The US Pivot Strategy:
A Change of Paradigm in the South China Sea?
On 1 May 1898, the United States Asiatic Squadron defeated the Spanish in Manila Bay, thus ushering in over 100 years of almost uninterrupted US military presence in the South China Sea. For most of the twentieth century, the United States had military bases in the Philippines, with additional facilities in Thailand, South Vietnam, and Taiwan.
Following its defeat in the Vietnam War, the United States gradually was evicted or withdrew from those locations, but even so, sent ships regularly throughout the South China Sea from Singapore as well as from its bases in Japan, Guam, and, of course, the headquarters of the US Pacific Command in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
In the last few years, though, history has seemed to go into reverse. The United States, as part of what the Obama White House has called a “pivot” to Asia, has negotiated facilities arrangements with Malaysia and Australia, increased its naval presence in Singapore, signed a “defense framework agreement” with India, and, most strikingly, set up military-to-military ties with Vietnam and reestablished basing arrangements with the Philippines. High-ranking military officers, Cabinet officials, and the president himself have repeatedly said that the United States plans to extend and deepen its military activities in Southeast Asia and, more generally, East Asia. Among those activities are regular naval “freedom of navigation” exercises near Scarborough Shoal and in the Spratly Islands, both claimed by China as part of their territorial waters.
These actions can, of course, be interpreted as early warning signs of a second cold war in the region, with the United States reprising its anti-China policies of the 1950s and 1960s. Additional evidence for such an interpretation comes from another element of the pivot, namely the trade agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – recently signed with various countries bordering the Pacific. The TPP does not include China, and from that fact, as well as Chinese tensions with allies of the United States such as Japan and South Korea, one might well conclude that the South China Sea is one of the main locations where the United States has decided to draw the line.
Such a view, though, is contestable, and that for three reasons. First, the fact that there have been numerous basing agreements and other forms of military cooperation set-up does not mean that those actions were designed as means to an anti-China end. These actions are what the United States does, not just in the South China Sea, or in East Asia more generally, but throughout the world. At regular intervals, for many decades, the United States has established military facilities and/or worked out military-to-military ties in every region of the world: first Central America and the Caribbean, then Western Europe, South America, East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and, most recently, sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, the rationale for these moves differs from one time period and one place to another, with anti-communism, anti-narcotics trafficking, and anti-terrorism being the most common justifications. In effect, we have one set of policy instruments – basing and joint agreements – and multiple goals that those instruments are supposed to bring about. (The same can be said about trade agreements, which the United States has also been signing for decades.) In effect, the policy is driven by means, not ends: US officials set up bases and sign military agreements because that is what they know how to do, not necessarily because they intend to confront China. the policy is driven by means, not ends: US officials set up bases and sign military agreements because that is what they know how to do, not necessarily because they intend to confront China.
Second, lest this position be thought of as too cynical, consider the details of US activity in the South China Sea. If all goes as planned, the United States will have facilities to rotate an aircraft carrier through the area more easily than in the past; there will be a few thousand Marines stationed in the region; and the United States will be able to carry out various sorts of air patrols (e.g., on surveillance or anti-submarine missions). However, each of these activities could have been carried out by the United States prior to the pivot, though of course not as easily as with the new basing arrangements. Moreover, the scale of the planned US military presence in the South China Sea is far more limited than during the 1950s and 1960s. What is lacking, notably, is any kind of infantry presence, such as in Japan. Doubtless this is because of the “no land wars in Asia” lesson learned, twice, by the United States after the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Thus, at the very least, there is a significant disproportion between the rhetoric connected with the pivot, on the one hand, and the actual military presence and activities agreed to or planned, on the other.
Third, there is no evidence that the Obama administration saw itself as preparing for military clashes with China. Understandably, the US Navy is unhappy about the growth in the size and capability of China’s South Sea Fleet, but if they dominated policymaking in Washington, we would expect a considerably greater scale to the pivot and many more confrontational patrols than have been the case. In fact, even the navy is split, having invited China to participate in its biennial RIMPAC maritime exercise. Beyond the South China Sea, the United States put considerable efforts into cooperating with China on Beyond the South China Sea, the United States put considerable efforts into cooperating with China on a host of global and regional issues, from climate change and economic matters to anti-terror policies and North Korean nuclear weapons. a host of global and regional issues, from climate change and economic matters to anti-terror policies and North Korean nuclear weapons. Indeed, cooperative arrangements were institutionalised through the “Strategic and Economic Dialogue” and other regularly occurring consultative fora. Will a new Trump administration change this? Perhaps, but that would involve military risks, frighten US allies, and endanger the economic health of hundreds, if not thousands, of US companies.
In conclusion, none of these points means that a US-China military confrontation in the South China Sea is impossible. Accidents can and will occur, but there is nothing to suggest that they cannot be contained or that they are a precursor to a new cold war. Recent US military actions need to be taken with not one, but many, grains of salt.
US Military Forces in the Region
1. US military bases
Japan: Misawa, Atsugi, Yokosuka, Okinawa, Sasebo (35,500 troops).
South Korea: Chinhae (25,000 troops).
Singapore: 122 troops.
Guam (United States/Mariana Islands): 3,000 troops.
Australia: Darwin (2500 troops).
2. US Navy Fleet
The Seventh Fleet is part of the United States Pacific Fleet. It is headquartered at US Fleet Activities Yokosuka, in Yokosuka, Japan, with some units based in Japan and South Korea. At present, it is the largest of the forward-deployed US fleets, with 60 to 70 ships, 300 aircraft and 40,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel.
The Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy is responsible for naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean.
Source: US Department of Defense.