Keeping Up with China's PLAN

The ship's crew stand during a commissioning ceremony on the deck of U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush

Now that it possesses a large and modern navy, Beijing is determined to advance China’s security in East Asia, necessarily challenging U.S. alliances and security interests.

May-June 2018

The trend in the U.S.-Chinese military balance has contributed to heightened regional tension. In 2016, as the region awaited the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on China’s claims of an exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, the United States adopted high-profile military measures to deter suspected Chinese plans to use force, should the court rule against China. At the same time, China feared that the Philippines, confident in U.S. support, would use a legal victory to challenge Chinese control over disputed waters. Greater U.S.-China tension in East Asia reflects the acceleration of the U.S.-China power transition.

THE OBAMA administration tried to strengthen U.S. alliances. But because the United States lacked the requisite military capabilities to offset Chinese naval modernization and to maintain dominance in China’s coastal waters, U.S. security partners have lacked confidence in the United States’ ability to balance the rise of China, and have developed greater security cooperation with China.

America’s efforts to strengthen the U.S.–South Korean alliance, and its deployment of THAAD in South Korea, elicited Chinese hostility toward South Korea and costly Chinese sanctions on a range of South Korean industries. But rather than strengthening relations with the United States to contend with Chinese hostility, South Korea accommodated China.

In July 2017, South Korean voters elected Moon Jae-in as president. During the campaign, Moon had pledged to stop U.S. deployment of THAAD in South Korea and restore good relations with China. After his inauguration, his first phone call as president was to Xi Jinping. To persuade China to end its sanctions and restore cooperation with South Korea, Seoul assured Beijing that it would not allow any additional deployments of THAAD, and that the existing THAAD systems would not be integrated into a U.S.–Japan–South Korea missile-defense system. It also vowed that it would not join in U.S.–Japan–South Korean alliance coordination, indicating that it would not join a U.S.-led Indo-Pacific coalition. This quid pro quo was the first China–South Korea security agreement that limited South Korean cooperation with the United States.

The new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, similarly reconsidered his predecessor’s security policy. To establish its resolve to contend with China and organize a coalition against Chinese claims in the South China Sea, the Obama administration had encouraged President Benigno Aquino to bring the Sino-Philippine dispute over overlapping exclusive economic zones to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In 2016, the court ruled in favor of the Philippines.

The Philippines had challenged Chinese sovereignty in waters that have, at best, insignificant mineral deposits. And it was foolish to think that China would submit to the decision of five men sitting in Europe and relinquish its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea; China ignored the court’s ruling. But the Philippines had isolated itself in Southeast Asia because, with the partial exception of Vietnam, the region refused to support Manila, and it incurred Chinese diplomatic and economic sanctions and faced the Chinese Coast Guard’s exclusion of Philippine fishing boats from disputed waters.

Duterte reversed Philippine policy. He stated that the court’s decision was irrelevant to the Sino-Philippine dispute and that the dispute was best ignored, rather than negotiated. He also reduced U.S.-Philippine naval cooperation in disputed waters and expanded Chinese naval access to Philippine ports. During his visit to China, he declared that, in economics and military affairs, “America has lost.” In response, China restored economic cooperation, pledged $24 billion in aid, provided military assistance to the Philippines’ battle against its Muslim insurgency and allowed Philippine fishing boats to return to disputed waters.

The Obama administration expanded U.S.-Vietnam naval cooperation. In 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that U.S. access to Cam Ranh Bay “is a key component” of U.S.-Vietnam relations. In 2014, the administration lifted the ban on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam, and in 2015, it agreed to expand U.S. exports to Vietnam of defense equipment and technologies, provided aid to Vietnam to purchase U.S. ships and included Vietnam in its Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, helping Vietnam bolster its maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. In 2018, a U.S. aircraft carrier anchored off the Vietnamese coast near Da Nang.

Like South Korea and the Philippines, Vietnam has responded to Chinese pressure by accommodating Chinese interests. After heightened tension in 2011–12, Vietnam jailed anti-Chinese nationalists, restrained its support for the Philippines in its dispute with China and assured China that it would not involve the United States or international law in its dispute with China. In 2014, when Chinese oil drilling in disputed waters led to a maritime confrontation and to anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hanoi, Vietnam expressed regret for the protests and assured China that it would not challenge the status quo in the South China Sea. In 2017, China compelled Vietnam to end its joint oil drilling with a Spanish company in disputed waters. Symbolic U.S. naval cooperation with Vietnam cannot offset overwhelming Chinese ground-force superiority on the Vietnamese border.