Last month Asia defense analysts Nicholas Borroz and Hunter Marston argued in an op-ed in the New York Times that Washington's excessive “focus on militarization” is “a recipe for conflict” with China in the Asia-Pacific. This provocative piece—in effect questioning a key component of the U.S. strategic rebalance, or “pivot” to Asia policy—arrives at an important time in the United States, with the presidential election only days away and every U.S. policy position seemingly up for debate and reevaluation. While their commentary headlined “Washington Should Stop Militarizing the Pacific” is timely, the reality is that the U.S. alliance structure they critique has provided regional peace and economic prosperity since the end of World War II. Until Beijing's rising confidence caused it to challenge Washington's position in the region, the system had existed virtually unchanged.
In 2009, China submitted its so-called “Nine-Dash Line” sovereignty claim (PDF) over large swaths of the disputed South China Sea to the United Nations. The United States responded with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 2010 statement on the importance of freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law. Since 2010, Beijing has ignored U.S. and international calls to resolve disputes peacefully, prompting the Obama administration in 2011 to announce the strategic rebalance policy and, as part of it, to strengthen Washington's military posture in Asia. Again, this only occurred in response to Chinese actions.
Unfortunately, China has consistently demonstrated that it has no plans to reverse or modify its behavior in the South China Sea. Beijing's rhetoric toward neighboring countries has been particularly aggressive and threatening. For example, during the most recent meeting last month of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) nations, Beijing—through its state-run newspaper Global Times—reprimanded Singapore for allegedly attempting to endorse the Permanent Court of Arbitration's July ruling against China's South China Sea claims in the NAM Summit Final Document. The editor pointedly responded to the Singaporean ambassador's disagreement with the Global Times article by stating that “most ASEAN countries deal with the sensitive South China Sea ruling in a balanced way” and “I think Singapore should feel ashamed when you tried to trip up China, your largest trading partner.”
Singapore is a non-claimant in the South China Sea and had successfully maintained a low profile until now. Claimants, however, routinely endure threats and criticism from Beijing. For instance, a source connected with the Chinese military recently said of Vietnam—China's most formidable neighboring claimant—that “we should go in and give them a bloody nose like Deng Xiaoping did to Vietnam in 1979.” Beijing has also consistently denigrated Manila's decision to turn to the Permanent Court of Arbitration to settle its disputes, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last month referring to the recent U.N. ruling as being “null and void.” (New Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte recently said he would walk away from the ruling in favor of better ties with China).
Borroz and Marston also quickly dismiss Chinese land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea instead of more critically interpreting these activities as unilateral and threatening actions against not only neighboring countries, but also Washington's future ability to conduct military operations in the region. According to the respected Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, since 2013 China has created 3,200 new acres of land out of islets and reefs in the South China Sea. It has also built three runways to project Chinese air power, to include use by both fighter and bomber aircraft, in the Spratly Islands and has added radar facilities as well as the HQ-9 air defense system to its Woody Island outpost in the Paracel Islands. China also now conducts routine maritime “sovereignty” air and sea patrols throughout the region. Beijing has also demonstrated a penchant for aggressive behavior with its neighbors. Chinese fishing ships regularly try to intimidate those of other claimants. If China is left unchecked, regional allies and partners believe (PDF) they would have to fend for themselves—a prospect they worry about and have conveyed privately to U.S. interlocutors.…The remainder of this commentary is available at nationalinterest.org.
Derek Grossman is a senior project associate at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He formerly served at the Defense Intelligence Agency as the daily intelligence briefer to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Pentagon.
This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on November 2, 2016. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.