- - Sunday, September 1, 2013

The U.S. is shying away from China’s stealth aggression

The more assertive Beijing has become, the more reluctant President Obama’s administration has been to take sides in Asian territorial disputes, even though they center on China’s efforts to change the territorial status quo with America’s strategic allies or partners. Washington’s feckless Asia policy has helped deepen the security dilemma of several Asian states on how to protect their territorial and economic rights against China’s power grab.

Washington has made it amply clear that despite its “pivot” toward Asia, it will not put American lives at risk to defend its allies’ territorial claims against Beijing or act in ways detrimental to its close engagement with China. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has gone to the extent of saying in a recent BBC interview that the United States does not see China’s military modernization as a threat.

Indeed, the Obama administration has recalibrated its “pivot” policy. After initially raising Asian expectations about a robust U.S. response to China’s assertiveness, Washington has tamped down the military aspects of its “pivot” and instead started placing emphasis on the economic elements.

Mr. Obama’s Asia policy charts a course of neutrality on territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, while seeking to reap the economic and strategic benefits of closer engagement with Asian states.

Washington, for example, is chary of getting drawn into Sino-Japanese territorial disputes, although Tokyo is its close ally and U.S. forward military deployments in Japan are a linchpin of America’s strategy to retain primacy in Asia. In fact, the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands to which China had laid claim are close to Okinawa, home to the largest U.S. military presence in Asia.

Similarly, even as China purposely badgers India along the Himalayan frontier, Washington has shied away from cautioning Beijing against any attempt to change the territorial status quo by force. In fact, on a host of Asian disputes, including China’s claim since 2006 to India’s Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh state, Washington has chosen not to antagonize Beijing and has stayed neutral.

Even in a case when China has forcibly changed the status quo — by taking effective control since last year of the Scarborough Shoal, located in the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone — the Obama team has done little more than counsel restraint and talks.

The paradox is that China’s rising assertiveness has helped the United States to return to Asia’s center stage, yet Mr. Obama is wary of taking sides in the territorial disputes. The only issue on which Washington has spoken up is freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The China factor, which has allowed the United States to strengthen its existing military relationships and build new strategic partnerships in Asia, can remain useful for America only if it is seen by its allies and partners as a credible guarantor of stability and security in Asia. That is a function not of its military strength, but of its political will.

To be sure, Washington has an interest in preventing the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia. It has no interest, though, in getting entangled in Asia’s territorial feuds. If it can, it would like to find a way to support its allies and partners in their disputes with China, but without alienating Beijing — a tough balancing act.

For example, the Obama administration has said the U.S. security treaty with Japan covers the Senkaku Islands, yet “we also stress that we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.” How reassured can Japan be with such doublespeak?

Tokyo, skeptical that the United States would go to war with China to back Japan’s territorial rights, wants a clear U.S. defense guarantee. The Obama administration, however, has balked at Tokyo’s November 2012 proposal that the bilateral alliance’s defense guidelines be updated to specifically include the Senkakus.

America’s larger chariness has seemingly encouraged China to up the ante against several neighbors. For example, after gradually increasing the frequency of its incursions into Senkaku waters since September 2012, China is now focusing on increasing their duration. Similarly, China’s land incursions into India’s Ladakh region, after becoming more frequent, are this year being staged intermittently for longer duration.

This pattern appears designed to pressure an opponent to cut a deal on Chinese terms, in keeping with Beijing’s stratagem on territorial disputes — what is ours is ours, and what is yours is negotiable.

China, despite its bluster, is unlikely to wage open war against a determined, well-armed opponent for fear it may get a bloody nose, as happened in 1979 when it invaded Vietnam. Yet the possibility of an overt war resulting from mistake or miscalculation cannot be ruled out.

Even if no open war flares, Japan and several other Asian states already face China’s war by stealth. Through a clever strategy of furtive, incremental encroachments, China is actually undercutting the value of its opponents’ security relationships with Washington. Compounding this situation is Washington’s signal to its allies and partners that it is their own responsibility to safeguard territories that China covets.

Given Washington’s hands-off approach and Beijing’s creeping, covert warfare — designed to change facts on the ground slowly without having to fire a single shot — the relevance of U.S. security assurances to China’s neighbors risks becoming largely symbolic.

China’s aggressive stance thus poses difficult challenges for America’s allies and partners. For these states, the logical response to their security predicament would be to bolster defenses, build partnerships with each other to create a web of interlocking strategic relationships, and deepen their strategic engagement with Washington but without expecting the United States to come to their aid in a military contingency in which American interests are not directly at stake.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of “Water, Peace and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).