The first quarter of 2019 marked a broad assertive pushback against China from the United States (US). In the meantime, China avoided further escalating conflict and emphasized fidelity to its ongoing initiatives such as its military modernization and the Belt and Road initiative.
Regional Defense Engagements
Last year’s optimism for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue- a strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia initially thought by many to form a geopolitical China containment diamond- has not been trailed by concrete action during the first quarter of 2019. India remains reticent toward further moves to operationalize and/or militarize the Quad. After not inviting Australia in the 2018 Malabar exercises (attended by other Quad members) to assuage China, India’s navy chief Admiral Lanba told the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command last January that there was no immediate potential for the Quad.
Critically, Southeast Asian countries remain divided on whether an explicit China-containment security arrangement will serve as a deterrent or a catalyst for further Chinese militarism. In the absence of progress on Quad multilateral cooperation, countries have scrambled to beef up their own defense capabilities.
The United States’ proposed 2020 budget underscored “lethality” of high-tech weapons systems, with inroads into orbital/space weapons and cyber security (more below) in a bid explicitly addressing China’s advantage in artificial intelligence and 5G network systems.
Military exercises across the Asia-Pacific have also intensified. In January, British and American navies conducted their first joint military exercises in the South China Sea since China built military bases in the area. Meanwhile, the annual Thailand-based Cobra Gold in February, one of the largest multinational military exercises in the world, gathered 27 participating countries including China, US, South Korea, and Japan, and highlighted maritime and cyber security.
Australia’s series of bilateral military exercises called the Indo-Pacific Endeavor 2019 (IPE19) kickstarted in Sri Lanka last March. Despite the lack of engagement in the Quad at a minilateral level, India-Australia bilateral relations are deepening with the India leg of IPE19 in April, which was the largest between India and Australia so far. It focused on Anti-Submarine Warfare in a move interpreted as a bilateral response to increased Chinese submarine activity in Indo-Pacific waters. Furthermore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand shall also participate in the IPE19 as Australia ups the ante in Southeast Asia.
Following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement that China will not disavow the use of force in the reunification of China-Taiwan, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen sharply rejected the One China policy and called for the legal recognition of Taiwan in January. Her administration subsequently requested the US in March to authorize the purchase of an unprecedented 66 new aircraft.
After the US sailed a destroyer through the Taiwan Strait, China sent 2 of its jets across the median line of the strait on March 31. These were forcefully rebuked by Tsai Ing-Wen, who ordered the military to henceforth “forcefully expel any incursions”. US senators are also seeking to complement last year’s Asia Reassurance Act with a new bipartisan Taiwan Assurance bill which provides for “regular transfers of defense articles to Taiwan”.
Despite renewed commitment to Taiwan, which is part of the US’ hub and spokes system of bilateral alliances, another spoke – the Philippines – faces uncertainty and policy volatility. Last December 2018, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana directed the Department of National Defense to review the US-Philippines 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to possibly “maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it”. The MDT binds the two countries to provide mutual aid to resist armed attack. However, its geographic limit to the Pacific had long raised concerns in Manila over whether the South China Sea is within the MDT’s purview. Notably, the Obama administration evaded any clear commitment on the matter.
On March 1, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. contradicted Lorenzana on the matter, opining that a review is not needed altogether. In the same press conference with Locsin, visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a landmark policy assurance that the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, and therefore covered by the MDT. The Philippines has not made a formal request for a renegotiation of the MDT.
Despite cold relations between Manila and Washington under Duterte, this year’s US-PH Balikatan Exercises drummed up a strong message to China (one the US officially denies). The allies held an island takeover drill at the request of the Philippine military. Also noteworthy is the unprecedented deployment of the USS Wasp with its complement of F-35B Lightning II aircraft, the latest generation multipurpose fighter planes by the US.
Meanwhile, nuclear non-proliferation may be hampered by US suspension of its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in February, which is supposed to prohibit Russia and the US from deploying several types of ground-launched cruise missiles. Russia likewise suspended observance of the treaty in March.
The US pullout may be motivated by the fact that China is not covered by the INF treaty. US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s scorn for arms control dovetails interpretation by analysts that he plans to use ground-launched cruise missiles currently banned by the INF Treaty to fend off growing military threats from China, considering that such systems have cheaper delivery and upkeep costs than submarines, warships, or planes. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently warned that arms race supporters have prevailed in the US.
