News / Asia

    Obama’s Asia Pivot Increases US Influence But Fails to Stop China

    Satellite imagery analysis by geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor shows probable surface-to-air launcher batteries and associated radar by China on Woody Island in the South China Sea. (Courtesy of Stratfor)
    Satellite imagery analysis by geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor shows probable surface-to-air launcher batteries and associated radar by China on Woody Island in the South China Sea. (Courtesy of Stratfor)
    Brian Padden

    Five years after U.S. President Barack Obama committed to a strategic rebalance to Asia, shifting diplomatic and military resources to the globe’s economic engine, critics say the move was oversold and, so far, it has under delivered.

    At a time when Beijing’s assertive moves to claim territory in the South China Sea draw headlines and worried responses from regional countries, some say China appears to be outmaneuvering its rivals in the race to assert claims over the vast strategic sea.

    “As somebody sitting in the Asia Pacific region and observing the U.S. presence in the Asia Pacific, we’ve only seen glimmers of the rebalance,” said William Choong, a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security in Singapore.

    For decades, the U.S. Navy has protected key shipping routes in the Pacific.

    The U.S. Navy is still the supreme ocean power, but China has moved to enforce its claims and expand its presence in the South China Sea – without putting its official military forces in the foreground.

    FILE - U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, right, speaks with U.S. Navy Cmdr. Robert Francis Jr., as Carter and Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (not pictured) visited the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
    FILE - U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, right, speaks with U.S. Navy Cmdr. Robert Francis Jr., as Carter and Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (not pictured) visited the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.

     

    “China’s cutting edge has been through a gray area of Coast Guard, paramilitary forces, and even the construction on the artificial islands is being masked as serving the public good, search and rescue, scientific activities, oil exploration and fishing,” said Southeast Asia security analyst Carlyle Thayer with Australia's Defense Force Academy in Canberra, adding that China already has more coast guard ships than all the other nine ASEAN nations combined.

    Reclaims land

    In the last two years China has reclaimed at least 1,170 hectares of land in the South China Sea, building upon small reefs, shoals and islets.

    This week came another reminder of their efforts to fortify their existing outposts: the U.S. said China appeared to have deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries on Woody Island in the Paracel chain, drawing official protest from Vietnam and expressions of concern from U.S. naval brass.

    Speaking at the annual WEST Conference in San Diego on Thursday,U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift said China has twice previously deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island for missile defense exercises, including exercises to shoot down unmanned aircrafts.

    This week's absence of such exercises, he said,  should alert the U.S. about Beijing’s intentions, but that South China Sea differences between China and the U.S. should be resolved via diplomacy, and that navies of both countries should try to prevent tactical miscalculation from becoming strategic confrontation.

     

     

    With the weapons and military infrastructure Beijing is stationing on the man-made islands being built in disputed waters, some more than 800 kilometers from the mainland, China is gaining both a quick strike capability and naval superiority over other countries in the region.

    "In the past we have seen them conduct training in that part of the Paracels that involve this kind of equipment,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters Friday. 

    "We still have significant concern about this particular placement at this particular moment in time,” he said, adding the move only serves to make the current tensions worse.

    Satellite imagery analysis by geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor shows overall land, building and military expansion by China on Woody Island in the South China Sea. (Courtesy of Stratfor)
    Satellite imagery analysis by geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor shows overall land, building and military expansion by China on Woody Island in the South China Sea. (Courtesy of Stratfor)

    ASEAN’S muddled response

    The U.S. military has built closer ties with ASEAN nations, in particular Vietnam and the Philippines, which have contested China’s territorial claims.

    That has not meant, however, that ASEAN has banded together to address the South China Sea issue. ASEAN, with its emphasis on consensus building and non-interference, has been reluctant to publicly stand with the U.S. to support any meaningful action against China.

    "ASEAN countries haven’t really asked of Uncle Sam what they want Uncle Sam to do," Choong said.

