US in Asia Pacific

Military Implications of the Rebalance: Increasing Chinese Aggression

22 Apr, 2014    ·   4399

Shreya Upadhyay looks at Chinese responses to the changing regional security environment

Shreya Upadhyay
Shreya Upadhyay
Research Intern

Despite the crisis in Ukraine and Syria, the 2014 US Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR), US-ASEAN Defence forum and a slew of ongoing visits by American leaders seek to reassure that rebalance has not lost steam. This article seeks to explore two questions: How is the strategy fine-tuning the security structures in the Asia-Pacific? How is China responding to the rebalancing?

Enhancing Security Partnerships
The US is mindful that establishing a military posture with deterrence as well as punitive capability is required in the changing security environment. The Pentagon is focusing attention on countering China’s growing aggressiveness,  its ‘anti-access/area denial capabilities’ and creation of the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), that could be used to restrict its military ability to operate in the region in the future.

Washington is therefore making attempts to bolster its alliances. The 2014 QDR mentions Australia, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) as ‘traditional anchors of regional security’. Philippines and Thailand are also listed as part of the efforts to ‘modernise and enhance security alliances’. Obama's slated visit to Japan, ROK, Malaysia and Philippines underscores their importance vis-à-vis US policy. 

The US and Philippines are on the brink of inking a new security accord that will allow the US military to share local bases with armed forces for maritime operations. Philippines might also purchase a third Hamilton-class high endurance cutter that would aid its patrols in the ‘grey zone’ of the South China Sea.

With Japan seeking to revise its defence ties, the two countries are moving further with their military cooperation. During his recent Japan visit, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the US will forward-deploy two additional Aegis ships by 2017. The US' drones will also be used to step up surveillance around the Senkaku Islands. Japan is also building an American-style national security council, a precursor to a more proactive security posture. All these developments, including Hagel's Mongolia stop for securing ‘cooperation in regional security’, have further raised Chinese suspicions.
Institutional Strategy
In April, the US hosted the first ever US-ASEAN defence forum in Hawaii. The aim was to encourage ASEAN nations to construct a military posture on a region-wide basis. As US deals with fiscal constraints, it wants responsibility to be shared among the regional players regarding military investments. Thus, Washington is working on wrangling ASEAN states together along with traditional regional powers like Australia, Japan and the ROK as well as emerging powers India and Indonesia to strengthen multilateral and bilateral security arrangements.

One of the major challenges in this regard is to ensure that the countries operate together. The nations on their part have sought to manage the risks of US–China competition by hedging against both. Thus, efforts to develop a Pacific-focused intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) plan so far have been complicated by regional politics. The US has also been promoting a de facto Asia Pacific Treaty Organisation (APTO) consisting of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Australia. This loose ‘China-free’ association has rung alarm bells in Beijing. 

China's Growing Aggressiveness towards the Rebalance 
Hagel, during his stop in China, was greeted with a tour of the country’s lone aircraft carrier, Liaoning. The Chinese side trumpeted the visit as a show of transparency - a response to US’ constant nudging of the Chinese military. The QDR 2014 already points that China’s military modernisation is combined with a relative lack of openness regarding both military capabilities and intentions. Beijing is often lectured on how transparency would help in reducing tensions by reassuring the region that its military build-up is defensive in nature.

For Pentagon, Chinese assertiveness, military modernisation and secretiveness have become a headache, especially as its own defence spending has been declining. The Liaoning tour was viewed by many as a Chinese attempt to project its naval power. In February 2014, the Chinese military surprised the Australian government by conducting military exercises closer to Australian territory, between Indonesia and Christmas Island. Aggressive remarks in Chinese defense circles highlight the prevailing uncertainty in the region’s security environment. 

Both the US and China have been butting heads over who is to be blamed for these geographical tensions. Beijing has expressed resentment over US treaty alliances with Japan and the Philippines. While talking to Hagel, the Chinese had objected to the standard approach that "the US has treaty obligations to Tokyo and Manila." Washington of late has also become more vocal in its criticism of China. Hagel drew a direct line between Russia's takeover of Crimea and Chinese "coercion and intimidation" in the region. A US official recently claimed that US Marines would be able to swiftly take back the Senkaku Islands should China invade them. This invoked a sharp response from China as well. Chinese daily Global Times stated that  "US warships in the East China Sea were slowly being considered as moving targets. When facing China these soldiers are not worth anything."

Beijing has also redefined its understanding of ‘national security’ with a comprehensive coverage and dual emphasis on external and internal security with eleven security areas: politics, territories, military, economy, culture, community, science and technology, information, ecology, natural resources and nuclear.