Asian Anxiety

As U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta tours Asia this week, he will find a region increasingly nervous about its future. Not unlike Europe in the late 19th century, nations large and small are seeking to enmesh themselves in webs of protective relationships that in turn feed the insecurities of others. The result is a worsening of the risk cycle and the increased possibility that miscalculation or nationalist fervor will trump common sense.

How reducing the Pentagon’s planned expenditures by nearly $500 billion over the next decade will limit the U.S. ability to maintain stability in Asia is a major concern of Asian states and should be a central part of the American debate over the next several years.

The cause for most of the worry in Asia is not simply the growth in Chinese military power over the past decade. Rather, it is the ways in which China is now exercising its new abilities. In particular, given the importance of trade routes, the expansion of the Chinese Navy’s operations throughout the East and South China Seas is causing alarm.

In the East China Sea, where both the United States and Japan maintain significant naval forces, China has largely limited itself to probing around the territory of Japan and ostentatiously sending flotillas through waterways near Japanese islands. Yet a near crisis last year over Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing vessel in waters around the strategically important Senkaku islands revealed that Beijing was not afraid to take on the region’s largest democracy.

By comparison, the smaller nations of Southeast Asia field a very limited naval presence in the waters that lead to the Malacca Strait and link the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean. In the south, Chinese ships have been far more active and have been charged with interfering with vessels from nations ranging from the United States to Vietnam. In one incident in June 2010, an armed Chinese maritime fisheries vessel trained its gun on a smaller Indonesian naval ship that had detained a Chinese private fishing boat in Indonesian waters.

Even the Indian Navy has felt China’s presence, with one of its vessels purportedly being challenged recently on the high seas after making a port visit to Vietnam.

However, China’s growing assertiveness is not being ignored by its neighbors, no matter how outgunned they may feel. Last month, the Philippines and Japan announced that they would undertake increased joint naval exercises and institute regular talks between maritime defense officials. In a meeting between the two countries’ leaders, the issue of freedom of navigation and stability in the South China Sea was among the key issues discussed.

Manila has claimed that China is interfering with its exploration for oil, while Japan’s worries about possible threats to free transit through strategically important waterways is pushing it to contemplate a larger role outside its traditional maritime neighborhood of Northeast Asia.

Nor have China’s moves resulted in a response from only Asian nations. This past July, the U.S. Navy conducted noncombat training exercises with Vietnam, continuing a trend of expanding maritime exercises with Southeast and South Asian nations, including Malaysia, Cambodia, India and Bangladesh.

Even more important, the United States and Australia have agreed to dramatically deepen their military cooperation, with U.S. forces getting access to Australian bases and the right to store supplies on the continent, along with more joint exercises and training.

Looked at from a height, Southeast Asia is increasingly resembling a multiplayer chessboard, where different players ally with each other at the same time, moving pieces around to try to secure territory. In this case, the jockeying occurs largely over contested 200-mile exclusive economic zones, guaranteed to countries by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Territorial disputes over the numerous islets of the South China Sea have created a patchwork of overlapping claims, including Beijing’s own over the entire sea.

The competition over territory masks a larger issue, that of the balance of power in Asia. Beijing is trying to shape a favorable balance of power in the region by preventing smaller nations from allying with each other or creating effective partnerships with larger powers like the United States.

For all the increased joint training between the U.S. Navy and Southeast Asian states, China’s leaders may be calculating that Washington simply won’t go so far as to extend security guarantees to them. That would ultimately leave China as the dominant naval power in a region that expects a continued decline in the United States’s strength and ability to maintain its presence in Asia.

Whether things get out of hand in Asia seems increasingly to depend on China’s future actions toward its neighbors.

China’s leadership change planned for next year will be a period of potential instability and delicacy. An insecure or weak leadership may try to buttress its position by pushing its claims even further and harassing its neighbors. Alternately, many analysts in Washington and Asia fear that the Chinese military will have greater influence over the new leaders, and will be in a position to act on the aggressive statements sometimes made in the Chinese media by senior officers.

The resulting insecurity will only highlight the role that the United States continues to play in maintaining stability, and the dependence Asian nations large or small have on the forward presence of the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines. How to keep a credible U.S. presence in Asia under a significantly reduced military budget is the new challenge for Mr. Panetta. The answer, unfortunately, may well rest with Beijing.

By Michael Auslin, a resident scholar in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations.

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