six aircraft carriers and a majority of the Navy’s cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines, [and] an accelerated pace of naval exercises and port calls in the Pacific.”

Recognizing that relying on military power alone is not a winning strategy, especially given the near-equal influence of economic power, the Obama administration has also pressed a diplomatic campaign to negotiate a “Trans-Pacific Partnership.” The goal is to create the world’s largest and most demanding free-trade area in ways that deepen the economic integration of the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies while simultaneously reducing their economic dependence on China.

The expansion has come at a price for the region’s people.

In Japan it means reaffirming the nuclear alliance, despite President Obama’s ostensible commitment to creating a nuclear-weapons-free world. It also means amplified efforts to pacify Okinawan resistance to decades of U.S. military colonization, the continued and dangerous basing of the nuclear-capable USS George Washington aircraft carrier in Tokyo Bay, the deployment of accident-prone Osprey aircraft in the urban Futenma base in Okinawa, accelerated missile defense deployments, and expanded joint intelligence operations targeting China and North Korea.

In South Korea, where the U.S. military continues to have authority over all South Korean military operations in wartime, joint military exercises have been expanded — including in the Yellow Sea, where in defiance of Chinese warnings, the United States recently deployed the George Washington. To take the naval challenge closer to the Chinese coast, a massive Korean naval base is being built at a World Heritage site in Jeju Island’s Gangjeon village, which according to Yonhap News will “accommodate submarines and up to 20 warships, including U.S. Aegis-equipped destroyers and their missile defense systems.” This has sparked intense and disciplined nonviolent resistance in Korea.

In Southeast Asia, the Obama administration upped the military ante by responding to China’s increasingly militarized claims to nearly all of the mineral-rich South China Sea—through which 40 percent of the world’s commerce passes—by declaring (U.S.-policed) free navigation of the seas a U.S. strategic priority. Reinforcing Philippine claims to the “West Philippine Sea,” the Pentagon has also increased weapons sales to the Philippines, accelerated joint military exercises, and explored the return of military bases. The pivot also entails strengthening the U.S. military’s relationships with Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam, with the latter engaging in joint military exercises and under its “friends with all nations” policies, providing access for U.S. and allied navies at Cam Rahn Bay. Washington’s renewed ties and military-to-military contacts with Burma, which could restrict China’s access to the Indian Ocean, have also raised serious concerns in Beijing.

To complete China’s encirclement, the Obama administration has established a new Indian Ocean base in Darwin, Australia, pursued a tacit alliance with India, and is expanding its “partnerships” with New Zealand and Mongolia. In April, the United States even won an agreement to keep a yet-to-be-determined number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan through 2024. Closer to home, Hawaii is to host nearly 3,000 more Marines, Osprey warplanes, and further base expansions.

Meanwhile the Chamorro people of Guam, whose tiny island nation’s strategic location makes it an ideal fallback site for the day when U.S. troops are finally ejected from Japan, are bearing the brunt of the pivot. Even though U.S. bases already occupy 28 percent of the 500-square-mile island, 3,000 more U.S. Marines and their families are scheduled to be redeployed to Guam from Okinawa, and there are plans for massive expansions of existing bases.

In an August 2012 speech in Japan, Cara Flores-Mays of Guam explained what the pivot will mean for her Chamorro grandfather: “He has not known freedom,” she said, “and it’s likely that he never will.” The same applies to the peoples of many other Asia-Pacific nations, who have largely been shunted aside in the great-power calculus governing U.S. policy in the region.

The Peace Movement’s Pivot

The United States and China, joined by other Asian and Pacific nations, are now engaged in a dangerous, expensive arms race reminiscent of the Cold War.

When great powers compete, the peoples and interests of smaller nations are often sacrificed. Caught between China’s rising influence and the U.S. pivot, the people of “host” nations and communities are paying the greatest price. Over two centuries ago, the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence identified the peacetime presence of British troops in their communities as the source of “abuses and usurpations” necessitating rebellion. Now it is the peoples of the Pacific and Asia who are suffering and increasingly resisting the impacts of the pivot, be they land seizures, harassment by U.S. soldiers, terrorizing low-altitude flight exercises, assaults on the environment, distorted national budgets, or the increased dangers of catastrophic warfare.

