Military Developments in South East Asia
The fundamental impulse of US to shift to the Asia-Pacific and particularly South East Asia was the growing influence of China. Return of the US was termed as the ‘pivot or rebalancing’ towards Asia.
MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS IN SOUTH East Asia or for that matter anywhere else cannot be seen in isolation from the political, strategic and economic contexts. Events that are taking place in South East Asia are also a subset of what is happening in Asia in particular and at the global level in general. While there has been an on-going shift of economic power to Asia it is also quite apparent that most of the conflict spots of the world are in Asia. Rapid rise of China and its fast tracked militarisation has created its own geostrategic dynamics not only in Asia and South East Asia but also has caused reverberations at the global level. According to a report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) released in March 2013 Asia overtook European members of the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) in terms of nominal military spending for the first time last. The South East Asian nations have not only to respond to festering internal security challenges as the process of nation building is as yet not complete in most of the countries they also have to deal with external threat perceptions.
Looking at the politico-strategic milieu in South East Asian region four broad trends that have impact on military developments can be discerned. First trend is that after having integrated the South East economies and strengthening People’s Liberation Army China has now become more assertive in its sovereignty claims that adversely impact a number of South East Asian nations. Second trend is that the US fearing loss of its power and influence in Asia-Pacific and South East Asia has been attempting to stage a comeback through its ‘pivot’ to Asia or rebalance to Asia strategy which has political, military and economic components. Thirdly, South East Asian countries especially those who are at the receiving end of China’s assertive policies are attempting to balance China through political, security and defence cooperation with outside powers like the US and others. And fourthly, the South East Asian countries through multi-lateral structures like ASEAN are also attempting to engage China to address their security concerns.
China’s Assertion in South East Asia
While the recent events in South China
Sea (SCS) indicate that China’s has become more assertive about its claims with Vietnam and the Philippines yet these are not the only countries affected by China’s irredentist tendencies. Beijing has through its cartographic propaganda shown Natuna island of Indonesia that contains gas fields as part of China through an official map. Even some of the Malaysian gas fields off the shore of Sarawak are claimed by the Chinese. Spratly chain of islands besides being claimed by Vietnam and China are also claimed by other SCS littoral nations.
The dispute between China and Philippines about Scarborough Shoal has not abated since early April 2012 when a Philippine Navy surveillance plane spotted eight Chinese fishing vessels docked at Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine Navy despatched a ship to arrest the Chinese fishermen but were prevented by two Chinese Marine Surveillance ships. There were protests by both countries and finally by July 2012 China erected a barrier to the entrance of the Shoal. Chinese surveillance ships have prevented Filipinos from fishing in the area. The dispute has soured the relationship between the two countries.
China has also raised the status of Sansha County in Hainan province to that of ‘Prefecture’. In earlier years when China National People’s Congress had passed a law to make Sansha as a county to administer its claims in the South China Sea it had led to anti-China protests in Vietnam. In addition, a military garrison has also been established in Sansha city in July 2012 with the charter of military mobilisation but the Chinese say that it is only for defensive purposes. PLA Navy is also strengthening its naval base of Hainan (near city of Sanya).
China has also restructured its coast guard and maritime forces. The new restructured body combines the functions of China Marine Surveillance, the coast guard forces under the Ministry of Public Security, the fisheries law enforcement command with the Ministry of Agriculture and maritime anti-smuggling police of the General Administration of Customs.
China has been regularly warning outside powers like the US and even India and others not to interfere in the ongoing disputes in the SCS. In September 2013 Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the PLA, during a meeting with James N. Miller, US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, in Beijing cautioned that “The US should not give the wrong signals to support or allow relevant countries to do whatever they want…. China hopes the US will not become a third party in issues related to the Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea”. On the other hand James Miller appealed to all sides involved to maintain restraint and said the US supported China in solving territorial disputes through diplomatic channels.
Declaration by China of a new overlapping Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over contested islands of Diaoyu/Senkaku in end November 2013 besides raising the tensions between Tokyo and Beijing have raised questions about China’s intentions and its policy of peaceful development. Further, PRC also expressed its intentions of declaring ADIZ in other contested zones like the SCS. What is of interest to China’s neghbours both across the land and maritime borders is how China would behave as it continues to rise. China’s unilateral announcement of its new ADIZ which overlaps the existing one has created concerns about China’s continued assertive policies.
Rebalancing of the US to Asia-Pacific
After President Obama took over in January 2009 his administration has been paying considerable attention to Asia-Pacific. Before 2009, there was general feeling among the South East Asian countries that America has withdrawn from the South East Asian region. The fundamental impulse of the shift to the Asia-Pacific and particularly South East Asia was the growing influence of China. Return of the US was termed as the ‘pivot or ‘rebalancing’ towards Asia. The objective was to enhance the credibility of the US as only superpower despite the constraints imposed by economy.
