You might think a global pandemic and the worst crisis since World War Two would lead to a welcome, if temporary tamping down of military activity in already tense and contested environments. Yet even as the novel coronavirus ravages the world, old fashioned geopolitical jousting continues in Asia, reminding us that the passing phase of COVID-19 will simply return much of the world to the status quo ante of great power competition.
In a strange way, the ongoing military activities and geopolitical jockeying of China and the United States in Asia’s vital waterways is almost comforting. If the terrifying uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic shatters old illusions about security and the future, the sight of US Navy ships plying strategic waters and Chinese military exercises is at least something understandable to which we have become accustomed.
No one should welcome or discount, however, the seriousness of the geopolitical game being played out in Asia. It long predates US-China coronavirus tensions and will long outlast them. Indeed, a new era of suspicion and distrust between Washington and Beijing engendered by the corona crisis could have spill-over effects in the seas and skies of East Asia, leading to miscalculation or accident that could add an armed conflict to an unprecedented public health emergency.
While the pandemic has not halted the military activities of either China or America, neither has it seemed to accelerate them. For the most part, both militaries are behaving as they did before the crisis, maintaining a slowly simmering competition for influence, access, and partners.
That the jousting is not worse does not mean in any way that it has become better. As it has been for over a decade, Beijing is pursuing a zero-sum game to become the dominant power in the ‘Asiatic Mediterranean’ of the Yellow, South, and East China Seas. In response, the US Indo-Pacific Command hews to its long-standing strategy of forward-based presence, asserting freedom of the seas and skies, and building a community of maritime interests.
Only few years ago, Asia watchers were riveted on the great power machinations in the South China Sea. As one of the world’s most vital waterways, through which there flowed up to 70 percent of pre-coronavirus global trade, it serves as the crucial hinge between the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific, effectively centering both European and American trade on Asia. Moreover, the South China Sea is riven with territorial disputes over its various island chains, primarily the Spratlys, near the Philippines, and the Paracels, closer to mainland China.
Multiple nations claim sovereignty over some or all of the islands in those chains, and many have attempted to bolster their position by building military outposts or airstrips on the small dots of land. None, however, have gone so far as China, which dredged up the sea floor to make large man-made islands which it then militarized with airfields, radars, anti-ship, and anti-aircraft weaponry, piers and barracks. During the mid-2010s, the Chinese military built over 3,000 acres of new land, far outstripping the holdings of any other claimant nation in the region.
Despite pledging directly to Barack Obama never to install weaponry on its islands, CCP general secretary Xi Jinping proceeded to do just that, attempting to enhance China’s claims to the entire South China Sea. When the Obama administration feebly protested Beijing’s actions, and ineffectively called for a halt to land-reclamation activities, official Chinese newspapers darkly warned of war and Chinese ships and planes harassed nearby US forces.
Meanwhile in the East China Sea, Chinese fishing boats and maritime patrol vessels have maintained relentless pressure on the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing also claims. In 2019, Chinese government vessels made over 1,000 incursions into waters around the Senkakus, an increase of 80 percent from the previous year.
Although there has not been a major uptick in Chinese military activities since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, Beijing nonetheless continues to remind the region of its power and that its geopolitical goals have not changed. In recent weeks, Chinese military planes have flown near Taiwan’s airspace, continuing a pattern of aerial intimidation that has picked up pace in the past several years, including crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait that separates that democratic island from the mainland.
In addition, the Chinese military held joint exercises with Cambodia, long a pro-Beijing voice, aimed undoubtedly at Vietnam, which has chafed at China’s growing military presence in Southeast Asia. As a sign that the PLA continues to modernize its military, state news agencies reported on aircraft carrier training exercises and an anti-submarine warfare drill, capabilities well beyond those of any other Asian nation, except Japan and India.
Beijing also continues to employ non-official forces to increase its presence and press its policies. The use of fishing fleets to invade contested waters or directly into sovereign waters has been a favored tactic over the past decade. These supposedly private boats are then often supported by Chinese armed maritime patrol vessels, facing off against much smaller regional coast guards and navies. In the Spratlys, just such a flotilla has been harassing the Philippines coast guard in recent weeks, and has stayed in place, not sailing away even at the height of the crisis.
The goal of Beijing’s maritime incursions is to make capitals throughout the region accept the permanent presence of Chinese boats and naval forces. In the case of the Philippines, Beijing has been eyeing the Scarborough Shoal, which it has essentially controlled since 2012, as its next base. This would directly threaten the Philippines and give China a powerful strategic position in the eastern South China Sea.
