Last week, the United States markedly increased its involvement in Southeast Asia, as a contingent of U.S. Marines landed in Australia on Tuesday while the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson docked in Chennai, India over the weekend. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Defense announced plans to conduct joint naval exercises with Singapore.
These developments stem from a significant shift in U.S. strategy. In November of 2011, President Barack Obama stated that the U.S. would undertake a strategic pivot away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region.
Earlier this week, this policy was put into action as the nearly 200 strong company of Marines arrived in Darwin, Australia, the first of what will be eventually be an augmented force of a 2,500 strong Marine Air Ground Task Force along with an expansion of naval facilities in Brisbane and Perth that will be capable of servicing U.S. aircraft carriers and submarines.
A deal brokered with Singapore will introduce the U.S. Navy’s new littoral combat ships to the region and will coincide with $8 billion marked for expansion of air and naval facilities on Guam.
Additionally, much of the arrival of military manpower is not a redistribution of regional forces, but an influx from stateside units, indicating a more robust U.S. presence is indeed in the works.
Adm. Robert F. Willard, retiring head of the U.S. Pacific Command, stated that the U.S. was not intent on establishing permanent bases in the area, but to cycle forces throughout the region in order to be better positioned to react to any upcoming contingencies.
Authority over the waters of the South China Sea is largely disputed between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. At stake are underwater oil deposits and sea lanes that see passage of half the world’s oil.
The U.S. government explains its shift toward the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea as a move into international waters. The stated intention is to curtail piracy and trafficking while maintaining open sea lanes for the trade of goods and transportation of petroleum.
China sees these waters in a different light. The mindset in Beijing is that the South China Sea and surrounding maritime environment fall under Chinese jurisdiction and that the protection of the waters is their responsibility.
Accordingly, three months before Obama unveiled the strategic pivot strategy, China had an unveiling of its own as the country’s first aircraft carrier began its sea trials. Beijing asserts that the ship, an unfinished Soviet vessel acquired from the Ukraine, is solely for research and training purposes. Yet coupled with reports that the Chinese are developing an anti-ship ballistic missile capable of neutralizing aircraft carriers far off China’s shores, it appears that a maritime arms race may be imminent.
The implications of this are many and far reaching. At stake is a bipolarization of the region in which area countries may find themselves being forced to take sides between the U.S. and China. Such action would put constraints on regional trade in fuel, minerals, and commodities and signify a convergence of trade policy and security needs.
The Chinese economy continues to grow and its energy supply needs to keep pace with rapidly increasing consumption. The other side of the coin is a U.S. that has similar energy and commodity needs and a much longer supply chain. Diplomacy between the two has never been so crucial.