US Marines maneuver their jeeps at Crow Valley, Tarlac province in northern Philippines, as part of the annual ten-day Philippine-US Amphibious Landing Exercises program, October 9, 2012.
Recent statements by the White House and the US Defense Department on the new Asia-pivot strategy have made it clear that the focus of the American future military efforts have switched to the Asia-Pacific region with a rising China as the new enemy.
In the spring of 2001, the Bush Administration carried out a strategic review of the US global military policy led by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The document concluded that the Asia-Pacific region should become the most important focus of US military deployments, with China now seen as the principal threat to American world hegemony and its number one enemy.
The document National Security Strategy 2002 stated that it was of most importance that “our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” A 1999 report by then US Secretary of Defense, Willian Cohen, also warned “the possibility that a regional great power or global peer competitor may emerge” and called the US to do its best to prevent it.
However, after the September 11, 2001 attacks the US started two expensive and failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a global war against terrorism, which forced Washington to waste enormous economic and military resources. Thus, the clear trend of the last decade has been the economic and political decline of US.
Meanwhile, China initiated a huge economic expansion since the beginning of the century. This Chinese economic success led the economies of East Asia and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to become more and more integrated into the production chains centered in China. Between 2000 and 2010, Chinese trade with the ASEAN countries increased from 40 billion dollars to almost 300 billion. China has signed some free trade agreements with these countries and other states of the region. All this has made China become the first economic actor in Asia.
As a result, the US became economically weaker while China steadily grew during that period and is now on the way to become the first global economic power in some few years. US political and military elites in Washington now fear that the last decade of wars in the Middle East has allowed China to increase its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, which now constitutes the “center of gravity” of world economic activity, at the US’s expense.
Currently, the Obama Administration is returning to the point in which President George W. Bush was before the 9/11 attacks. In July 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared at an ASEAN gathering that the US was “back in South East Asia.” At another ASEAN summit the following year, she stated that the US had a “national interest” in the regional disputes in the South China Sea. The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by claiming that such a remark was “actually an attack on China.”
In another article published in the Foreign Policy
magazine, Clinton wrote that an economically weakened US could no longer have the upper hand in multiple fronts at the same time. Therefore, it had to choose its battlefields and carefully deploy its limited resources in order to take advantage of them. She added that Asia occupied a “strategic centrality” in the world power, which would force the US to concentrate its assets there.
In 2011, some US media outlets published details of the Pentagon document, “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defence,” which meant a decisive reorientation of the US military power globally towards the Asia-Pacific region.
On November 17, 2011, Obama made a speech to the Australian parliament in which he announced a new diplomatic, economic and military strategy to reassert US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and roll back Chinese influence. In a clear message to Beijing, Obama declared that “the United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay.”
Even as the US government has made huge cuts in social services and military spending, Obama stated that the US military presence in Asia was “a top priority.”
“Reductions in US defense spending will not - I repeat, will not - come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.”
Obama spoke of “a broader shift” in the focus of US policy away from the Middle East to Asia.
Washington is also threatening Beijing with a set of US bases and alliances along Beijing’s borders in order to encircle China on every front. The US currently has key military bases in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Guam and Australia.
During a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Obama announced plans for the deployment of a force of US Marines in northern Australia, the more extensive US use of this country’s ports and airports and more joint training and maneuvers between both armies.
At the same time, Obama called the US alliance with Japan “a pillar of the regional security.” He also praised India’s plans to become a most important role “as an Asian power,” a clear invitation to counterbalance China.
He also referred to an increasing US military presence, including ship visits, in the Philippines, and backed Manila in its dispute with Beijing over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. On November 18, both countries signed the Manila Declaration in which they envisage stronger military relations.
The US government has also announced plans to sell 24 F-16 warplanes to Indonesia and to establish closer military ties with Thailand. At the same time, it reiterated that the United States would be always committed to South Korea’s security. More recently, Obama visited Myanmar in order to woo this country, an old Chinese ally, away from Beijing’s influence.
The US is even rebuilding military and political ties with its former enemy, Vietnam, a country that has maintained another dispute with China in the South China Sea. The US and Vietnam held joint naval exercises in July 2011.
The new strategy has also led to the creation of the US-dominated regional free-trade area - the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP), of which China, despite being Asia’s biggest economy, is excluded. The US Administration has also tried to get rid of the Asian leaders who do not support its hard-line stance toward China.
In June 2010, Washington had a role in the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who had rejected the continuation of the US military presence at the base on Okinawa. He was replaced by a clear pro-US figure.
The US presence in the Persian Gulf and the Asian waters and valuable points, especially the Malacca Strait, also seeks to control the energy transfers China depends on. As a result of China’s booming economy and the improvement of the particular economies of millions of Chinese, the country’s oil consumption is rapidly increasing. China used about 7.8 million barrels per day in 2008 but this figure, according to recent projections by the US Department of Energy, will reach 13.6 million barrels in 2020 and 16.9 million in 2035. In this last year, China will have to import 11.6 million barrels. It makes the country vulnerable to US strategy to control countries producing oil or gas.
China is trying to counteract this strategy by importing as much oil as it can through land pipelines from Kazakhstan and Russia. There are also plans to import Iranian oil by extending the pipeline that will link Iran and Pakistan to the Chinese-Pakistani border. However, the great majority of its oil will continue coming by tankers from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America over shipping lanes controlled by the US Navy. This is a reason explaining US strategy to put the South China Sea under effective US control.
There is no doubt that US escalation of military tensions with China is dangerous and provocative and will lead to tensions in the whole Asian continent and rivalries over the control of strategic sea lanes. This American strategy risks escalating these tensions in the future into an open confrontation between the United States and China that would threaten to push the world into a devastating conflict.