SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — China’s recent announcement that it would increase defense spending by 12.2 percent in 2014 is making some American allies nervous in a region where perception matters and the possible flashpoints are numerous.
Those countries, mainly Japan and the Philippines, have come to rely on the U.S. military for protection from a neighbor who seems set on creating instability by expanding and intensifying territorial claims to disputed waterways, airways and islands in the Pacific.
Those actions — coupled with U.S. plans to scale back military spending for the next several years — have led to the perception that China is rising as the U.S. slips. That perception may be even more important in countries sitting on the fence, like Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar, which only recently started backing off from its close ties with China.
In reality, America’s $495.6 billion defense budget dwarfs the $132 billion in spending planned by China this year, but some lawmakers in the region find little comfort in that fact, analysts say.
“It will take China a long, long time before its budgets will effectively alter the military balance with the U.S.,” said Jonathan Holslag of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. “But that’s not the main concern. While the U.S. still has some scope to respond, neighbors are getting much more nervous… Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines all know that they could be the first victim if the balance of power shifts at America’s detriment.”
In recent months, China has done its best to look like the bully on the block.
Late last year, it announced a new “air defense identification zone” over a broad swath of the East China Sea, requiring foreign aircraft to report flight paths and follow other regulations if they enter the zone.
Days after the announcement, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made it clear that the U.S. has no intention of complying.
“This announcement by the People’s Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region,” Hagel said.
Then on March 9, China entered Japan’s airspace, flying a surveillance plane and two bombers between Japan’s Okinawa and Miyako islands. Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force responded by scrambling its fighter jets.
The same day, Chinese Coast Guard vessels prevented two civilian ships contracted by the Philippine Navy from resupplying and rotating Philippine forces at its Ayungin Shoal, Philippine officials said.
Other incidents include Chinese submarines encroaching on Japan’s outlying islands in 2013 and Chinese coast guard patrols around the disputed Senkaku islands in 2012. Earlier this year, Chinese vessels drove Filipino fishermen away from the Scarborough Shoal with water cannons and issued fishing regulations that would require foreign vessels to obtain Chinese approval before casting nets in the South China Sea.
“What we are seeing is just the beginning of an effort of China to break through the security perimeter that the U.S. traditionally tries to maintain in the Western Pacific,” Holslag said. “China knows that it can only recover what it calls lost territory if the U.S. is kept at a distance.
“I don’t think that the security dilemmas in Asia are going to have a peaceful ending,” he said. “All these territorial disputes will ultimately be decided by power and probably also military power.”
Japan, Philippines take notice
Perhaps in recognition of that prospect, other countries in the region are looking to bolster their militaries.
Japan is reconsidering its military spending and doctrine of self-defense only.
Japan spent almost $57 billion in 2013, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has asked for more this year, according to IHS Jane’s Annual Defence Budgets Review.
For now, however, any Japanese reaction to Chinese provocation is limited by the country’s pacifist constitution, foundering economy and reliance on the war-weary United States for protection.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, the issue came up at a national security seminar last month in Tokyo.
“Truth be told, the U.S. can no longer afford to play the world’s policeman,” Yosuke Isozaki, a ruling-party lawmaker who advises Abe on national security issues, was quoted in the report as saying. “This is no longer an era when Japan is permitted to do nothing and count on America to protect us for free. It’s become extremely important we do our own share alongside the U.S.”
Other Japanese lawmakers said China’s military buildup will diminish America’s power.
“We need to think about how to maintain the military balance,” Shigeru Ishiba, a top ruling party official and a former defense minister, said at the same seminar.
Meanwhile, Philippine officials are in the process of inviting U.S. forces back to the islands.
Philippine Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino told reporters in Washington last month that an agreement to allow shared use of Philippine military bases with U.S. forces was almost complete, according to Reuters.
“Through the proposed Philippines-U.S. Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, the Philippines wants to enhance its defense cooperation with the U.S. in maintaining and developing individual and collective capacities and further strengthening its defense posture,” Charles Jose, a spokesman for the Philippine office of foreign affairs, wrote to Stars and Stripes.
