Last Friday the Pentagon released its maritime security strategy for the Asia-Pacific region.
The report lays out America’s three prime objectives in the area: firstly, to safeguard the freedom of the seas; secondly, to deter conflict and coercion; and thirdly, to promote adherence to international laws and standards.
The Pentagon stresses the global benefits of an ongoing American maritime presence in the region. Aside from the US’s own economic and security interests, the report argues that the country’s historical role in the region has been a necessary precondition for the stability, development and prosperity enjoyed by Asian-Pacific countries for the past 70 years. For this trend to continue, the Pentagon argues, the US must maintain its strong relationships with its numerous allies and partners in the area.
As a stable region, the Asia-Pacific has developed rapidly to become a crucial global trade thoroughfare. The report suggests that this is a precarious system kept in check by US engagement. For any state reliant on trade, an ongoing American presence should be a priority.
Whilst the myriad benefits of US involvement in the Asia-Pacific are made obvious in the report, it is less direct about exactly what would happen if America ceased to play its part.
The report singles out China’s ongoing military modernisation and aggressive land reclamation programmes, but also details similar actions taken by other states.
China’s actions are represented with some ambivalence in the report. Although it highlights that China has undertaken the most land reclamation, that its navy has the greatest capacity to project force at sea (the PLAN has more vessels than Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia combined), and that there have been numerous incidents of coercion, the report’s language does not indicate that China has crossed a line or acted in a way that will not be tolerated by the US.
In part, this is a diplomatic choice, similar to the US extending an invitation for China to participate in RIMPAC for a second time, despite allegations of spying at last year’s exercise.
But critics argue that the Pentagon’s report must go further in criticising China’s actions. The US should provide “friction” to counter China’s military build-up and ongoing land reclamation. Without this, the question is whether the US risks signalling that it will tolerate China’s activities.
There have been documented differences of opinion between the DoD and the White House on this topic. In May there were reports that the Pentagon was considering sending naval ships within 12 nautical miles of the reefs and islands claimed by China. This would be a clear demonstration that the US does not consider these features to be islands, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Over the following months the US has made a point of publicising its patrols in the region, but none of these have breached the 12 nm radius.
The current debate on whether China is continuing construction on these islands—following their recent declaration that the project was nearing completion—has also lacked leadership. Subsequent discussion focused on the meaning of Beijing’s purposefully vague statement and whether it suggested that military construction would be halted in addition to dredging. Such a debate, like the US decision to respect the boundaries of China’s artificial islands, seems unlikely to have a deterrent effect on China’s behaviour in the region.
Arguably, the strongest message on US intent in the report is this: “As it does around the world, the Department will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, in support of these goals and in order to preserve … peace and security.”
This appears to be a statement of unilateral power: the US will follow international law protocols, regardless of whether these are disputed by China. However, even if the US does retain freedom of navigation in the area, it does not necessarily follow that the region’s peace and security will be maintained. The conditions that enabled the peace and prosperity of the past 70 years are no longer in place.
Whether or not US engagement remains strong, China’s increased power has fundamentally changed the status quo – but the report evades this truth.
It remains to be seen what will happen if China’s island militarisation agenda continues, or if China rejects the arbitration ruling regarding their territorial dispute with the Philippines, but the US will struggle to contain regional tensions into the future.
Harriet Ellis is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
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Image credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet (Flickr: Creative Commons)