Analysis 11-04-2014

Pivoting Towards Asia?

What it Means for the Middle East

The growing tension in South East Asia and the announcement that Obama will be visiting Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Malaysia, once again raises the question about America’s focus and whether it will pivot towards Asia, to the determent of the Middle East.

Each of these nations has been in the news recently.  Malaysia lost an aircraft and the ensuing investigation has raised many questions about aviation security in the region.  South Korea has been engaged in an artillery duel with its neighbor to the north, North Korea.  And, Japan and the Philippines have been forced to use their militaries to halt Chinese expansion over the South China Sea, although no shots have been fired yet.

Military tensions have grown in the last year.  Japan recently announced that Japanese fighter jets were scrambled a record high 415 times in response to Chinese aircraft (many Chinese fighter aircraft) approaching Japanese airspace in 2013.  That surpassed the previous record of 306 times the previous year.  The Chinese air activities are a result of a standoff between Japan and China over SenkakuIslands.  The tensions were heightened following Japan’s purchase in September 2012 of the main part of the Japanese-controlled, uninhabited islet group in the East China Sea.  Not only China, but Taiwan claim the islets and call them Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively.

Japan isn’t the only nation concerned about Chinese ambitions.  There is an ongoing situation between China and the Philippines over control of portions of the South China Sea.  Late last month, Chinese vessels blocked Philippine ships bringing supplies to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea that Manila effectively controls. The U.S. State Department criticized China’s actions as “provocative,” while Beijing retorted that it has sovereignty over the reef.

Malaysia is also concerned about the status of the South China Sea as it claims part of that basin.

The South China Sea issue is a critical one for all the nations in the region.  It is a major maritime route for all of the nations on the Pacific Rim – especially for the island nations of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines.  De facto Chinese control of the sea could jeopardize commercial trade.

The area also has natural resources potential.  Philex Mining, the Philippines’ largest mining company, disclosed Monday that negotiations have halted with state-owned China National Offshore Oil over a joint exploration project in the South China Sea. Philex reported it was the Chinese who stopped negotiations.

Natural gas development in the South China Sea is crucial to the Philippines’ energy policy, but its private-sector companies do not have enough funds to carry out independent development. The Philippines hoped that the joint project with China would lead to a breakthrough in the territorial dispute.

One outgrowth of the Obama trip to the Philippines will probably be a new defense agreement with the US.  U.S. forces had once been stationed in the Philippines, but they withdrew in 1992 as the Cold War ended.  The economic stagnation had kept Manila from increasing defense spending after the US left.  The result is that that nation is being forced to play catch up, lest the Chinese take advantage of its weaker neighbor.

The Philippines currently has one of the weakest militaries in the region, possessing no fighter jets.  As a result, Manila has entered into a contract to buy 12 South Korean-made FA-50 fighter jets for $421 million, with two to be delivered as early as next year.  The government also plans to spend a total of $1.6 billion to modernize its military hardware, including the purchase of air search radar systems from Israel.

South Korea may be better armed, but it faces increased tensions with North Korea.  Last week, North and South Korean artillery batteries exchanged hundreds of shells across their western sea border Monday, a day after North Korea warned it was preparing to test another nuclear device.

This came after North Korea tested two medium range ballistic missiles and Japan threatened to shoot down any North Korean missiles.  North Korea responded and announced that it “would not rule out” a new nuclear test.

“(We) would not rule out a new form of a nuclear test aimed at strengthening our nuclear deterrence,” Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run KCNA news agency. “The U.S. had better ponder over this and stop acting rashly.”

The statement did not specify what North Korea meant by a “new form” of test, and South Korea said there are no immediate signs of nuclear tests being carried out by the North.

America Reacts

Although the US is occupied with the Crimean situation, the recent Chinese actions have forced Washington to react.  US Defense Secretary Hagel travelled to China last week and told the Chinese that it would support America’s allies – a position that made the Chinese unhappy.

The US is also looking at revising its military alliance with Japan.  In January, the White House told the Japanese government through multiple channels of its intent to reinforce ties.  This bilateral agreement hasn’t been changed in 17 years and the desire to revise it reflects Obama’s concern about the situation in the region.

Since there is not a multi-national security framework like NATO in the Pacific area, the Japanese/American defense agreement is the keystone to countering Chinese moves.

Currently, the biggest issue will be whether to allow Japan the right to collective self-defense. The current interpretation of Japan’s constitution forbids this, but Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet are prepared to revise the charter.  The key issue will be defining self-defense and how it can be applied.  The new agreement will also focus on joint command structure and outlining how the US and Japan will respond to certain scenarios.

The Japan/America defense guidelines were originally drawn up in 1978 during the Cold War era to counter the threat from the Soviet Union. The current guidelines were last revised in 1997, with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Bill Clinton leading the efforts.  The changes were driven by tensions between China and Taiwan over a series of missile tests conducted by the Chinese military in waters in and around the Taiwan Strait.  Beijing backed down after the U.S. Navy dispatched two aircraft carriers to the region.