If catastrophic wars are to be prevented and limited national resources devoted to ensuring genuine economic and environmental security, the U.S. peace movement must begin challenging the pivot and its consequences. Already, there are indications that the movement’s own “pivot” has begun.

Among the most encouraging indications are the solidarity actions in support of anti-bases forces in Okinawa and Korea and the creation of the Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia.

Okinawa has served as a U.S. military colony since its conquest in 1945, with massive U.S. Marine, Air Force, Navy, and Army bases continuing to occupy more than a quarter of its land area. Since the 1995 kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old school girl by three U.S. Marines sparked a mass movement that shook the U.S.-Japan alliance to its core, the centerpiece of Washington’s and Tokyo’s campaign to pacify Okinawan resistance has been the agreement to relocate the dangerous Futenma Marine air base, located adjacent to schools and people’s homes, from the center of Ginowan City to Henoko, a small community in a more remote part of the island. Sit-ins led by octogenarians at the proposed construction site to prevent the corruption of their community and destruction of a vital reef and the sea life it supports sparked a movement that has transformed Okinawan politics. Instead of settling for the closure of Futenma at the expense of the people of Henoko, Okinawans have demonstrated, gone to court, sent delegations around the world, and elected political leaders who refused to sacrifice either Ginowan City or Henoko and — won the withdrawal of half of the 16,000 Marines based in Okinawa (albeit to Australia, Guam, and Hawaii).

A similar struggle, led by farmers and environmentalists, is being waged on Jeju Island in Korea. There, on a UNESCO World Heritage site 300 miles from the Chinese coast, the U.S.-supported South Korean government has begun building an ostensibly Korean naval base that will be home to U.S.-made Aegis destroyers and missile defenses. The construction is destroying a sacred rock formation and reefs and preventing fishermen from earning their livelihood. The military housing that will follow will overwhelm farmers and villagers. For the past five years, activists have resisted with an imaginative, militant, and disciplined campaign of nonviolence that has made the Jeju struggle a national and international issue. There have been near-daily arrests as villagers and other base opponents block construction vehicles, squat on land seized to build the base, and cut through barbed wire barriers. Farmers and religious leaders have won hearts and minds with fasts, a painful campaign to make a thousand bows a day, and the profound form of Korean protest of publicly shaving their heads.

Although the U.S. peace movement largely turned away from East Asia in the aftermath of the VietnamWar, several U.S. peace organizations and a handful of dedicated activists have acted in solidarity with Asian and Pacific peace and justice movements. But with the Obama administration’s pivot now in full swing, the movement as a whole must challenge Washington’s increasingly militarized and dangerous campaign to reinforce its regional hegemony. Even as it works to prevent a war with Iran, bring all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, and move money from the Pentagon to fund human needs and job creation, the U.S. peace movement has a responsibility to turn U.S. Asia-Pacific policy away from its militarized course and toward peaceful common and human security.

One promising incipient network is the newly created Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific. Growing out of a series of conferences and exchanges initiated by the American Friends Service Committee, the Working Group brings together figures from the traditional peace movement, Asian-American activists, the religious community, and scholars. It has begun to provide the analytical foundations for a broader movement. It has won endorsements from partner organizations across Asia and the Pacific to use the framework of 2013 as “The Year of Asia-Pacific Peace and Demilitarization” to build our movements.

The pivot and the resulting new Cold War are undermining the real needs of Americans and Asians alike. But another world is possible.

Context and Complexity : US pivot sparks Asian arms race By Richard Heydarian

MANILA – Against the backdrop of renewed large-scale US military sales to Asian allies, and with newly re-elected US President Barack Obama choosing the region as his first official foreign destination, regional maritime disputes between China and Southeast Asian states are poised to intensify in the months ahead.

