Washington: Over the last week in Asia, US defence secretary Ash Carter has visited two aircraft carriers, revealed new military agreements with India and the Philippines, and generally signaled that the Obama administration has decided to lean more heavily on military power to counter China’s territorial ambitions in the region.
But the newly-muscular approach on display during Carter’s tour represents a gamble. While it sends a message that the United States will work with its allies to challenge Beijing’s expanding presence in the disputed South China Sea, it also plays into fears within the Chinese leadership about US efforts to halt China’s rise.
That may mean that the more the Pentagon steps up in the region, the more China may feel it needs to accelerate its military build-up, including the construction of new islands equipped with radar and airstrips in contested waters.
With a mix of showmanship and concrete initiatives during a six-day visit to India and the Philippines, Carter left little doubt that the United States intended both to strengthen alliances and move more hardware and troops here to counter China’s growing military reach.
On Friday, he rode a helicopter to a symbol of American power projection in the Pacific, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, as it cruised through the South China Sea near waters claimed by the Chinese.
Before visiting the carrier John C Stennis, he marked the end of 11 days of military exercises between the United States and the Philippines and said some US troops would stay behind “to contribute to regional security and stability”.
He also said the United States had begun joint patrols of the South China Sea with the Philippine navy and would soon do the same with the country’s air force.
Earlier in the week, Carter toured an Indian aircraft carrier, the first time a US defence secretary had boarded such a ship, and said the United States would help India upgrade its carriers. He also revealed a new logistics agreement and said the two nations would work together on other military technologies.
Together, the measures announced by Carter hint at a potential US military resurgence in a part of the world where China believes it is destined to surpass the United States in influence. The Obama administration seems to be betting that China will back off rather than continue making moves that lead its neighbors to embrace the US military.
More than once during the last week, Carter cited China’s actions as the driving force behind tensions in the region and, implicitly, the reason for its neighbors’ increased engagement with the Pentagon.
Below deck on the John C Stennis, he said China should not see the carrier’s presence as a provocation.