US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is expected to arrive in the Asia-Pacific region Tuesday on a tour of Japan and South Korea amid territorial disputes with China over the control of a number of islands in the area.
The Pentagon issued a statement on Friday saying his trip is part of the Obama administration’s efforts to strategically “rebalance” the region.
But the trip also comes amid pressure from ranking Republican leaders in Congress who are urging a tougher stance from the White House regarding tensions in the region.
In late March, Senators John McCain, Jack Reed, Bob Corker and Bob Menendez wrote Carter urging him to urgently work toward “the development and implementation of a comprehensive strategy for the maritime commons of the Indo-Pacific region”.
The Senators say China’s expansion and claims to maritime territory is a direct challenge to US security.
The Obama White House has for several years tried to boost US alliances with Asian countries and shift military focus there in a bid to implement a strategy of rebalance in the Asia-Pacific region.
The “Pivot to Asia”, which became one of the Obama administration’s central foreign policy initiatives since it was announced in 2012 has been a source of tension with China.
Beijing has persistently criticized the White House pivot as a bid to contain its rising economic and political clout.
China has become the largest trading partner with most Asian countries and its direct investments in the region are surging.
China is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) largest trading partner; ASEAN ranks as China’s third-largest trading partner. Bilateral trade between China and the ASEAN increased 10.9 per cent year on year to $443.61 billion in 2013, around 5.7 times that of 2003.
In 2013, ASEAN received $8.6 billion foreign direct investment (FDI) from China, a whopping 60.8 per cent increase year on year.
A white paper on national defence released by China’s Defence Ministry last year said that the US “pivot” to Asia runs counter to regional trends and “frequently makes the situation tenser”.
“There are some countries which are strengthening their Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanding their military presence in the region and frequently make the situation there tenser,” the ministry report said.
In the past few years, Japan, Philippines and Vietnam have contested Chinese maritime claims.
Last year, the Philippines filed a complaint with the Arbitral Tribunal questioning the validity of China’s “nine-dash” territorial claim, a demarcation on official Chinese maps that envelops virtually the entire South China Sea.
According to official Chinese data, the South China Sea covers 3.55 million square kilometers.
China exercises jurisdiction over about two million square kilometers of the maritime territory.
In December, China reiterated its position of not participating in the South China Sea arbitration process initiated by the Philippines.
Last year, China and ASEAN had agreed to develop and abide by a model code of conduct governing the troubled region of the South China Sea.
China’s maritime dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea had prompted the latter to come to an agreement with the US to develop its Palawan Island into a US military base.
Meanwhile, the South China Sea is considered one of the world’s most strategically important waterways and is exceedingly rich with minerals.
There are tensions also in the East China Sea.
China and Japan are locked in a territorial dispute over a group of uninhabited islands known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.
Japan purchased three of the islands from a private owner in September 2013, announcing plans to “nationalise” them.
Top US officials have reaffirmed American backing for Japan in its dispute with China over the islands. A security treaty with Japan would allow the US to protect its ally in case of “foreign intervention”.
US Pacific Fleet
Last week, Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet Admiral Harry Harris told a security meeting in Australia that Washington would respond to the rising maritime tensions in the East and South China Seas.
“My intent is not to plan for war against any particular nation, but rather to lessen the chances of conflict by increasing security and stability more broadly throughout the region,” Harris said.
“But the Pacific Fleet is prepared, unequivocally, to respond to threats to our nation, our interests and our allies from a position of strength,” he added.
Foreign policy expert Minghao Zhao says that international observers have good reason to worry about the trajectory of China-US relations.
“Japan and the Philippines – US allies in the Asia-Pacific — are unwilling to continue to shelve their territorial disputes with China while Beijing’s responses have been blamed as ‘revisionist and provocative’,” he writes.
He says that the way the Asia Pivot has been conducted has given seed to Chinese suspicions of Washington’s long-term intentions in the Asia-Pacific region.
In early 2015, China told the US to stay out of disputes over the South China Sea and denounced a US State Department report – Limits in the Seas -China: Maritime Claims in the South China Sea – on the disputed waters.
“The document ignores basic facts and international legal principles,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei at a daily press briefing in Beijing.
“The United States has violated its commitment of not holding position and not taking sides in the South China Sea issue. Such a move is inconducive to the resolution of the South China Sea disputes and the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said in Beijing at the time.
The BRICS POST with inputs from Agencies