Nuclear control in the Pacific is also stymied by the impasse at the Trump-Kim Summit last February 28, where they failed to reach a compromise agreement. North Korea claims to have bartered dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear complex and uranium-producing Tongchang-ri facilities in exchange for the removal of a majority of UN-imposed economic sanctions. Trump rejected the offer on grounds that these represent only token efforts to his ultimatum of denuclearization.
South Korea’s Moon Jae-in government has been and will continue to be pivotal in making North Korea come to the bargaining table despite setbacks. It has persuaded the US to cancel bilateral wargames deemed provocative by North Korea and has taken a more conciliatory posture through meetings with Kim.
US and China are ironing out trade relations. Relative to the trade war, the series of talks between Beijing and Washington in January, February, and March have led to an agreement to establish enforcement offices and suspend several tariffs imposed last year. Chinese Vice premier Lui He notably attended one of the meetings.
However, developments in security relations may diminish optimism.
The Huawei imbroglio which started last December over Canada’s detention at US behest of the company’s chief financial officer further escalated this year. On January 28 the US formally levied charges against Huawei for stealing communications technology and equipment from the US company T-Mobile, while Huawei sued the US government in return. The issue represents US retaliation against security threats arising from alleged Chinese industrial espionage.
During his State of the Union Address in February, President Donald Trump sharply criticized China for “theft of American jobs and wealth”, particularly intellectual property. His administration has increasingly securitized trade relations over cybersecurity concerns.
US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that China presents a “whole-of-government threat” to the US. He warned private businesses to be cautious because seemingly harmless industrial-technological cooperation with Chinese companies is prone to espionage and forced technology transfers, as said companies are pliant to Chinese Communist Party demands. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford also singled out Google’s artificial intelligence systems as “indirectly benefitting the Chinese military”.
US policy on the matter continues to be that of building broad international pressure on China. Their officials have publicly called on other countries to block Huawei from 5G networks, threatening to withhold arms sales if they use equipment and software produced by China.
Several points are worth highlighting, given these regional and global developments.
First, the United States’ stronger pressure against China appears to be effectively making Beijing more prudent. The success of Trump’s pseudo-brinkmanship may be indicated by the fact that China has not aggressively responded to more Freedom of Navigation Operations by the US Navy, and is willing to renegotiate the trade imbalance. China is becoming more conscious of geopolitical reactions to the BRI, its military force projection, and issues hounding trade and cybersecurity practices. Meanwhile, countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam are likely beneficiaries of vigorous US engagement which contributes to a more favorable balance of power in the region.
Second, the tendency to overreact to China’s rise may sow the seeds of a volatile security environment. Deliberate anti-China policies from the US and European Union that subject economic, diplomatic, scientific, and people-to-people relations with China to national security concerns may undermine workable channels for cooperation. In attempting to rally other countries to take stronger policies against China, the US is limiting these countries to adversarial policies, suffocating prospects for non-alignment with either US or China.
One case is US State Secretary Pompeo’s urging of the Philippine government and other Southeast Asian countries to block Huawei. This US pressure pre-empts other more moderate policies such as conducting risk assessment studies and cybersecurity policy formulation .
Third, counterintuitively, conflicts may be managed by the conscious effort of states to refrain from formal coalition building. India’s efforts to not operationalize the Quad and not invite Australia last year in its Malabar military exercises reduce perceptions of a gang-up against China. In contrast, bilateral signals such as trade sanctions were effective precisely because they kept pressure on China without making it feel comprehensively besieged so as not to provoke reprisal.
Finally, it must be noted that security developments remain subject to policy volatility. The political opposition in the Philippines has lambasted President Duterte’s pivot to China. Pompeo’s assurance that the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty covers the South China Sea remains only a Trump administration policy, and worries over policy reversal as a result of leadership change accentuate the need to formally alter the terms of the MDT. The dwindling of outright US-China hostilities since the trade war remains contingent on China’s conscious effort to not respond tit-for-tat, but may eventually shift and alter the regional security environment once it chooses otherwise.
These developments remind us that regional peace stands on a security desert now increasingly subject to dramatically shifting sands.