Under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, China has progressively buttressed its maritime claims across the South and East China Seas on both diplomatic and military fronts. Other Pacific powers, namely Japan and India, have also begun to deepen their strategic engagements with Southeast Asian partners, including through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) multilateral mechanisms.

The Obama administration signaled the formal commencement of the US’s “pivot”, or what officials in Washington commonly refer to as a “rebalancing” towards Asia, in November 2011 when the president stated to the Australian parliament: “As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”

The key strategic aim of the “pivot”, experts contend, is to contain China’s maritime assertiveness and protect freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific, a global artery for trade and energy transportation. Yet the US’s strategic re-focus on Asia has paradoxically not only strengthened the hands of Chinese hawks calling for a more muscular counter-strategy but also emboldened the US’s regional partners, namely Japan, Philippines, and Vietnam, to push their claims more aggressively.

Washington’s recent decision to equip its regional allies with an expanded package of sophisticated military hardware, featuring state-of-the-art warplanes and anti-missile systems, could aggravate an already combustible regional dynamic and extinguish any prospects for a peaceful resolution of the ongoing disputes. The dramatic boost in US military commitments to the region also underlines the Obama administration’s growing reliance on a primarily military-oriented – as opposed to trade- and development-driven – approach to re-asserting US primacy in the Pacific.

Military-industrial pivot
Growing Sino-American frictions over Asian territorial disputes promises to define both countries’ foreign policies in the years ahead. The US’s recent big-ticket military sales to regional allies also underscore the degree to which the American industrial-military complex has been energized in the process. The US pivot is thus reinforcing a large and growing network of vested interests in the ongoing disputes.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of recent US commitments is the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), a massive trade group that includes top Pentagon suppliers such as Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co and Northrop Grumman Corp. Fred Downey, vice president for national security at the AIA, recently said: “[The pivot] will result in growing opportunities for our industry to help equip our friends.”

Facing an anemic economy and reeling from deepening fiscal woes, the Pentagon has initiated across-the-board budget cuts, expected to amount to almost US$500 billion over the next 10 years. This has not only raised questions over the US’s capacity to rein in China’s perceived expansionism and aid troubled allies but has also evoked deep worries about where future profits will arise among American arms suppliers.

As Ken Lieberthal, director of the Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institute and former president Bill Clinton’s top China adviser, puts it, “The most important single element to our success in Asia will be whether domestically we get our house in order, whether domestically we’re able to adopt and integrate a set of policies that will effectively address our fiscal problems over time and show that we can actually function effectively politically.” [1]

To buttress its expressed commitment to regional security and freedom of navigation in international waters and revive the domestic defense industry, Washington has stepped up its increasingly sophisticated military sales to the region. Since 2011, the same year that President Obama formally launched the pivot, the US’s worldwide military sales have hovered above US$60 billion, with a $6.9 billion acquisition deal with India in 2011 and $13.7 billion in overall sales to Pacific partners in 2012.

This year’s sales feature, among other things, a $5 billion Lockheed Martin radar-evading F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft deal with Japan, a $1.2 Northrop Grumman high-flying RQ-4 “Global Hawk” spy drone deal with South Korea, and a $1.85 billion Lockheed Martin-led retrofitting of Taiwan’s 145 F-16A/B fighters with advanced radars and electronic warfare suits. [2]

The US has also encouraged further self-reliance and inter-operability among allied Asian nations, creating an inversed “wall of China” on Beijing’s adjacent waters.

With the recent election of a right-wing administration in Tokyo under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has responded to Washington’s call for a more assertive Japanese role in regional affairs. The new Japanese government is considering revitalized defense ties with Asian partners, sales of advanced military hardware such as stealth diesel-powered submarines and seaplanes, and enhanced inter-operability with major naval powers in the Pacific.

Recent military sales are allowing the US to gradually pass the buck to Asian partners, prodding the latter to bear a growing share of costs associated with deterring China’s perceived expansionism, including in the South China Sea.

Diplomatic trade-off
The biggest losers in the US-China driven escalation will likely be the political moderates who have called for a more sanguine, diplomatic resolution of the decades-long maritime disputes and deeper pan-regional economic integration.

