President Obama’s recent trip to Asia has set off a series of military and defense policy shifts that have raised temperatures in East Asia. Recent regional events have escalated from relatively inconsequential – such as the Chinese claim to a sphere of influence within the first island chain in the South China Sea – to major diplomatic sparring between China and the United States over trade relations and currency inflation.
The China-Japan boat incident, which led to Chinese citizens calling for war with Tokyo, further aggravated regional tensions. If an observer looks at these as isolated events, they would seem relatively minor, but seen within a sphere of increased American focus on the region, their relevance becomes far more apparent. Relations between the United States and China are growing tenser by the week, and other states with Asian interests are hedging bets on the two hegemons that might soon butt diplomatic heads.
The four stops on Obama’s diplomatic junket, from India to Indonesia, then on to South Korea and Japan, are clear signs that Obama was not simply making courtesy calls on his way to and from the G20 summit in Seoul last Thursday. India and Japan have significant disputes with China, and are sure bets to be U.S. allies in any potential conflict with the Middle Kingdom. Despite Chinese claims to the contrary, Obama’s announcement that the United States will support India’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council will almost certainly force Beijing to take a second look at India’s political and strategic ascent.
Also of note is a new arms deal in the works between New Delhi and Washington: The Indian air force has submitted a formal request to purchase 16 C-17A heavy air transportation planes, a deal worth between four and five billion dollars. These new aircraft would significantly advance the Indian military transport capabilities, especially in rough terrain, such as that on the border with China. While it is true that the aircraft could be used for operations in Kashmir and on the rest of the Pakistani border, it is significant that this deal is made, as tensions with China are more visible than ever.
Indonesia, however, is the true variable on the American side of the East Asia equation. Several months ago, the Pentagon announced that intermilitary training exercises would be held with the Indonesian army for the first time in years, a significant detente in a diplomatic relationship that has been marred by Indonesian human rights violations. A strategic partnership between the United States and Indonesia could stymie any Chinese attempts to expand beyond the first island chain. Other minor details are constantly changing the shape of the East Asian strategic landscape. Just last Friday, South Korea and Japan announced a plan to share sensitive information on North Korean missile and nuclear capabilities.
China, too, is making significant moves to solidify its strategic position. A plan was recently announced with Russia to share parts for air defense, naval and aviation equipment. This is yet another significant development in policy between Beijing and Moscow, who have increasingly improved relations since the fall of the Soviet Union.
All of this is proof that a line is quietly being drawn in Asia between those who fear the rise of China and those trying to force foreign interests (like the United States) out of the region.
It is highly unlikely that any major developments will come of these strategic shifts in the short term. Rather, it is the posturing itself that has likely sent strategic planners in Beijing and Washington on a frenzy of recalculation. Developments in international politics are slow, but each incremental move is relevant in the long term as the United States creates new alliances in East Asia. The geopolitical dynamic is changing. Old Cold War enemies are coming to realize that coordinated defense planning will preserve their own security. Meanwhile, other alliances are beginning to fade, such as that between the United States and Taiwan, as China builds significant ties with its “breakaway province.” China is booming, and the geopolitical waltz the United States is dancing in order to counter it could make all the difference in coming months.
Andrew Mullikin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at mullikinthehoya.com. BEHIND THE WIRE appears every other Tuesday.