US defence secretary Chuck Hagel (left) with the deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army general staff, Lt Gen. Wang Guanzhong, in Singapore on Saturday. (Reuters)
Singapore, May 31: The Obama administration’s three-year-old plan to shift its foreign policy focus to Asia was supposed to shore up interests in a critical region, push new free trade pacts and re-establish US influence as a balance to a growing China, after a decade of inattention.
But as secretary of defence Chuck Hagel visited this city-state for a security conference with all of the interested parties yesterday, that much-vaunted Asia policy appeared to be turning into more of a neighbourhood street fight, with the US having to simultaneously choose sides and try to play the role of referee.
All around Asia, China is pushing and probing at America’s alliances, trying to loosen the bonds that have kept the countries close to Washington and allowed the US to be the pre-eminent power in the region since World War II.
In just the past week, China traded punches with Vietnam and Japan.
A Chinese fishing vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat on Monday near a Chinese deepwater oil rig that was placed in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam. That confrontation followed a close encounter last Saturday in which two pairs of Chinese fighter jets flew close to Japanese surveillance and electronic intelligence planes, in disputed airspace claimed by both countries.
By itself, neither encounter rises to the level of the trans-Pacific standoff that occurred in the East China Sea last year after China asserted military authority over airspace that included uninhabited islands claimed by Japan.
But taken together, those episodes form a pattern of escalating maritime and air tensions in the Pacific that have frustrated and worried American officials.
In his strongest words yet on the territorial disputes, Hagel this morning implicitly accused China of “intimidation and coercion” as he delivered his keynote address to the conference. China has called the South China Sea “a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation”, Hagel said.
“But in recent months, China has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea.”
China’s goal is to show Washington that if it maintains alliances in Asia, it risks a fight with Beijing, said Hugh White, a former senior Australian defence official who worked closely with Washington and is now professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.
“China is deliberately doing these things to demonstrate the unsustainability of the American position of having a good relationship with China and maintaining its alliances in Asia, which constitute the leadership of the US in Asia,” White said.
China is betting that America, tired and looking inward, will back off, he said, eroding its traditional place of influence in Asia and enhancing China’s power.
But even as Hagel and the US have adopted a public posture that backs Japan — and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines, Vietnam and any other country that finds itself at odds with China — some administration officials have privately expressed frustration that the countries are all engaged in a game of chicken that could lead to war.
“None of those countries are helping matters,” a senior administration official said.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about American policy, said that the US would publicly back Japan and that treaty obligations mean that if Japan and China go to war, the US will almost certainly be dragged into it.
But, he added, administration officials have privately prodded their Japanese counterparts to think carefully before acting, and to refrain from backing China into a corner.
“If these are kids in the schoolyard, they are running around with scissors,” said Vikram J. Singh, who until February was the US deputy assistant secretary of defence for South and southeast Asia and is now the vice-president for national security at the Centre for American Progress.
“Wars start from small things, often by accident and miscalculation — like dangerous manoeuvres by aircraft that result in a collision or aggressive moves that lead to an unexpected military response.”
Speaking at the opening session of the conference yesterday, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who has had a role in stirring tensions in the region by embracing a more assertive military stance, bypassed a question about whether he was willing to go to war with China over the disputed islands in the East China Sea
Instead, he said cryptically that it was “important that we all make efforts” so that certain “contingencies can be prevented”. Hagel and the large American military contingent on hand spent their time shuttling from delegation to delegation to make sure those contingencies did not come up.