In March 2012 the US came out with a new Defence Strategic Guidance which expanded on the theme. The plans included additional deployment of troops from Australia to Singapore in a phased manner. Its new AsiaPacific strategy besides Asia-Pacific region also extended to Indian Ocean littoral. The military dimension of the pivot was as a response to growing military capabilities of China and its increasing assertiveness that has implications for freedom of navigation and America’s ability to project power in the region.
The map on previous page indicates the likely US military deployments from Singapore to Australia. A large portion of the US Naval fleet (60 per cent) that includes aircraft carriers, submarines and other combat ships would be based in Asia-Pacific. Singapore would have finally four littoral combat ships deployed; Philippines is expected to have 500 rotational troops deployed besides allowing American surveillance planes to fly from its airbases. Australia has already started hosting American marines at Darwin. In addition there have been other deployments elsewhere which can be considered as a response to possible challenges and threats arising out of China’s military modernisation and its muscular policies in South China Sea and East China Sea. Further, the US forces have also worked out concepts to meet the challenges of PLA’s anti-access and area denial strategies.
Added to the above is the American effort to forge cooperative defence ties with the South East Asian nations through joint exercises, supply of weapon systems and joint training. This is also being supplemented by America’s extension of political and economic support to the ASEAN members especially to those who are much affected by China’s assertive policies especially Vietnam and Philippines.
Response of the South East Asian Nations
Countries in South East Asia are attempting to rise to the heavy-handed tactics of China through political, diplomatic and to an extent through defence cooperation with outside powers. At the political level while some of the ASEAN members whose interests are not immediately affected have been accommodating China on the other hand others whose vital interests are affected have responded with modernising their militaries, forming quasimilitary alliances with the US and obtaining defence equipment from a wide variety of sources. The ASEAN members also consider the multi-lateral institutions as the best way to engage China rather than solve the problem of the SCS through bilateral mechanisms. China on the other hand, knowing its advantage has preferred to deal with the maritime disputes on a bilateral basis.
Vietnam and the Philippines both rattled by China’s aggressive policies have been gradually moving towards cementing their defence ties with the US. The US and Vietnam had signed an agreement on defence cooperation in 2011 and 2012 Leon Panetta was willing to take it further. Panetta had remarked that “It will be particularly important to be able to work with partners like Vietnam, to be able to use harbours like this [Cam Ranh Bay] as we move our ships from our ports on the West Coast, (and) our stations here in the Pacific”. Both are holding regular defence policy dialogue and there is a deepening of US-Vietnam joint naval engagements; Vietnamese officers are also being sent to US staff colleges.
In last six years or so Vietnam has been importing military hardware from Russia and largely naval vessels to include six Kilo class submarines, four frigates, some corvettes and some Su-30 MK2 and Su-27 aircraft aircrafts have been purchased. In addition it has strengthened its defence relationship with India.
The Americans who had withdrawn from their Subic Bay naval base over two decades ago are now returning to the Philippines. A mini-Subic Bay naval base at Oyster Bay which is 550 km south-west of Manila has been planned. The Philippines also has revived plans to modernise and Subic Bay air and naval base with an expenditure of $1.8 billion. The United States is also helping to upgrade and modernise the Philippine military. Earlier in July 2013 US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel visited Manila and observed: “We are using a new model of military-to-military cooperation befitting two great allies and friends”. Before Chuck Hagel’s visit the two military chiefs General Emmanuel Bautista and General Martin Dempsey, signed a joint statement in Washington affirming both sides’ commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty. Another highlight of the enhanced defence relationship was that from only 50 ship visits in 2010, over 90 ships had visited the Philippines since January to early October 2013.
Around 600 US Special Forces troops have been deployed to the Philippines for over a decade to assist in the fight against a longrunning Muslim insurgency on the southern island of Mindanao. Washington has stationed surveillance planes there and promised up to $30 million in support for building and operating coastal radar stations.
So far as Indonesia is concerned the defence relationship with the US has been on upward trajectory. On the sidelines of Shangri La dialogue of June 2013 Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel after meeting his Indonesian counterpart Purnomo Yusgiantoro stated that “the two leaders reaffirmed the importance of deepening ties [and] reviewed progress made in recent years to increase exercises and training, as well as regular defense policy dialogues,” and discussed American support for Indonesia’s military modernisation, including through US foreign military sales.
In August 2013 US Defence Secretary during a visit to Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei had announced a deal worth about $500 million between the United States and Indonesia to sell eight new Apache AH-64E attack helicopters and Longbow radars to Indonesia. Further, Indonesia and the United States have also
been regularly holding joint military exercises for over last five years. In June 2012 a joint exercise code named Garuda Shield 2012 involving 450 Indonesian and 100 US troops was held; the objectives were counter-terrorist and counter-piracy operations. Indonesia also participates with the United States in a number of regional exercises, including Cobra Gold in Thailand. The United States is providing Foreign Military Financing funds to upgrade ageing Indonesian C-130 cargo planes and is selling Jakarta two dozen refurbished F-16s.