“Although the Philippines respects U.S. policy that it would not take position on conflicting claims and on sovereignty issues, our two countries share common positions on resolving disputes, including the adoption of a rules-based approach, adherence to international law and non-use of force.”
Even Australia, which historically has had good relations with China, has been eager to work more closely with the U.S. military. In 2012, the U.S. started sending Marines to Darwin for joint training, and more than 20,000 U.S. troops took part in the Talisman Saber exercise in 2013. Plans call for more U.S. troops and more bilateral cooperation in the coming years.
Australian officials told Stars and Stripes they don’t have a problem with China’s military modernization, but they encourage Beijing to be open and transparent about the policy that is driving its budget increases and modernization programs.
Still a Pacific pivot?
The U.S. has security treaties with the Philippines and Japan and would be compelled to come to their aid in the event of conflict.
But the current administration has also given mixed signals on its commitment to the Pacific pivot.
“The Asia-Pacific rebalance remains an administration priority — we will continue seeking to preserve peace and stability in a region that is increasingly central to U.S. political, economic and security interests,” Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool, a Defense Department spokesman, wrote in a statement provided to Stars and Stripes in March.
Pool said the Defense Department was making long-term investments in capabilities that directly support the rebalance – undersea and in space, the cyber realm, aircraft and long-range strike capabilities.
Some members of Congress are questioning that commitment.
“When the president framed rebalance, he discussed how we could now safely turn our attention to Asia because the war in Afghanistan was receding and al-Qaida was on the path to defeat,” Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said in a House Armed Services Committee statement in January. “I’m concerned those conditions haven’t panned out.”
On March 13, Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., penned a letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice, calling for a new Asia-Pacific strategy review.
Despite the budgeting bottom line having changed very little, the perception is that the U.S. is shrinking its budget and moving backward on its proposed pivot while the Chinese forge ahead with growth and expansion. That perception is important and could make matters worse, according to experts.
“Perception matters indeed,” said Baohui Zhang, a political science professor at Lingnan University’s Centre for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong.
“In particular, China’s continuous military build-up will deepen the mistrust between itself and Japan. The security dilemma with Japan has been driven by the rise of China and Japan’s relative decline. So we may expect additional measures by Japan to respond to China’s military expansion,” Zhang said.
In a move that many believe will anger the Chinese, Japan broke ground on a new military lookout station this month on the tiny tropical island of Yonaguni, according to Reuters. They plan to send 100 soldiers and radar to Japan’s westernmost outpost, which is located off Taiwan and only 93 miles from disputed islands claimed by both countries.
Some say this perception might also be enough to sway smaller nations like Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, which either sit on the fence between Chinese or American partnerships or are locked in their own disputes with the Chinese. Poor economic times in these countries could also lead to nationalism and the chance for conflict.
“It may not come close to the United States, but this is not a good news for the American allies in the region,” said Toshiyuki Shikata, a former Japan Ground Self-Defense Force lieutenant general and current professor at Teikyo University in Tokyo. “The U.S. needs to show its understanding [towards these countries] and show them that it is okay because it is there.”
Moreover, the perception that the U.S. is scaling back its military might be enough to further embolden China.
Capt. James Fanell, director of intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, warned at a conference in San Diego last month that the Chinese military had been tasked with the capability of conducting a “short, sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea, followed with what can only be expected, a seizure of the Senkakus or even the southern Ryukyus (islands),” according to the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Pollack and Dennis Blasko.
Scholars are divided on whether the Chinese can continue to grow or whether the U.S. can wait them out without being dragged into unnecessary conflicts. However, scholars say it isn’t necessarily a good thing if China’s growth and defense spending falters.
“China is heading for difficult economic times,” Holslag said. “That makes defense spending more difficult, but military muscle flexing more likely… The biggest uncertainty is whether China will move when it feels it is powerful and ready or if it would slide and panic.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Erik Slavin, Ashley Rowland and Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.