Security Strategies in the Asia-Pacific: The United States Second Front in Southeast Asia

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For example, the apparent strengthening of conservatives and China-leaning leaders at the expense of more clearly pro-US liberal-leaning leaders resulting from the Party Congress in January might be read as a means to appease conservatives in light of recent easing of relations towards the US and support for the TPP. Such deep-seated constraints will also prevail in Myanmar, the other country in this group that has significantly changed its prospects for strategic positioning between the United States and China. Apart from high-level leadership visits, Washington lifted most sanctions and removed obstacles to international financial institutional funding for Myanmar, signed a bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, and started limited military exchanges and cooperation.

In substantive terms, the new US Myanmar policy is focused on promoting democratic governance and national reconciliation, and is likely to remain so as the country continues to struggle with democratisation and a national ceasefire with rebel ethnic groups. While Myanmar has bought significant new room for manoeuvre between China and the United States, and while the new National League for Democracy government might be regarded as more pro-western than its predecessor, it is very unlikely to move towards outright alignment with Washington.

Ebook Security Strategies In The Asia Pacific The United States Second Front In Southeast Asia

Faced with the myriad urgent tasks of national stabilisation, the stark reality is that Naypyidaw cannot afford to alienate its neighbours. Not only does China remain a contiguous neighbour, Naypyidaw requires Chinese and to a lesser extent, Indian cooperation to manage and resolve the violent ethnic conflicts at the border. Above all, Myanmar leaders — whether military or civilian — are focused on political consolidation and national development.

O ver the past decade Southeast Asia as a whole has exhibited four trends in strategies towards the United States and China. First, more pronounced differences have emerged within the two groups at the extremes of the spectrum, the US allies and the China-constrained states. The Southeast Asia case bears out the expectation that hedging is the preferred optimum strategy for non-great power states. Over the last ten years, hedging has come to prevail even more than before in Southeast Asia because two key transitional states — Vietnam and Myanmar — have managed to create such opportunities.

As these two cases show, this ability is in turn vitally affected by successful processes of internal strengthening and national consolidation, regardless of the prevailing regime ideology. Qualitatively, hedging behaviour has deepened in the sub-region. Despite the post trend of tilting towards the United States, the broadening modal group of hedgers — notably including Indonesia — has kept their doors open to good relations with, and even future relative tilts back towards, China.

Even as they have emphasised short-term deterrence by supporting the US rebalance directly and via security ties with US allies, the hedgers are still trying to tackle the longer-term question of how to persuade China to be a peaceful and rule-bound great power. In the coming years, these states can also be expected to engage in more diffused hedging policies, such as by cultivating security relations with India and other major powers. Nevertheless, there is no wholesale Southeast Asian turn towards zero-sum alignment with Washington. Even the two Southeast Asian US allies have not proved to be enthusiastic about sustaining exclusive alignment.

After the Cold War, the vagaries of domestic politics have caused Manila to blow hot and cold on the alliance, and despite the strong pro-alliance stance of the current Benigno Aquino government, the May presidential elections may result in a new government with a different balance of attitudes towards the two great powers.

Thailand has tended to wear its US alliance lightly when it comes to China, and the constraints faced by the current military regime will only facilitate its straddling of the boundary between alignment and hedging. Hedging is also a fundamentally dynamic strategy. In the short term, hedgers may seem like they are leaning more one way; however, they will continue to preserve viable strategic options in the other direction. Overall, hedgers undertake constant adjustment to try to achieve the overall effect of equidistance between two competing great powers.

The challenge for policymakers from both China and the United States seeking security partners in Southeast Asia is to understand the motivations for, and thus limitations on, what their existing and potential partners are willing to do. By many measures, China has already completed a regional power transition, with regional distribution of capabilities and wealth changing rapidly over the past generation.

The regime continues to be guided by the central tenet that maintaining a peaceful and stable external security environment is essential for continued domestic growth and development.

The Fight for Geopolitical Supremacy in the Asia Pacific

Other times, its actions reflect conflicted policies at odds with regional concerns and interests of sovereignty, independence, and stability — all of which suggest the actual implementation of Chinese strategic vision remains in flux and inconsistent. In Southeast Asia, there are at least three overarching developments of such policy implementation: demonstrating resolve in the SCS, advancing regional influence through economic integration, and delimiting US influence and standing in Asia.

The rationale for such activism in the SCS seems to contradict the aforementioned vision of Chinese foreign policy, namely to maintain a stable, external environment while focusing on domestic priorities and reform.

The United States’ “Second Front” in Southeast Asia

The SCS, however, touches on a particularly sensitive issue for the Chinese leadership: territorial integrity. Even as China has sought to maintain a constructive relationship with Southeast Asia, it has maintained a less flexible line toward making concessions on issues pertaining to sovereignty claims. Most notably, China and the Philippines engaged in a tense stand off in , when a Philippine Navy surveillance plane detected Chinese fishing vessels in the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Reef engaging in illegal fishing and poaching of protected corals, endangered clams, and sharks.

Officials in the Philippines quickly deployed its naval vessels to arrest and detain the Chinese fishermen. The Chinese Government then quickly responded with coast guard and maritime ships to prevent the Philippine authorities from detaining the Chinese fishermen, spurring a tense ten-week stand-off between the two sides.