    Still, American influence in the region has increased as a result of Obama’s commitment to more fully engage with Southeast Asia and to personally participate in annual forums like the East Asia Security summit, Southeast Asia security analyst Thayer said.

    “Obama is leaving a legacy that a new American president would ignore at their peril,” he said.

    U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during a summit held at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, Feb. 16, 2016.
    U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during a summit held at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, Feb. 16, 2016.

    US buildup

    In recent years, Washington has been moving more troops and military assets into the region and strengthening security alliances with a number of ASEAN members.

    Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said the Navy has already brought its “newest and most capable” military equipment to the area, like the P-8 surveillance airplane, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Virginia-class submarine, and new amphibious ships such as the USS America.

    In Australia last year, over 1,000 U.S. Marines were deployed to the city of  Darwin to join in exercises with Australian Defense Forces. By 2017, the number of rotational deployments will increase to 2,500.

    FILE - United States Marines complete quarantine checks as they arrive at a Royal Australian Air Force Base in Darwin.
    FILE - United States Marines complete quarantine checks as they arrive at a Royal Australian Air Force Base in Darwin.

    The Philippines’ Supreme Court recently endorsed a bilateral security cooperation agreement that will station U.S. troops and weapons on a rotational basis at five Philippine military airfields and two naval bases.

    The return of the U.S. military to the Philippines is seen by supporters as a significant deterrent to China and comes 25 years after Manila voted to close U.S. military bases in the country at the end of the Cold War.

    Washington is also providing maritime assistance to other ASEAN nations, including Vietnam, which is receiving several refurbished U.S. Coast Guard patrol ships.

    These increased capabilities in Southeast Asia are complemented by extensive U.S. military bases and deployments in Guam, Japan and South Korea.

    VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin and Tra Mi of VOA's Vietnamese Service contributed reporting from Washington. Li Bao of VOA's Mandarin Service contributed reporting from San Diego, California.

    WATCH: President Obama Seeks to Solidify U.S. as Leader in Southeast Asia

    Obama Seeks to Solidify America as Leader in SE Asiai
    X
    February 16, 2016 1:57 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama hosts the leaders of all 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a historic two-day summit in California.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Andrew P Boydston from: Boise
    February 20, 2016 5:28 PM
    As China's powerful Balloon expands. It will pop on some reef in the South China Sea

    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    February 20, 2016 4:01 PM
    We have so many kinds of stealth aircraft, B2, F22, F35, X-47B, MQ-9 Reaper and now they can be equipped with invisible laser weapons. We could fly over these islands undetected, destroy the missile batteries, be home in time of supper, and the Chinese would never know what hit them.

    "This is the Chinese Navy...YOU GO!"

    by: Anonymous
    February 19, 2016 12:16 PM
    Obama is smartly saving resources from being wasted in the Middle East to focus on East Asia and the rise of China. That's why so many people think the US is not doing anything about Syria, because the US needs the resources in East Asia. Russia, Iran, the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and the Kurds are taking care of the mess in Syria.

    by: Wangchuk from: NY
    February 19, 2016 9:58 AM
    The United States must do more to stop Chinese hegemony in Asia. The CCP views China as the Middle Kingdom & expects all other nations & its own people to kowtow to Party. Despite the fact int'l law is against Chinese actions in South East Asia, it hasn't stopped the PRC from flexing its military muscle & economic might to bully its Asian neighbors. The Obama Adminstration has failed our Asian democratic allies. We need a President who is not afraid to stand up to China & stand up for democracy & human rights.
    In Response

    by: Michael Lou from: Quincy
    February 20, 2016 10:00 AM
    Give it a rest. The Chinese are only making sure that their backyard is safe and under their control. It's a classic case of Great Power behavior. It;s the US nosing itself right up to China's underbelly which is the real problem. The US is just using the excuse of protecting the FON to stifle Chinese attempt to protect its backyard. Much of the Trade going through the SCS is part of China's global trade, so does it make sense for the US to protect the FOV for Chinese trade from possible Chinese interdiction/ Ridiculous and only the simpletons will fail to see the stupidity of that argument. Those HQ-9 missiles are a direct response to US planes and military ships sailing right up to Chinese islands. If you don't want China to militarize the SCS, then stop sending American military assets there to provoke the Chinese.
    In Response

