The Great Pacific Panic

Pacific Commander: U.S. declines support for Asian allies in sea disputes with increasingly aggressive China
Samuel Locklear / AP

Samuel Locklear / AP

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The United States is not supporting key regional allies and friends currently engaged in maritime and other disputes with China amid growing aggressiveness by Beijing, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said on Thursday.

Adm. Samuel Locklear III, U.S. Pacific Command commander, told reporters at the Pentagon that China’s pressure on Southeast and Northeast Asian states is “complicated” by historical differences and the search for energy and other resources.

“The U.S. position … is that we don’t take sides on territorial disputes,” Locklear said. “There’s many of those around the globe, not just in the South China Sea. But we do want them resolved peacefully, without coercion, and that we call on all the parties there, including the Chinese, to ensure that as they approach these problems, that they do so in a way that avoids conflict, that avoids miscalculation.”

China has stepped up pressure on several allies of the United States in Asia in recent months, including Japan and the Philippines.

A dispute over Japan’s Senkaku islands, which China is claiming as its territory, triggered riots in China against Japanese interests and soured relations between Tokyo and Beijing. Chinese Gen. Xu Caihou, a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, said Sept. 14 that Chinese troops should prepare for possible military combat as anti-Japanese riots broke out in China after Tokyo purchased three Senkaku islets from private owners in a bid to calm the dispute.

The comments by Locklear reflect the Obama administration’s policy of “leading from behind” rather than assertively. That posture has troubled states in Asia that rely on the United States and its naval power to maintain stability, free and open commerce, and transit.

The comments regarding Japan also are unusual because the United States has a mutual defense treaty with Tokyo. However, the administration was slow to invoke the treaty as part of the Japan-China spat.

Concerned by the weak U.S. response, the Senate passed a resolution affirming that an attack on Japan or the Senkakus would be covered by the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty.

The Philippines also is locked in a dispute with China over the Spratly islands, which are believed to hold large underwater reserves of oil and gas.

Vietnam, while not a U.S. ally, also is battling Chinese hegemony over fishing waters in the South China Sea that China is claiming.

China triggered alarm throughout the region last week by announcing its maritime patrol ships would begin boarding and searching foreign ships in the South China Sea, including in international waters that China is now claiming as its sovereign territory.

The Obama administration has so far issued no response to the threatening Chinese action to board ships in the sea and analysts say the lack of resolve could undermine the U.S. role as a force for peace and security in the region.

By contrast, the threat to board foreign ships in the South China Sea prompted protests or expressions of concern from India, Philippines, Vietnam, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

A new dispute emerged Thursday between China, India, and Vietnam over oil and gas exploration efforts in the South China Sea. China called on India and Vietnam to halt the efforts. India’s naval chief said Monday that Delhi is prepared to send warships to the sea to protect its exploration efforts.

Locklear, in his comments, voiced worries that the Asia disputes would not be settled peacefully through diplomacy and legal forums and “without resorting to coercion or conflict.”

“And so it’s important, I think, as we go forward to ensure that all parties remain calm about these things and that we don’t unnecessarily introduce warfighting apparatus into these decisions or these discussions,” he said, in an apparent reference to a decision by the command not to send additional Navy forces to the region.

Later at a speech to the Asia Society, Locklear said the situation in the South China Sea was not at a crisis point because China’s lightly armed patrol ships are involved and not warships.

He also played down tensions between Japan and China over the Senkakus saying both countries have kept the dispute at “the coast guard level,” the Nelson Report stated.

Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the administration’s neutrality policy is undermining U.S. interests in the region.

“A broad policy of neutrality toward maritime disputes in the Pacific has ill-served American interests,” Fisher said. “This approach helped to convince China that there was enough of a ‘power vacuum’ in Southeast Asia in the 1990s that it could get away with encroaching on Philippine territory by occupying Mischief Reef.”

Since 2010 the administration has shifted slightly against China’s territorial claims but “it should have been U.S. policy long ago to criticize specific Chinese actions viewed as threatening,” Fisher said. “If it had done so beginning in the late 1980s, the United States could today be tending a chorus of complaints by other countries that may have by now helped to constrain China’s aggressive moves.”