Today, however, the US would be hard pressed to field one aircraft carrier in the area, much less two.  They would also be more vulnerable to attack by Chinese submarines or missiles as they moved into the region.

This leaves US and Japanese forces in Japan as the major deterrent to Chinese military moves in the region.  It is currently stronger than Chinese forces, but is rapidly being overcome by a growing Chinese military presence.

The Chinese Threat

The Chinese military is rapidly evolving to be able to project its power at a distance.  China will raise its defense spending 12.2% to $131.9 billion in 2014, marking the fourth straight year of double-digit growth.  Much of that will go to naval and air forces, which can project power into the South China Sea.

Unlike in the past, China is developing a blue water navy capable of reaching far beyond its shoreline.  Beijing is now building a domestically designed aircraft carrier, which will join the Liaoning, a refurbished carrier originally built for the Soviet navy (which the Chinese showed to Secretary Hagel during his visit). China’s air force is also working hard on a stealth fighter, which can penetrate US/Japanese air defenses surrounding naval task forces.

China’s first naval goal is to be able to control the “First Island Chain,” which stretches from Okinawa’s main island to the South China Sea.  Its second goal is to control the “Second Island Chain,” which extends as far east as Tokyo and Guam.  At present, they can make it quite difficult for the US Navy to operate within the First Island Chain.  They even have sent intelligence gathering sips off the coast of Hawaii.

The US is responding.  The U.S. Defense Department released its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) on March 4, which calls for deploying more naval assets to the Pacific. The latest QDR, which serves as the basic guideline for the Pentagon’s game plan, calls for shifting 60% of U.S. naval assets to the Pacific by 2020, up from 50% now.  Although it doesn’t address the Chinese threat specifically, it does refer to countering “area denial” similar to the First and Second Island Chain strategy of China.

The Future and What it Means for the Middle East

This changing US strategy will impact the Middle East.  First, since the largest reserve of US Naval ships outside the Western Pacific is in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf, a crisis in the South China Sea will mean an immediate shift of forces out of the region.  Second, as the US shifts its diminishing military resources to Asia, forces in the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and Europe will also drop.  All of these three theaters are usually used to increase an American military presence in the Middle East in time of crisis.

However, it’s also important to remember that Obama has frequently promised to pivot towards Asia – with few results.  The same could happen again.

It’s also important to remember that a desire by China to grow militarily doesn’t mean that they can easily threaten the US or its allies in the Pacific.

China is predominantly a land power and historically it is difficult for a land power, surrounded by many hostile nations, to divert the resources to an effective blue water navy.  China shares land borders with 14 countries and requires a huge number of troops to defend them. Its 1.6 million soldiers still represent the world’s largest standing army. Chinese and Indian troops continue to face each other across their mountainous border. And Beijing relies on the army to maintain order in its restive ethnic minority regions, including the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Land powers desiring to become a major naval power have failed miserably.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, France, the dominant land power in Europe tried to build a far reaching navy, only to fail when it ran into a numerically inferior British fleet at Trafalgar.  Imperial Germany tried in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to counter the British control of the sea, only to be forced back to port at the Battle of Jutland in WW I.  The Soviet Union tried during the Cold War, only to be outspent by the US.

Projecting power is also a function of aircraft carriers and the ability to effectively employ them.  The nations of Britain, America, and France have 70 to 80 years of experience in operating large deck carriers.  China has none.

The USSR discovered in the 1970s that building and deploying an effective large deck carrier is more difficult than it seems.  In the end, the carriers they deployed only carried a few ineffective vertical jump jet fighter-bombers.  When the Cold War ended, they were some of the first ships decommissioned.

Just because China has carriers doesn’t mean they can effectively deploy them, an important fact given China’s slowing economy.

As a sea power, China also suffers from the same problems that Germany and Russia did – lack of access to the open sea.  Their coastline is hemmed in by a chain of islands that belong to other nations (Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, and South Korea) that don’t approve of China’s ambitions.  As the British discovered in WW II, land based airpower can easily defeat a navy.

China can break through this island chain with the type of extensive amphibious operations employed by the US Navy in WW II.  However, it took three years to break through the islands protecting Japan, along with amphibious capability, air and naval control of the surrounding area, and a massive military logistics chain.  China does have some amphibious capability, but can’t guarantee it will control the sea and air around the islands.  And, it doesn’t have the vast military logistics ability to keep these islands supplied and carrying out extended offensive military operations.

In the end, China may not be able to project the power it wants in the near future, providing the US stands fast with it regional allies.  That being the case, the result may be that America will remain a major presence in the Middle East and few resources will permanently be moved eastwards.



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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
National Security Affairs Analyst
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