In July 2017 thirty thousand Australian and U.S soldiers participated in the Talisman Sabre joint military exercise, the largest exercise of its kind in the Pacific. But what impact do these actions have upon the wider Asia-Pacific region, and how does a country like China perceive these operations?
In response to the political and economic rise of China, the United States has sought in recent years to reassure its allies of its commitment and continued presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Such reassurance has come in the form of enhanced defence, economic and political ties with its long-term regional allies and partners. This “rebalance” strategy has however damaged the existing regional political order, compounded Chinese fears of containment and unnecessarily provoked Chinese aggression. The strategy initially intended to commit the U.S to the Asia-Pacific’s future and preserve the regional order has instead undermined it.
The improved strategic dialogue between Vietnam and the U.S that has occurred under the “rebalance” is evidence of the U.S’ attempt to upset the current regional status quo. Vietnam historically exists within China’s sphere of influence, while its relationship with the U.S has deteriorated since the U.S’s withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973.
Vietnam is now emerging as a new U.S strategic partner. In 2011, the U.S and Vietnam signed an agreement on defence cooperation, while the Obama administration in 2016 removed an arms embargo that had been in place since the Vietnam war. Such action represents a profound shift in U.S policy and an attempt by the U.S to balance against a rising China through a changing of the regional status quo.
Through its deployment of new military assets and personnel, the U.S has challenged China’s emerging influence in the region and has attempted to contain its future rise. The U.S the stationing of marines in Australia, updated its defence guidelines with Japan and has deployed the THAAD missile system to South Korea. Actions that unnerve China and compound its fear of containment.
This unease was reflected in the Chinese ambassador to Australia’s response to the marine deployment, which he described as “Cold War style…containment mentality” that is “not in keeping with current trends.” China has similarly protested the deployment of the THAAD system near its border, declaring that the system “will disrupt the strategic balance in the region and endanger the…interests of regional countries including China.”
Washington’s deliberate attempts at courting new alliances and relations in the region have further unnerved China and compounded its fear of containment. The U.S and its allies have attempted to form what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has described as “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” an alliance consisting of the U.S, Australia, India and Japan. While the idea was first proposed in 2007, it has seen a resurgence under the U.S’ “rebalance” strategy.
The alliance’s emphasis on a “Democratic Peace” and its explicit reference to “Democracy” in its name however, immediately makes it a challenge to China, a non-democratic country. China has perceived such efforts as a way of containing its rise and has previously issued formal diplomatic protests.
China’s territorial assertiveness in the region has been a response to these provocative actions from the U.S and its allies. As described by Robert Ross, “a strategy that was meant to check a rising China has sparked its combativeness and damaged its faith in cooperation.” The Japanese government’s decision to nationalise the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2012 was an attempt to change the territorial status quo and has sparked the recent increase in tensions in the disputed zone. The decision of the U.S to form an international coalition to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, further represents an affront to the long-term regional order, by bringing international attention to the disputed zone. The actions of the U.S and its allies have provoked China to act aggressively in defence of the territorial status quo.
China is now an insecure state worried about the intentions of the U.S and its allies. China’s new found assertiveness in the region has been a response to fears of containment and attempts by the U.S and its allies to create an expanded U.S led international order in the Asia-Pacific. The U.S needs to realise the repercussions of its actions in the region and make its intentions clear. It’ll have to cooperate with China as opposed to balancing against it and must engage with China over the future of the regional order instead of acting unilaterally. If the U.S continues to abide by its current strategy, the peace and stability that it has for so long protected in the Asia-Pacific, will be jeopardised.
Lloyd Rhodes is a third year studying a Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Studies (Year in Asia) at the Australian National University.
This article was part of assessment for the course ASIA1030: Asia and the Pacific in motion.