    by: American Eskimo from: San Jose, USA
    February 19, 2016 12:08 PM
    Mr. Wang Chuk;
    There is NO democracy in South-East Asia. They are either commie, socialist or dictatorship and have next to poor human right records and yet USA connives and ignores as minor blemishes in her quest to contain China. USA uses democracy and human-right selectively to invade, to interfere, to bomb and to regime-change other sovereignties which she deems threatening her hegemony. Currently China, Russia and Iran are in her crosshair.

    How many wars USA can afford militarily and financially aside from Ukraine, Afghanistan, North & Central Africa, ME and Latin America and now PIVOTE/REBALANCE to Asia creating more deaths, refugees and destruction. For your info, USA is a combo of plutocracy, aristocracy and oligarchy but not democracy. Black lives do not matter, minorities human-right is in paper only. Think about it my friend.

    by: meanbill from: USA
    February 19, 2016 7:34 AM
    Common sense would dictate that the US military pivot to contain China in Asia would draw a Chinese defensive military response? .. China is suspicious of any US military buildup of troops and weapons by the US Asian pivot close to the Chinese motherland, and their defensive response was to be expected unless the commander in chief is a moron?

    The Chinese response to the US military pivot to contain China, was the building of the Chinese little islands and putting early warning radar on them, (to expand their ADIZ out past their little islands), and put ground to air defensive missiles on them to protect the Chinese motherland instantly? .. China can now instantly identify (with their expanded ADIZ) any aggressor missiles, rockets or warplanes that would attack them? .. And China would never do anything to disrupt trade sailing through the South China Sea in Asia, because trade is the new lifeblood of China? .. Look for the obvious and ignore the propaganda?

    by: kanaikaal irumporai
    February 19, 2016 6:25 AM
    The vietnamees are ungrateful buggers, who have forgotten the sacrifical help offered by the Chinese for the liberation of Vietnam from the barbarous American who used all the humiliating things. If they remembered agent-orange alone, it would be enough to take othe for the destruction of US for many generation to come. If the Chinese were not that helpful, the Vietnamees would be languishing in utter powerty and enslavement and their women being used as sex-comfortters for the beast like American soldiers.
    In Response

    by: Michael Lou from: Quincy
    February 20, 2016 10:10 AM
    It's almost comical to see Vietnamese folks posting here bashing China when the US not too long ago carried a long and bloody war of colonial imperialism against the forces of Ho Chi Minh. Now they talk of the US as some sort of liberator when they conveniently forgot how much implicit and explicit help Beijing afforded Hanoi in the 60's and 70's.
    In Response

    by: Mike
    February 20, 2016 5:57 AM
    Chinese never help any other country without benefit especially Vietnamese who stand up to Chinese expansionalism. U.S. made mistake in helping China rise and abandoning democratic South Vietnam in 1973. U.S. navy looked the other way while China invaded Paracel(Hoang Sa islands) from South Vietnam in 1974.

    by: American Eskimo from: San Jose, USA
    February 19, 2016 1:00 AM
    USA wishes to cultivate ASEAN into a NATO like military organization at her commend.
    Pivot/rebalance to Asia is way for USA to maintain her dominance, her sphere of influence and hegemony in Asia.
    After all the wars USA engineered in the Middle-East, Afghanistan, Ukraine, North and central Africa and Latin America; she turns her attention to Asia.....that is what it means to pivot/rebalance to Asia..... creating refugees, destructions and deaths.
    In Response

    by: Alice from: Canada
    February 19, 2016 10:22 AM
    Nonsense. The real villain in this story is an expansionist and imperialist Chinese Communist regime intent on creating an empire at the expense of other Asian nations. This is a land and resource grab by a brutal Chinese Communist dictatorship.

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