US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talks with ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin at the Shangri-La Dialogue last week. Hagel and other top US officials attempted to build bridges with China while reassuring allies that the US also has their interests in mind. (Agence France-Presse)
SINGAPORE — “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” said retired US Navy Adm. Timothy Keating.
Keating, who served as head of US Pacific Command from 2007 to 2009, was using the best axiom available to describe America’s strategy in dealing with China at last week’s 12th Asia Security Summit, also called the Shangri-La Dialogue.
The adage is often mistakenly attributed to Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, but is actually a quintessentially American quote from the movie “The Godfather.” Either way, it was obvious the Americans were struggling with the advice as they sought better ties with China while reassuring allies in the region that they would help protect them against Chinese aggression.
During the summit, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Pacific Command head Adm. Samuel Locklear had a tough job in the face of vocal and skeptical members of the Chinese delegation.
Hagel made several references to China during his speech to encourage communication and cooperation. However, Hagel was challenged by Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu, director of China-America Defense Relations at the Academy of Military Science.
“Thank you for mentioning China several times,” Yao said, adding that the US focus on the Asia-Pacific region was an “attempt to counter China’s rising influence and to offset the increasing military capabilities of the Chinese [People’s Liberation Army].”
Hagel and Locklear were “struggling with a juggling act that involves building better military-to-military relations with China and publicly reassuring US treaty allies and friends in the region that Washington will honor its treaty responsibilities,” even against Chinese military adventurism, said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Over the past several years, Chinese fishing boats and maritime patrol vessels have intruded into the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of its neighbors in the East and South China seas. China has declared the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu in China, as a core interest. Chinese vessels have roped off the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal, preventing Philippine vessels from entering the area, even though it is within their EEZ.
The US has declared it will take no sides in territorial disputes, leaving its friends in Manila and Tokyo confused, disappointed and surprised.
Locklear, in an interview with Defense News, played down the tension between building its relationship with China and reassuring allies.
“I don’t know if I would categorize anything as a juggling act,” Locklear said. America is in a world leadership position and must look at the “complexities of the environment and be able to help where they can manage those environments to the betterment of everyone,” including China.
“So I think that if you take a look at the US rebalance and our perspective in the Asia-Pacific — yes, our alliances are very, very important to us,” Locklear said. “Inside of each of those alliances, there are agreements about how we will support each other’s interests and that we would come to each other’s defense if necessary.”
But Locklear also said that you have to look at the long-term stra-tegic outlook of the region with emerging powers — economic, diplomatic and military — as you do with China and India, and how the US would help bring them into a security environment so all are positive contributors.
“There doesn’t need to be someone standing on the outside looking in,” he said.
“We don’t take sides, but we have an interest,” he said. It must be made clear to China that the US “absolutely has an interest” in the status quo.
“On the issues of sovereignty, we are not going to argue. Maintaining the status quo is very important. And we will hopefully not have to take action, but we are prepared to take action if the status quo is threatened,” he added.
Regarding fears that Beijing and US allies are operating in the dark about US intentions and plans over territorial disputes, Keating said he was “certain there were concerns expressed quietly to China and assurances being delivered to the Philippines and Japan.”
Allies and friends in the region have begun questioning US resolve in the face of sequestration, China’s economic and diplomatic influence in Washington, and a rising Chinese military.
Keating said America’s allies have the right to take a hard look at US presence, at coalition strength, at capabilities, and the US should welcome that. At the same time, “I think they understand that the Chinese people at large and the Chinese leaders are contemptuous of weakness and they respect strength.”
“So a compliant, pliant, docile, timid South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Philippines is not beneficial to stability in the area, and all of those countries all have eco-nomic challenges, as do we, so the assurances that we give those countries is of critical importance,” Keating said.
There are also fears that the US economic crisis will defang Pacific Command as sequestration continues to eat away at the defense budget.
“Even under the most severe budgetary predictions, the US defense will still make up 40 percent of all defense spending in the world,” Locklear said. “We have global security requirements. I’m confident we will be able to maintain it.”
Keating was more reserved and said a reduction in the defense budget will have an impact, but it remains to be seen how “precisely the inevitable drawdown will affect the force posture, force position and force disposition in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Areas that will continue to grow include US military exercises with allies and partners, he said. Such exercises will help reassure those nations that the US is committed to the region.
Keating also said Pacific Command was well aware of China’s attempts to develop unique weapons and strategies that would defeat US aircraft carrier strike groups, such as anti-satellite (ASAT) tests and the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, “the carrier killer.”
“It’s not like we, the United States, or our allies, are turning turtle because of the DF-21D,” Keating said. “We are working on that. Technological advances provide technological opportunities. And we are, I guarantee you, taking advantage of it.”
Keating had complained to Beijing officials during China’s first ASAT in 2007 when a weather satellite was destroyed. The test was unannounced, and the altitude of the test endangered other satellites.
“I told them ‘You’ve introduced hundreds of pieces of space debris’,” Keating said. “And the folks with whom I was discussing this at the time, the military leaders, were less concerned than they should have been or professed less concern. Well, we emphasized it. They did not advertise their shot in advance and were irresponsible in conducting it in the manner that they did due to the introduction of space debris.”
He said he is concerned about China’s ability to interrupt US space-based operations, “but we are not going to forfeit, we are not going to turn over and say, ‘You win, we lose.’ Quite the contrary. We are working on methods to enhance our ability to conduct space-based operations ourselves.”
Keating referred to the 2008 ASAT conducted by the US to destroy a malfunctioning satellite at low altitude.
Keating said he was not an advocate of the F-35 joint strike fighter, but it would be a “good arrow in the quiver, but it’s not the only arrow in the quiver.” The reason, according to Keating, was the F-22 Raptor fighter and B-2 Spirit bomber.
He said the US has command of the air, sea and undersea domains.
“Add to that the forward-deployed forces that we have in Japan and other places throughout the theater as far away as Hawaii,” Keating said. “So a number of factors combined render me very confident of our ability to continue to operate freely throughout the area and help assure free, unfettered access to the maritime domain, which we have heard repeatedly is of singular importance to all of the nations in the region.”
Despite the development of “certain Chinese capabilities, those developments are of concern ... it’s not like they are going to suddenly assume total control of the entire area,” Keating said.