People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 47

November 24, 2013



On the US’s Asia Pacific Strategy


Yohannan Chemarapally


THE US has once again reverted to the Asia Pacific region as the focal area in its efforts to assert “full spectrum dominance” and arrest the growing influence of a rising China. It should be remembered that the US has fought two wars in the region since 1950 --- first in the Korean peninsula and later in Indochina. Before that the US army had fought in the Philippines, first against the Spanish colonial rulers and then against the Filipino nationalist forces. The US did of course play a leading role in ousting the Japanese imperial forces from the region during World War II. But now America’s principal ally in its efforts to retain dominance of the region is its former adversary, Japan. The efforts have now received a fillip under an openly militaristic government that has come to power in Japan. Washington deploys more than 3,20,000 military personnel in the region, including 60 percent of its navy in the Asia Pacific region.




Thomas Donillon, till recently holding the post of national security adviser to the US president, told the Asia Society earlier in the year that the first pillar of the administration’s Asia Pacific strategy is to “continue to strengthen our alliances.” He emphasised that the alliance with Japan “remains the cornerstone of regional security and prosperity” and that “there is scarcely a regional or global challenge in the president’s second term agenda where the US does not look to Japan to play an important role.” The recently retired national security adviser had explained that America’s vision of a “global alliance” included the revitalisation of its relations with Thailand, Philippines and Australia. He pointed out that President Obama began his second term in office by stating that the US-India ties are “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”  India has so far refused to be drawn into a full scale military embrace of the US, like Japan and recently the Philippines have chosen to do.


Washington and Tokyo are already bound by a military treaty which, according to a former Japanese prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, converted the country into an “unsinkable aircraft carrier for the United States.” The already wide ranging military ties have now been further strengthened by an agreement signed in the first week of October that will allow the Americans to position their  RQ4 Global Hawks drones, along with naval reconnaissance planes, on Japanese soil. The high-flying drones, which will be beyond the reach of anti-aircraft missiles, will be able to monitor the area where the Japanese and Chinese navies have been doing aggressive patrolling. The American secretaries of state and defence were recently in Tokyo to hold “2+2” talks with their Japanese counterparts. The US has also announced that it would be stationing its new generation combat aircraft in Japan. The other military deployments announced after the “2+2” meeting in Tokyo include the stationing of X-band early warning radar in Kyoto, as part of the joint anti-ballistic missile systems. Two squadrons of MV-22 Osprey vertical take-off transport planes will be delivered to the Japanese military. This will help the rapid deployment of troops in conflict zones. The Pentagon has also announced plans to deploy F-35B vertical take off Stealth Fighters by 2017 in Japan. This is meant to enhance America’s Air-Sea Battle Strategy in the Asia Pacific. According to American officials, the agreements signal America’s strong support to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hard-line diplomatic and military posturing towards China and recognition of Japan’s “greater responsibilities in the Asia Pacific region.” American commentators have said that the new drone base is yet another move by the US to militarily contain China.




The US has also supported the Japanese government’s decision to strengthen the military, change its pacifist constitution and build security alliances with countries like Vietnam, Philippines and India. Washington has already strengthened defence and strategic links with almost all of China’s Asian neighbours including India. All these countries have had chequered relations with Beijing. John Reed, an American security analyst writing in the Foreign Policy magazine, pointed out that the latest development comes just a few months after a top US Air Force general in the Pacific revealed that American fighters, bombers and tankers are constantly deployed in a string of bases in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These sites will not be permanently occupied by US forces but will be regularly hosting US military units. “These temporary American bases range from Tinian to Saipan to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, India and possibly to sites in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. American jets permanently stationed at dozens of US bases in the Pacific --- as well as bases in the US --- will rotate in and out of these airfields under a concept that harkens back to the Cold War,” Reed explained. The largest number of military exercises India holds every year is with the American armed forces.


Speaking in Tokyo, US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said that America’s commitment to the security of Japan “is critical to our overall relationship and to the Obama administration’s rebalance to the East.” President Barack Obama had announced with much fanfare that the US military forces were “pivoting to the East” last year. The US, however, has found it very difficult to extricate itself from the quagmire it has helped to create in West Asia but it is continuing to increase its already substantial troop presence in the Asia Pacific region. The US has announced that it would station an additional 2,500 marines in Australia last year.


China and Japan are locked in an acrimonious dispute over a group of small islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The US had a role in allowing the dispute to fester for long. The Japanese had first seized the islands during the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. After World War II, two international treaties recognised Chinese sovereignty over the islands, but the US chose to hand over the islands to Japan. Beijing and Tokyo had then agreed to put the issue on the backburner and eventually come to a negotiated settlement. But last year Japan suddenly upped the ante by allowing a group of right wing nationalists to purchase the islands.


China views the islands as part of its defence parameter and considers the US/Japanese manoeuvres as part of the overall strategy to isolate it militarily. There are fears that the occasional face-offs between the navies of the two countries, which have occurred since last year, could escalate into a military confrontation. And the US is bound by treaty to come to the aid of its military ally if there is an open war between the two countries.




The US also has a similar treaty with the Philippines. The right wing government in Japan has also said that it would extend military help to the Southeast Asian nations to preserve their territorial integrity. During a recent visit to the Manila, Prime Minister Abe described the Philippines as a “strategic partner” and said that Tokyo would provide “capacity building to the Philippine Coast Guard” by supplying 10 patrol ships.


Some ASEAN member countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia are also locked in maritime territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. China wants to negotiate separately with the countries involved in the dispute. The Obama administration said that it wanted to mediate in the dispute but is at the same time actively encouraging Vietnam and the Philippines to take a tough negotiating position. China has reacted by stepping up its maritime patrols and preventing hydrocarbon explorations by the other claimants to the disputed Paracels and Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. China had objected to a joint India-Vietnam venture exploring for gas near the Paracels. The new leadership which has taken over in China seems to be more flexible in its approach to the South China Sea dispute. At the just concluded ASEAN summit in Bali, China agreed to talk to the regional grouping on framing a joint code of conduct in the South China Sea. The Chinese prime minster, Li Keqiang, told the East Asian summit in the second week of October that countries that are not party to the dispute should not get involved and stressed that “freedom of navigation in the South China Sea has never been an issue and never will be one.”


In the first week of October, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman warned Washington and its two main allies in the region, Japan and Australia, against intervening in the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. During a trilateral dialogue held in Bali, the US secretary of state along with the Japanese and Australian foreign ministers issued a statement opposing “coercive or unilateral actions” that could change the status quo in the East China Sea. The joint statement also called on all countries involved in the territorial dispute in the South China Sea “to refrain from destabilising actions.”


However, some close military allies of the US like South Korea want relations with Beijing to be on an even keel. South Korea, at this juncture, is not even amenable to stage joint military exercises with Japan after the return to power of Abe and the LDP. The refusal of Abe and many of his senior colleagues to acknowledge war crimes committed by the Japanese army when Korea was their colony and later on during the Second World War, has angered Seoul and fuelled the anti-Japanese public sentiment. The two countries also have a maritime territorial dispute of their own to boot. South Korea at the moment is enjoying very good relations with China.


The US and Japan have jointly announced that they would be “ready to deal with coercive and destabilising behaviour” in the region. China was not named in the statement but the US defence secretary reiterated in Tokyo that the disputed islands are covered by the US-Japan security treaty. The secretary of state, John Kerry, said in Tokyo that Washington recognised Japan’s administrative control over the disputed islands, and that the US was “very clear about our interests and those things that we think represent lines that we think should not be crossed.” Kerry was of course careful not to use the word “red lines,” after the Obama administration was being tripped on Syria. And China is not Syria.