In the 2012 Australia-US Ministerial Meeting’s joint communique, outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to reassure her Chinese counterparts of Washington’s intentions by stating, “We welcome a strong, prosperous and peaceful China, which plays a constructive role in promoting regional security and prosperity… We do not take a position on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.”

In addition to the US Navy decision to invite China to join the large-scale, US-led “Rim of the Pacific Exercise” in 2014, Obama’s choice for the next heads of the defense and state departments, namely Senator Chuck Hagel and Senator John Kerry, have underscored the importance of a symbiotic Sino-American dynamic.

“… We need China, and China needs us. We have to get this relationship right. After all, we are talking about our connection to one-sixth of humanity,” Senator Kerry stated as the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US Senate. “The most serious problems we face today, from nuclear proliferation to climate change, can’t be solved alone. And, economically, our futures are deeply intertwined and will remain so.” [3]

During the NATO summit in Chicago last May, Senator Hagel praised China for its socio-economic progress and called for the alliance to welcome it as a normal emerging competitor. “They are a great power today, and they are going to continue to be a great power, and that’s okay. But we shouldn’t cower in the wake of that, or we shouldn’t be concerned that they’re going to take our place in the world,” said the two-term senator, who will most likely be Pentagon’s next leader. [4]

The overtly military aspects of the US’s pivot, however, have vindicated hawks in Beijing who have consistently downplayed American reassurances of peaceful coexistence and an amicable global partnership.

“Although American political leaders regularly deny it, the US military is working to contain China in the Asia-Pacific region. American military planners have developed a posture in Asia that is designed with the obvious purpose of putting China’s seaborne commerce at risk,” said Justin Logan in a recent report by the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “The first problem with American strategy is that its ‘congagement’ [containment and engagement] approach is built on contradictory policies.” [5]

The new Chinese leadership under Xi is also intent on consolidating domestic power by appeasing hawks in both the military as well as other fiercely nationalistic quasi-civilian quarters. This explains recent measures by Beijing in both the East and South China Seas, whereby Chinese military and paramilitary elements are reported to have taunted Japanese forces patrolling the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and harassed Vietnamese vessels conducting energy-exploration surveys in the South China Sea.

China has also stepped up its diplomatic offensives, not least through the issuance of controversial maps and passports that lay overt claim to disputed territories. In addition to its controversial passport design, bearing the full-extent of Chinese territorial claims across Asia, in November China published a map claiming territories that fall within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The provocation was followed by two other official maps released in January featuring the Japanese-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as well as maritime areas within the Philippines’ EEZ under Beijing’s sovereignty. [6]

By rallying regional allies against China and equipping them with state-of-the-art military equipment, the US pivot risks intensifying Chinese anxieties while emboldening strategic partners such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan – and even India – to push Beijing into a corner. [7]

Despite all its imperfections, ASEAN is still the region’s best shot at establishing a workable dispute-settlement mechanism to resolve the ongoing disputes. With Brunei assuming the chairmanship of the regional bloc, there is a new opportunity to build on prior diplomatic efforts under Vietnam’s (2010) and Indonesia’s (2011) leaderships to develop a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

But a US-driven arms race in the region, one that benefits Washington’s military-industrial complex, could torpedo any chance at patient, peaceful diplomacy.

1. Understanding the US pivot to Asia, The Brookings Institution, January 31, 2012.
2. US arms sales to Asia set to boom on Pacific “pivot”, Reuters, January 4, 2013.
3. Click here.
4. Hagel looks ready to work with China, China Daily, January 8, 2013.
5. Click here.
6. China publishes new maps highlighting islands being claimed by PH, Japan, Interaksyon, January 12, 2013.
7. Barry Desker, Defusing Tensions in the South China Sea, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, RSIS Commentaries, December 3, 2012.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a foreign affairs analyst focusing on Iran and international security. He is the author of the upcoming book The Economics of the Arab Spring: How Globalization Failed the Arab World, Zed Books, 2013. He can be reached at


Source from Asia Times: