The U.S. is not the only giant pivoting in Asia-Pacific; so is China
If late 2011 heralded the U.S. “pivot” toward East Asia—so far, words backed up by modest deployments meant to reassure allies and remind China of Washington's interest in the region—then early 2012 looks like a time for China to parry the move. China has used its geographic and asymmetric advantages to challenge Washington's latest strategic turn.
The origins of the pivot date back a decade, to a point when the U.S. concluded that China was building a force of submarines, space weapons and anti-ship ballistic missiles to execute anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies against U.S. forces. But it was Asian fears of Chinese belligerence in 2010—such as its vigorous support for North Korea following its March 2010 sinking of a South Korean corvette, plus its rejection of mediation of conflicting claims in the South China Sea—that forced the Obama administration to “rebalance” toward Asia following drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In her October 2011 Foreign Policy article, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. had reached a “pivot point” that required renewed U.S. emphasis on Asia, and while taking care to reject the notion that China is a “threat,” made it clear that U.S. “treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand are the fulcrum for our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific.” During President Barack Obama's mid-November 2011 visit to Australia it was announced that the U.S. would station up to 2,500 Marines in Darwin by 2016 and that the Navy might deploy two to four Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore. (U.S. and Singaporean officials have clarified that this arrangement does not entail basing the ships there, just rotational visits.)
In January 2012, it emerged that U.S. and Philippine officials were discussing a revival in military alliance cooperation, potentially including rotations of U.S. surveillance aircraft and about 500 troops through Philippine bases, and more exercises. However, in an update to reporters at thelast month, Adm. Samuel Locklear, 3rd, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said, “We're not really interested in building any more U.S. bases in the Asia-Pacific.”
In early November 2011 the Pentagon announced the formation of its new Air-Sea Battle Office, which ostensibly will deepen cooperation among the U.S. armed services, starting with the Air Force and Navy, but which has long been depicted as the manifestation of a Defense Department effort to counter China's growing A2/AD capability. Even though budgetary and force cutbacks announced in late 2011 and early 2012 made it clear the U.S. would all but abandon its previous “two-war” force planning strategy, U.S. officials also asserted that cutbacks would spare U.S. forces in Asia.
China's challenge during early 2012 was to exploit the Obama administration's intention to end its two-war planning strategy, by strengthening the potential for Chinese allies to tie down the U.S. in multiple conflicts. Prominently displayed in North Korea's April 15 parade was a large new missile on a 16-wheel transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) apparently manufactured by China's Sanjiang Hubei Special Vehicle Co., part of missile maker China Aerospace Industry and Science Co. (Casic). While China immediately denied making such a sale, the TEL is clearly a version of Sanjiang's WS51200 vehicle, that in turn was developed in cooperation with MAZ of Belarus, which makes TELs for Russia's ICBMs.
China's provision of a TEL for a new North Korean missile raises the possibility that it is assisting that program, but even the fact that China provided the TEL points toward a new level of support for Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. This contradicts China's oft-stated opposition to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons development, including its leadership of the Six Party Talks intended to reverse that development. It suggests that China directly supports a nuclear threat aimed at the U.S.—and Europe as well, since North Korea's new missile could be sold to Iran.
Since early April, China has used its geographic proximity to challenge Washington's and Manila's revival of military cooperation—a relationship that improved rapidly following Clinton's change of longstanding U.S. neutrality toward the conflicting claims in the South China. That change of policy opposes China's claims to nearly the entire South China Sea, which Beijing asserted at the July 2010 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.
Washington transferred a decommissioned 3,200-ton Hamilton-class Coast Guard cutter to the Philippine navy in July 2011 (now that service's largest ship, it has been reclassified as a frigate), and may provide two more by 2013. In January 2012, it was revealed that Philippine and U.S. officials were discussing more expansive military cooperation for the first time since the 1991 departure of U.S. forces from Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base. That may include a sale offighters to Manila and the rotation of U.S. surveillance aircraft through the Philippines, on the edge of China's ballistic missile submarine patrol area in the South China Sea.
On April 8 the Philippines intercepted Chinese fishing boats in the middle of Scarborough Reef, which is about 138 mi. from the Philippine island of Luzon, but about 500 mi. from China's Hainan Island. Manila dispatched its new Hamilton-class frigate for its first police action, intercepting the Chinese fishermen, but not arresting them. On April 10 two ships from China's Fisheries Protection Agency, one of several Chinese coast guard forces, blocked the Philippine ship. By this time it had become a diplomatic confrontation, which Manila sought to dial down by replacing its frigate with a coast guard corvette.
The standoff continued through the Philippine-U.S. Balikatan exercise that started on April 14. China declared a fishing moratorium for the region but continued to station its own fishing boats in the shoal, and sent fighters to overfly the area on June 11. China used its new long-range over-the-horizon radar on Hainan to control its maneuvers around Scarborough Shoal, while its use of coast guard ships demonstrated its ability to stand up to Manila and its larger ally, short of military action. Then, in early May, the Chinese navy dispatched a five-ship squadron, led by its largest Type 071 LPD that stoked fears China might attack Philippine-held islands. Likely in response, the Virginia-class submarine USS North Carolina made a visit to Subic Bay on May 15.
Amid the lingering Scarborough stand-off, China further challenged U.S. strategy by holding its most complex naval exercise to date with Russia. From April 21-27, 16 Chinese navy ships plus two submarines, and four Russian navy combat ships, conducted air defense and anti-submarine exercises. Then from June 7-14 about 400 Chinese airborne and ground troops joined Russian and Tajikistan forces for the Peace Mission 2012 exercise under the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Newly reelected Russian President Vladimir Putin pointedly attended the SCO summit in Beijing in early June, emphasizing strategic cooperation with China.
In late June there were conflicting reports of an upcoming Russian, Chinese, Iranian and Syrian joint exercise that would involve 90,000 troops and 1,000 tanks and would include 12 Chinese ships that would transit the Suez Canal, all to deter possible Western military intervention in Syria. While the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries denied such an exercise would take place, it served as a warning that China could further parry the U.S. with a “pivot” of its own—toward the Middle East.