The other countries of the ASEAN have also been modernising their militaries and cooperating with outside powers though their motivations for spurring their defence expenditures could be different. Myanmar, for instance, is becoming more open and its military has expressed intentions to increase defence cooperation with the American military. Similarly, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand are moving towards upgrading their militaries due to a variety of impulses.
Following the American lead countries like Australia, Japan and the western nations like France, the UK and Canada are also shoring up their defence engagement with some of the ASEAN nations. For instance, Canada is planning to set up a logistics facility in Singapore, in order to support the US coalition. In addition in its ‘pivot to Asia’ concept the US looks upon India and Japan, among others, as partners.
Further, India has also been developing its defence relationship with ASEAN as part of its ‘Look East Policy’ that pre-dates the unveiling of the American pivot to Asia paradigm. Though India does not wish to get involved militarily in the ongoing disputes in the SCS it has been supporting the free- dom of navigation and the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS).
Engaging China Multilaterally
To address their security concerns the ASEAN had established the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting ( ADMM) Plus Eight mechanism that includes China, US, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand besides ASEAN members. Overall goal was to explore areas of cooperation and minimise areas of dissonance in security issues. One of the major reasons for initiation of such a framework had been the transnational nature of threats that makes it very difficult for a single nation to deal with in isolation. Threats related to violent extremism, maritime security, vulnerability of SLOCs, transnational crimes have a direct and indirect bearing on the trajectory of economic growth. Apart from this the existence of territorial disputes especially on the maritime front plus the issues related to political differences and rise of China have added to the security dilemma in the region giving rise to areas of potential conflict.
ASEAN members envisaged that ADDM+8 could be a useful platform in diffusing security concerns especially when the potential for crisis exists, however, so far only non-conventional security issues have taken the centre stage on its agenda. Though its multilateral architecture could have a dampening effect on any aggressive or assertive member who may chose to take recourse to arms to settle disputes. It is perceived that ADMM Plus Eight could provide a platform for mutual understanding, military transparency, improving mil to mil relations, confidence building and dialogue to discuss most of the long-standing issues. One such proposal in the concept paper of ADMM Plus Eight was to carry out joint exercises and training to facilitate understanding and friendship especially among the defence establishments of the respective countries. Lastly it seems that the inclusion of USA, Russia and even India to some extent is in consonance with the need to balance the assertive tendencies of Beijing especially in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
Here it is important to mention that during an interview the Chinese Defence Minister told the People’s Daily that South China Sea cannot be on the agenda for ADMM Plus Eight and this particular platform will not be used to discuss the issue of South China Sea. This was in reference to the inaugural conference of the platform in 2010.
In June 2013 a joint military exercise in Brunei under the aegis of ADDM Plus Eight (a total of 18 countries i.e. ASEAN plus six, Russia and the US) that focused on five priority areas of cooperation: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), medicine, maritime security, peacekeeping and counter-terrorism was held. How far it has been able to build confidence between the militaries of member nations is another matter. But the fact of the matter is that China is more comfortable with bilateral engagement in addressing security issues or disputes.
Future course of military events would largely depend upon how the US-China, US-ASEAN and China-ASEAN relationships evolve. While India has also been strengthening its politicomilitary relationships with the ASEAN it is unlikely that it will proactively get itself involved in a possible military conflict in the SCS.
Further even though the USA has indicated its desire to return to Asia-Pacific there are views that due to its economic constraints there might be a rethink. However, so far the United States does have a superior military which can support its geopolitical aims in the Asia-Pacific region. Therefore, countries in South East Asia who feel threatened by China’s rising military capabilities would naturally gravitate towards America as a balancing exercise against China. While China realises that maintaining peace and stability in the region is important for economic growth it is also increasingly being impacted by rising nationalistic tendencies and aspirations fuelled by its economic and military growth. Recent years have seen expansion of China’s core interests and a certain willingness to coerce the weaker contenders militarily.
In coming years the South East Asia region is likely to emerge as a keenly contested region between the United States and China. The US has also been urging India to be more proactive in its ‘Look East Policy’ as a part of US hedging strategy against a rapidly rising China. While the US political and military leadership has described India as a major cog of its Asia-Pacific strategy, in the evolving strategic milieu India would have to find an appropriate role for itself and establish a mutually beneficial relationship with the South East Asian nations to realise its national interests. China’s aggressive policies along its periphery also have implications for India and therefore, New Delhi cannot afford to overlook its military modernisation programme which needs to be fast tracked.