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When Washington invited the Chinese navy to participate for the first time in America’s flagship Rim of the Pacific multilateral naval exercises last month, it didn’t expect Beijing to send an uninvited spy ship along. But U.S. officials tried to make the best of an embarrassing situation. Navy admirals expressed the hope that Beijing’s move signaled its acceptance of international norms for military activity in exclusive economic zones, the waters extending from 12 to 200 miles off a country’s coast.
Beijing quickly disabused the Americans of that notion. Last week a Chinese J-11 fighter plane recklessly confronted a U.S. Navy P-8 spy plane in international waters some 135 miles east of China’s Hainan Island. The Chinese pilot showed his weapons to the U.S. crew, flew within 20 feet of their plane and did a “Top Gun”-style barrel roll over its top. It was the most dangerous encounter since the April 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and a U.S. spy plane.
To add insult to injury, Chinese military spokesmen angrily rebutted U.S. criticism of the encounter and intimated that more such actions could take place. They demanded that Washington cease all surveillance activities near Chinese territory. So much for a new era of Sino-U.S. military-to-military relations.
Last week’s incident holds lessons about the importance of America’s military presence in Asia. The absence of effective and credible U.S. force in potentially unstable regions around the globe is encouraging murderous groups (such as ISIS in Iraq) and traditionally aggressive opportunists (like Vladimir Putin ). The specter of growing global disorder is abetted by perceptions that the United States has neither the strength nor will to counter or defeat aggressive actors.
Asia seems relatively stable compared with the rest of the world. Even China’s aggressiveness in recent years has undoubtedly been tempered by the U.S. presence in the waters and skies of the Pacific. Just contrast the presence of over 300,000 U.S. troops throughout Asia with the situation in Iraq, where the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces led in less than four years to ISIS’s conquests.
So far the Pentagon has remained committed to maintaining and even moderately increasing U.S. force levels in Asia. It has deployed America’s most advanced weapons systems to Asia, such as the F-22, and has promised that the F-35s and Zumwalt DDG-1000 destroyers are coming in future years to bolster the U.S. Pacific Command. This, combined with the rhetoric about the “rebalance” to Asia, has likely deterred some adventurism on Beijing’s part.
Now consider last week’s encounter over the South China Sea. Beijing may or may not choose to continue such dangerous behavior but if it did, then U.S. Navy and Air Force fighters would likely soon begin escorting U.S. military planes over international waters. Eventually the Chinese would get the message that provocative behavior risks a shooting incident. Given Beijing’s relatively risk averse nature, it would almost certainly back down.
Yet what would happen if U.S. forces in Asia gradually thinned out over the next decade, due to demands elsewhere or continued budget cuts that Congress hasn’t repealed? The vacuum that plagues the Middle East and Eastern Europe would begin to emerge in Asia, too. Based on what the world has witnessed of Chinese behavior, such a vacuum would very likely result in more aggressive acts.
Such actions would aim at intimidating and hindering U.S. forces while more directly confronting Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and others over disputed territory in the East and South China Seas. Given evidence of America’s diminishing presence in their waters, Asia’s smaller nations would face uncomfortable choices about how much they can protect their interests.
A world of growing disorder would be further shaken by conflict or endemic instability in Asia. The negative impact on the global economy would reverberate in New York, London and Frankfurt as well as in Tokyo, Seoul and Jakarta.
The lack of effective regional mechanisms for resolving crises would make it especially difficult to maintain stability amid rising nationalism, resentment and distrust. Even Japan’s goal of acting as a security partner to Southeast Asian nations would crumble under the specter of being drawn into a direct conflict with China.
The U.S. thus remains the indispensable stabilizing power in Asia. Even as the region’s new normal reflects China’s steady accretion of influence, U.S. forces act as a hedge against Chinese advances beyond accepted norms of international behavior.
U.S. Pacific Command’s presence in Asia offers the best chance for international law to take root. Adherents throughout the region can form an undeniable community of interests that even China will be averse to ignoring.
Such an outcome requires continued commitment by U.S. leaders. That means investing more militarily to support democracy’s political goals in the world’s most dynamic region. The alternative is to watch Asia’s new normal become ever more unstable, with America increasingly a bystander.
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