TAIPEI and WASHINGTON — The 11th Asia Security Summit in Singapore June 1-3 will take place against a backdrop of renewed U.S. pledges to defend Asia-Pacific allies growing nervous about aggressive Chinese territorial claims.
This is the first visit by both Leon Panetta as U.S. secretary of defense and Adm. Samuel Locklear as head of U.S. Pacific Command. Other U.S. officials include Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.
Panetta’s Singapore visit is part of a weeklong trip that includes the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, then Vietnam and finally India.
“I’m sure the Chinese will view visits to India and Vietnam as aimed at shoring up coalitions with partners in the region who are concerned about China,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “The U.S. has an interest in bolstering those relationships, so I don’t share the view that it is all about China.”
Run by the U.K.-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and dubbed the Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual event at Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel is an intergovernment security forum attended by top-tier regional defense officials.
This year’s event will include 28 Asia-Pacific countries, and include British, French, Russian and U.S. officials. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will give the keynote address.
Panetta will speak on “U.S. defense policy in an era of austerity,” according to the agenda.
Pentagon budget cuts have raised questions about whether the U.S. will be able to financially back up its new “Asia pivot” policy after expensive campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the damage expected from the looming “debt bomb” that will reportedly brutalize U.S. government entitlement programs in five to 10 years.
Maritime disputes in the South China Sea are going to be the big issue at this year’s dialogue, said Tim Huxley, executive director of IISS-Asia, with the Philippines and Vietnam getting a lot more attention than in past dialogues.
There are some concerns that angry Southeast Asian delegates might “gang up” on Chinese officials at the dialogue, but Huxley said delegates were “too sophisticated” for that kind of behavior. China has become more physical and vocal in its claims to waters also claimed by Hanoi and Manila in the South China Sea, causing many to wonder how far China will ratchet up tensions to secure contested areas.
The South China Sea discussion at Shangri-La “is going to be the elephant in the room,” said Dean Cheng, a China specialist at the Heritage Foundation, another Washington think tank.
The U.S. also will be watching the midlevel members of China’s delegation attending the event. They are the “key and could signal the direction of Beijing’s military,” Cheng said.
China’s Central Military Commission will turn over this fall as its current officers reach the mandatory retirement age.
“It won’t come out at Shangri-La, but it will be very interesting to compare the Chinese attendance list with whoever rises to the top in the fall,” Cheng said. “If nobody in the new leadership is there, then it also again raises a question about why not. One can’t imagine a member of the Joint Chiefs, never mind the chair, being sequestered in the U.S.”
Pivot Issues vs. Money
The U.S.-Asia pivot could be hamstrung by a $15.7 trillion national debt as the U.S. struggles to sustain a strong defense as well as social entitlement programs, pay interest on the debt and simply operate normally. Some believe the U.S. may not have the manpower or money to make good on its promises in the region.
“A strategy without resources is a fantasy,” said Paul Giarra, president of Global Strategies & Transformation. He also warned that regional alliances are weak and “mutually disconnected.”
None of America’s Asia-Pacific partners shares a common threat or regional perspective. Japan is reluctant to take more responsibility for its own defense and depends too much on the U.S. South Korea has cared little about threats beyond North Korea. India is focused on border problems with China and Pakistan. The Philippines is a financial liability for the U.S. Though Vietnam has some potential as a U.S. ally, Hanoi is hesitant to anger Beijing, Giarra said.
“How can we have a strategy when we really don’t understand the opponent [China], or for that matter, what we hope/expect to achieve?” Giarra said.
The standoff between China and the Philippines over Chinese fishing boats poaching in the Scarborough Shoal in April continues as the number of Chinese vessels in the disputed area rose to about 100 last week. The episode demonstrates Manila’s inability to secure its own exclusive economic zone and why it has turned to the U.S. for more military assistance.
This has raised the possibility of a return of U.S. forces to the Philippines. The U.S. closed both its air and naval base there in the early 1990s under pressure to leave by the Philippine government.
“There is a real confluence of interest for the U.S. and Philippines for the U.S. military to return,” Huxley said. “The Philippines can’t defend their claims in the South China Sea, and they need to have the Americans.”
Massive corruption in the quasi-democratic Philippine government poses a problem.
“It’s superficially democratic,” Huxley said. “It’s actually feudal and being run by an elite family.”
Philippine Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin will speak at the dialogue on the South China Sea dispute.
Panetta’s trip to Vietnam has raised Pentagon hopes for an increase in strategic cooperation with Hanoi. The U.S. and Vietnam have been conducting a defense dialogue for eight years, said Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy.
“There are still obstacles, such as outright enemies becoming friends,” Huxley said.
The relationship began with POW/MIA teams visiting Vietnam and has grown incrementally from there, he said.
The first U.S.-Vietnam annual defense dialogue took place in 2004; in 2008, it was raised to the level of a political, security and defense dialogue. In 2010, it was upgraded again to the level of a defense policy dialogue, Thayer said.
There are still constraints on greater defense cooperation with the U.S.
The first is Hanoi’s shared political and ideological history with Beijing. Both are Communist Party-run governments that have been forced to liberalize their economies while still maintaining party control, Huxley said. The other constraint is the economic relationship with China, which Vietnam works to preserve.
However, improvements in the relationship continue. Last September, at the second defense policy dialogue, the U.S. and Vietnam signed their first memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation, Thayer said.
“Secretary Panetta must be at pains to ensure that any form of stepped-up defense cooperation is not construed by Vietnamese party conservatives as an attempt to enlist Vietnam into an anti-China containment policy,” Thayer said. “This is easier said than done, despite repeated official U.S. statements that it is seeking to engage China, not contain it.”