Former State Department China affairs specialist John Tkacik said Locklear was following the State Department’s lead in voicing a dangerous ambivalence that misrepresents U.S. interests.

Locklear instead should state U.S assurances that his command will support ally Japan under the mutual defense pact. “It’s disheartening that the Obama administration cannot bring itself to make that clear, and instead dances around the issue,” he said.

The U.S. ambivalence on the disputes signaled to Beijing Washington’s lack commitment toward Japan. Southeast Asian states share similar anxieties, Tkacik said.

The tensions in the South China Sea are more dangerous because China’s claims far exceed customary international law. “There simply is no basis, no basis whatever, in international law for China’s maritime claims,” Tkacik said.

“America’s real interest in the South China Sea is not ‘staying out of territorial disputes,’ but ensuring that they never restrict freedom of navigation, either commercial or naval,” he said.

The administration does not need to take sides but “must firmly declare that maritime claims must be grounded in international law, and that the U.S. will never recognise outlandish claims, specifically Beijing’s outlandish claims.”

“When senior U.S. officials don’t challenge the legitimacy of China’s maritime claims, or profess not to take sides, they set a dangerous precedent for China to enforce those claims,” Tkacik said. “And sooner or later, when the shooting starts, Beijing will justify it by saying, ‘but you Americans said you didn’t care about these waters.’”

Locklear said Pacific Command is moving forward with the military aspects of the administration’s new strategy called the “pivot” to Asia.

“For me, the rebalance has been and it continues to be about strengthening relationships, adjusting our military posture and presence, employing new concepts, capabilities and capacities to ensure that we continue to effectively and efficiently contribute to the stability and security of the Asia-Pacific as we protect U.S. national interests,” he said.

The key to the initiative’s success will be new access agreements in the region, a major increase in joint military exercises, new plans to increase temporary force deployments, and “efficient force posture initiatives that will maximize the dollars that were given to spend.”

Without providing details, Locklear said the pivot also would include putting the U.S. military’s most capable forces in the region.

Echoing other administration officials who have sought to avoid upsetting China in speaking publicly about the shift to the Pacific, Locklear said the rebalancing of forces is based on “a strategy of collaboration and cooperation, not containment.”

Chinese government and military spokesmen, however, have said in state-run media reports that the new U.S. military posture in Asia is aimed at containing China’s growing military power.

Locklear declined to specify which advanced U.S. military capabilities are being shifted to the Asia-Pacific. But he said “we’re rapidly moving our most capable assets into the region because of some of the ballistic missile defense threats we face and those types of things.”

On North Korea’s pending missile launch, Locklear took issue with Pyongyang’s claim that the launch, expected as early as Dec. 10, would involve a “peaceful” satellite launch.

He urged North Korea not to violate United Nations Security Council resolutions prohibiting destabilizing missile launches and other military activities by the communist regime in Pyongyang.

“We believe [a coming missile launch] is still contradictory to the U.N. Security Council resolutions because of the nature of the type of missile that they’ll be firing and the implications it has for ballistic missile type of activity somewhere down the road and the destabilizing impact that will have on the security environment throughout the region, not just on the peninsula,” Locklear said.

Asked if the military is moving missile defense assets to possibly shoot down the North Korean missile, Locklear declined to discuss specific steps.

“But we do watch this very carefully, watch it very closely,” he said. “Of course, in my role as the PACOM commander, my number one priority is to ensure that we have properly reassured our allies and that we have properly defended our own homeland and we will position our assets necessary to do that.”

On China’s recent deployment of its first aircraft carrier, Locklear said that it is part of China’s efforts to address its “global security interests.”

However, if China is not a constructive player in the international system, the carrier development may not be positive, he said.

“If the issue is that they’re not part of that global security environment, then I think we have to be concerned about them” building carriers, Locklear said.

Asked about moving missile defense ships into waters near North Korea, Locklear said, “We move ships around the region all the time.”

“And in this case, you know, it should seem logical that we’ll move them around so we have the best situational awareness that we have,” he said. “And to the degree that those ships are capable of participating in ballistic missile defense, then we’ll position them to be able to do that.”