The U.S. Navy has conducted exercises with both the Armed Forces of the Philippines Navy and the Vietnam People’s Navy in recent weeks. The United States also diplomatically emphasized its continued military commitment to the Philippines, a formal ally.

The previously-scheduled exercises come at a time of intensifying regional tensions in the South China Sea over territorial disputes. Galrahn has already pointed out the mounting potential for an incident.

But there is also the question of not whether the U.S. will continue to conduct routine exercises but how it will respond in a crisis. In this, the American┬áposition remains deliberately ambiguous — specifically with the key issue of territorial disputes, in which the U.S. has no official position but insists that it supports its ally. But while this ambiguity certainly has utility, it does open the question of what the regional perception of the American security guarantee is and will be in the years ahead.

When the Republic of Korea Navy corvette ChonAn was sunk in 2010 by what was almost certainly a North Korean torpedo, Seoul wanted and expected the rapid deployment of the USS George Washington (CVN 73) to the Yellow Sea as a demonstration of the American commitment. This was something that took time and that the United States hesitated to do because of the implications for U.S.-Chinese relations. Any incident in the South China Sea will probably not be as clear cut as the sinking of the ChonAn and it will more directly involve China. And confronting China entails significant economic implications at a particularly sensitive time economically.

So the question is how does the U.S. balance short-term expediencies and longer-term interests? Is it properly aware of and properly weighing those longer-term interests? Not that the U.S. should have necessarily played the Russian invasion of South Ossetia in 2008 any differently (though it was a brilliant maneuver on the part of the Russians), but the perception of the value and credibility of the American security guarantee is certainly in need of some quality maintenance. How aware is the U.S. that China, like Russia before it, will be seeking to erode the regional perception of that value and credibility, particularly as the competition in the South China Sea continues to heat up? And how prepared is it to prioritize rebuilding that value and credibility at a time when there are many competing and nearer-term demands?




Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy, Maritime Security, Navy


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  • Aaron Brotman

    Ok, it’s important not to jump to too many conclusions about Chinese intentions and capabilities. They are very complex and I do not think it’s possible to understand them all. In fact, I don’t think President Hu understands them all. But identifying Chinese interests is a bit easier: free flow of commerce through the South China Sea, international acquiescence and legitimacy for drilling for oil and gas in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, maintenance of current peaceful relations between PRC, ASEAN, Japan and Korea and policies that continue to bring Taiwan closer to the PRC.

    These interests intersect with ours on many levels. We want free flow of commerce, peace in East Asia is a good thing because last time we intervened there it didn’t go so well, and the trends during the Bush administration where Taiwan grew closer to China turned out to work much better for US interests than those of the late Clinton administration.

    That said, there is a territorial dispute that China considers to be among its “core interests.” Neighboring countries stand to gain from potential oil and gas fields but the United States has no real stakes in the game. Therefore, the type of credibility we should be worrying about is diplomatic. We should act as a leader in this dispute and bring the parties to the negotiation table where we can show our role as an impartial actor. This will help to a) disarm China’s legitimate fear of being surrounded and b) boost our involvement in peaceful politics of the region.

    One thing is certain, the State Department and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be working to resolve this dispute, not the US Navy and the PLA Navy.

  • Matt Yankee

    Beware of the little chinaman syndrom