Asia Pacific Security and Regional Integration

Chinese maritime vessels cast a wide rope barrier at the mouth of the reef, trapping some Filipino fishermen in the area and then prevented their re-entry once they were permitted to exit. Subsequently, the United States helped broker the dispute. The Philippines withdrew its naval forces from the Scarborough Shoal, but Chinese maritime vessels maintained their positions which effectively ceded the reefs to Chinese patrol and control. Vietnam promptly protested the oil rig deployment and confronted the protecting armada with coast guard and fishing fleets, frogmen deploying nets and other obstacles.

A Vietnamese foreign ministry briefing in June reported that 19 official Vietnamese vessels were damaged by Chinese ramming and water cannon attacks, injuring 12 Vietnamese officers.


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Vietnamese media in late May also highlighted the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat after being rammed by a Chinese government ship. On the other side, the Chinese Government claimed that as many as 63 Vietnamese vessels confronted the rig and protecting Chinese boats, ramming Chinese government ships times since the deployment of its oil rig. At the same time, it is important to recognise that since , the conflict remains of low-level intensity without incurring any battle-related deaths.

It is also interesting to observe that civilian assets, such as commercial fishing boats and coast guard vessels, appear to be the preferred mode of engagement when clashes do occur between China and its neighbours in these territorial disputes. Between , the combined Chinese investment flows including Hong Kong to the Southeast Asian bloc averaged Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang visited all ten ASEAN countries in their first year in office, in the hopes of building stronger regional ties, increasing regional competitiveness and deepening economic growth.

The newly-proposed maritime silk road, for instance, would link economies spanning across South Asia, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, with China as the hub. Moreover, Chinese officials have encountered renewed skepticism in using promised advances in Chinese trade and investment initiatives to divert Southeast Asian attention away from problems caused by their actual implementation, as well as by Chinese activities over the SCS. Chinese infrastructure projects in Indonesia, for instance, have a follow-through rate of just seven per cent of pledged investments, compared with 62 per cent for Japan.

Furthermore, Chinese economic largesse may not have brought the level of influence that Beijing has long sought in the region, resulting in the Chinese leadership to shift toward tactical moderation in its actions and rhetoric to ease tensions and manage differences. It also appears that Chinese officials believe that its growing material power capabilities will in due course convince and persuade its neighbours that there is more to gain from working and aligning with Chinese interests than from deterring and challenging them, all with the added benefits of preventing the formation of a containment coalition against China on its periphery.

As has been seen by the response of countries to the founding of the AIIB, many countries are even ignoring direct pressure from the United States and actively joining the China-sponsored bank. One, largely centred in the United States, sees these institutions as obviously more transparent, careful, and reliable.

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The other view, largely centred in Asia, sees these institutions as promoting American power and pushing a particularly ideological perspective. The United States was perceived to be disconnected and aloof. China has gradually emerged as a regional great power, and it has been eager to offer policy alternatives in its peripheral diplomacy.

Indonesia and Vietnam, two key emerging security partners in Southeast Asia for the United States, illustrate how the region is managing this unfolding dilemma. Indonesia has maintained a general preference for no single dominant, external power in Southeast Asia. In the SCS, for instance, Indonesia has remained largely reticent on the territorial dispute with China, and by implication avoided taking a more active role in leading ASEAN on the issue.

However, in , Indonesian leaders have begun to voice their concerns about regional tensions in the SCS and their implications for Indonesian security and sovereignty. Instead, it strives to carve out its own niche diplomacy and activism in regional and international affairs.

Rather than siding exclusively with the United States or China, Indonesia envisions it would be a strategic opportunity for regional littoral states to increase access to all of the major power markets, all the while benefiting from military assistance, reassurances, and training from any combination of these powers. Vietnam is another interesting case in point. It sits next to an economic giant and has had close albeit complicated ties with China.

Post-9/11 Policy in East and Southeast Asia - SMU

On the security front, Xi also proposed that the two sides increase training and cooperation on UN peacekeeping operations, border control, and countering illicit trafficking in drugs and people. In a minute speech before nearly members of the Vietnamese National Assembly, Xi acknowledged that there have been notable differences on certain issues, but that the two sides can weather such disruptions. The state visit was billed to put bilateral relations back on track.

However, human rights and lingering suspicion over the wartime legacy remain persistent challenges to any further deepening of bilateral ties. In other words, Vietnamese leaders understand that any future engagement with Beijing and Washington will be shaped by elements of both cooperation and contention. Given the delicate balance in its foreign policy approach, Vietnam has been cautious about developing over-reliance on any major power on the security front. This is evident with its Cam Ranh Bay port facilities.

With US concern about Chinese naval activity increasing, so did its interest in making use of Vietnamese ports. It appears that Vietnam has declined US interest to secure basing rights, storage or even logistical arrangements at Cam Ranh Bay. Instead, Vietnam has identified economic ties as the most substantial area of common interest for Hanoi and Washington. Among other implications, the prospect of the TPP is encouraging Chinese foreign direct investment FDI to Vietnam in the textiles and clothing industries and reducing its trade imbalance with China.

In sum, since , Xi Jinping has shown an ability to move Chinese foreign policy in bolder and more active ways than his immediate predecessors. In particular, his vision for a rejuvenated nation — the Chinese dream — is both reflective and aspirational. S outheast Asia is an area of increasing strategic importance to American interests and in many ways is becoming an arena of strategic competition between the United States and China.