US policy versus Chinese strategy
The Obama administration found itself outmaneuvered as Beijing dramatically increased its presence and capabilities in the Asiatic Mediterranean. Futile protests against island building only encouraged the Chinese power-play, as did US hesitancy to commit to so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ operations (FONOPs) to assert the right of the United States to sail or fly in international waters and skies. By the end of the Obama administration, irresolution and the lack of willingness to challenge the Chinese led to a shift in the balance of power in the region. All this despite the ‘rebalance’ to Asia that formed the centerpiece of the Obama Asia strategy.
Donald Trump inherited a disadvantageous position in Asia, one which had dramatically deteriorated thanks both to America’s consuming focus on the Middle East after 9/11 and Obama’s rhetorically impressive but materially underwhelming policy. The new president came to office having vowed to end business as usual with Beijing. While Trump’s trade war with China attracted the lion’s share of attention, the military began flexing its muscles more, including conducting FONOPs near Chinese claimed territory on a nearly monthly basis. It was, in fact, a FONOP through the Taiwan Strait by the US Navy last month that Beijing claims spurred its current flurry of activity in the region.
The difference, of course, is that the United States does not claim any territory in the waters of eastern Asia. Instead, its goal is to prevent the rise of any hegemon that can dominate the ‘commons’ of the region’s waters and skies or which can unilaterally impose its policies on smaller nations. Indeed, since mid-19th century, when American diplomats first reached the Asia of the Ch’ing Dynasty and the Tokugawa shoguns, Washington’s goal has been to try and ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Whether through the largely rhetorical Open Door Notes or via its sustained forward presence since 1945, Washington has attempted largely to act as a good faith broker. Its own colonial adventures in the Philippines, at the turn of the 20th century and its war in Vietnam only proved the exceptions to the rule.
Beijing, on the other hand, has openly talked about its historic claims to territory in the Asiatic Mediterranean, combining such fictive justifications with hard-nosed policies such as the ‘first’ and ‘second’ island-chain strategies for ensuring Chinese military dominance of crucial waterways. While Washington primarily thinks in terms of norms and rules for regional (and international) behavior, Beijing focuses on old-fashioned geostrategy, seeking to alter the geopolitical conditions that affect the region. Island building in the South China Sea is one geostrategy, designed to extend Chinese control over critical sea lanes of communication, access to resources, and the like. Another geopolitical element in the strategy is the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative which, while largely land-based, is also comprised of an important maritime component, what some call the ‘maritime Silk Road’. This is an attempt to center Indian Ocean and southern Asian maritime trading routes on China, to some degree replicating centuries-old oceanic trading networks. Beijing has assiduously used OBOR development aid to increase its maritime access throughout the region, avoiding American-style demands that recipient nations improve their governance or human rights records.
In Sri Lanka, a Chinese state-owned enterprise recently took over managing the well-located Hambantota port, after the Sri Lankan government was unable to repay its Chinese loans. Ownership or access to ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Oman, Djibouti, Kenya and Tanzania allow for PLA Navy ships to maintain a constant presence along some of the globe’s most vital trading route. In Djibouti, Beijing has invested heavily and built a base near US Navy facilities. It has also laid a crucial undersea communications cable, giving Chinese companies a dominant position in Africa’s growing telecommunications network.
For Washington, with its largely unchanging policy of trying to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region, competing against Beijing’s carefully thought out strategy is a constant game of catch-up. Easy cash, military aid, surveillance tools and the like all are welcomed by governments throughout the region, making loftier goals like transparency, liberalism, and civil rights seem less important, if not fanciful.
The CCP’s global COVID propaganda campaign may make it even harder for the US to compete. Washington can better work with its liberal allies and partners, including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, both to battle the coronavirus and to counter Beijing’s disinformation campaigns. The US is investing more in the Indo-Pacific, through such vehicles as Sen. Cory Gardner’s 2018 ‘Asia Reassurance Initiative Act’, to help spread liberal values but also build up the capacities of partner states and others to defend themselves against Chinese pressure.
The hard power competition between the US and Chinese militaries, however, is fated to continue, pandemic or no, for as long as the future of the Indo-Pacific hangs in the balance. Not shrinking from the goal of trying to nurture the conditions that ensure stability in Asia remains the irreducible element underpinning America’s role in the world’s most vital region.
Michael Auslin is a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics.