East Asian Regional Security Architecture Falls Apart

Events across Asia including the US-China rivalry, the rearming of Japan, the North Korea missile crisis, growing Sino-Russian cooperation and other issues are raising concerns that the post-World War II security order is dying.

The precipitate withdrawal, soon after he was elected, by President Donald Trump, from the omnibus Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement designed to pull 12 nations together to neutralize China was arguably the US’s biggest mistake. But American influence had been waning steadily for almost a decade in the face of China’s rise and US lethargy.

Former President Barak Obama’s “pivot to Asia” never really came off, limited to such symbolic actions as the deployment of a handful of troops to Australia although belatedly the US is seeking to rectify that with joint exercises including eight warships together with 10 Southeast Asian countries this week in the South China Sea.

Fears that the old order guaranteed by the US is collapsing have been exacerbated by unending protests in Hong Kong, tensions in the South China Sea, the Sino-US trade war, which many fear can lead to global recession. With the US no longer even attempting to exercise its influence, these vulnerabilities have been further aggravated by recent Russo-China long-range joint air patrols, the first in the Asia Pacific region.

While the US sailing of warships in the Taiwan Strait was meant to overawe Beijing, China is not intimidated and in fact plans to conduct more live firing exercises in the East China Sea near Taiwan. This military exercise will be the third since the US Senate approved the sales of weapons including F16 fighter jets to Taiwan earlier this month. However, as Asia Sentinel reported earlier this month, the craft lag behind ‘fifth-generation’ fighters under development in China.

The tensions are testimony of the inability or lack of commitment by Washington to control events and lead the pack. The resurgence of China and Russia, at odds with the US in the region, has complicated the security calculus.

Without a US presence to cool them, the simmering discontents that resulted in political outbursts and the subsequent trade war between Japan and South Korea will likely impact the current security order as well. Last week’s decision by Seoul not to renew the 2016 General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement with Tokyo was an example of how things can go wrong very quickly. The decision to scrap the Intelligence Agreement was a response to Tokyo’s earlier ban on the export of high-tech materials critical to South Korea’s semi-conductor industry.

The tiff between the two powers undermines the traditional security cooperation mechanism/architecture in the area. The Military Intelligence Agreement was set up to provide intelligence on North Korea, amid reports of Pyongyang firing more intermediate missiles. The failure of the US to restrain its treaty allies from engaging in trade wars and do away with the agreement speaks volume of Washington’s declining influence despite maintaining more than 80,000 troops, air and naval assets in East Asia.

It also reflects the desire of the allies to act independently of their patron. The US has also failed to prevent China and Russia from conducting joint aerial exercises for the first time, using Chinese long-range aerial patrols involving Chinese Xian H-6K jet fighters and Tupolev Tu-95Ms – long-range, nuclear-capable bombers, in the Indo-Pacific region.

According to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), the aim of the mission was to “strengthen global stability.” It was also intended to send a message to Washington that Beijing and Moscow are moving towards strategic convergence. The US decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear (INF) Treaty with Russia precipitated the incident.

Many believe Washington’s decision was aimed at China’s Intermediate Nuclear Forces, which did not come under the purview of the INF treaty. More importantly, it also means the US-managed sphere of influence is under threat of intrusions from China and Russia.

Despite its very aggressive Freedom of Navigation patrols in the South China Sea and overflights, the US has not succeeded in intimidating China from militarizing the sea. In fact, by 2012, following the debacle at Scarborough Shoal, which China occupied defying Manila under President Benigno Aquino III) and Washington, Beijing has converted seven under-water islets into artificial islands complete with military installations. Beijing has built airstrips on all seven that are designed to project power in the region. Many see them as forward military bases that could be used against the US in the event of conflict.

When Manila went to the International Tribunal under the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague to protest the legality of China's nine-dash line, which extends Beijing’s hegemony virtually to the borders of the littoral nations, Beijing announced that it would not participate. The court ruled in favor of the Philippines in 2016.

Instead of removing China’s influence in the South China Sea, the US could do nothing. Today, to the chagrin of Washington, Beijing is rewriting the rules of engagement in the South China Sea within the nine-dash line. Over protests from Manila, People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels have simply sailed through the Philippine islands without being deterred. While the Philippine acquiescence is unlikely to last beyond the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, Manila may be powerless to do much about it.

The US has been courting countries to deploy intermediate-range missiles against China. So far, there are no firm takers. Australia, which joined the US-sponsored maritime protection force in the Persian Gulf, has indicated ambiguously that the US has not made any formal request to deploy the missiles. Meanwhile, the Philippines, a US Treaty ally since 1951, has seen its president declare that he would never allow the US to deploy missiles in his country. Seoul has also said it has no plan to discuss the deployment of missiles with the US.

The disclosure by the United States Studies Center at the University of Sidney, a think tank, that “America no longer enjoys military primacy in the Indo-Pacific and its capacity to uphold a favourable balance of power is increasingly uncertain” reinforces the concerns over Washington’s declining influence. The report, entitled “Averting Crisis: American strategy, military spending and collective defence in the Indo-Pacific” was published on Aug. 19 and calls for a collective strategy among the US allies in the region to counter China’s growing military power.

However, the US defense shortcomings are not easy to address in the short-term, making the proposed Quad strategy to counter China an exercise in futility. Why should these countries – all within the range of Chinese missiles – risk their necks for a US government that is bogged down with conflicts in the Middle East and “facing a crisis of strategic insolvency?”

The essence of any military strategy is victory, which in this case seems remote and removed. In hindsight, the world should have heeded the late Charles Krauthammer’s warning in 1990 that the US unipolar moment would be brief. No one took him seriously at the time.

Others, like Fareed Zakaria, have been predicting a post-American world for some time. In an article that he penned for Foreign Affairs (July-August 2019) Zakaria didn’t mince his words. Washington, he wrote, “from an unprecedented position mishandled its hegemony and abused its power, losing allies and emboldening enemies.” Such an indictment has further undermined confidence in the US’s hard and soft power.

Finally, Financial Times writer Gideon Rachman hit the nail on its head. While on the surface the above incidents look unconnected, he says, “But collectively, they point out to a regional security order that is coming apart.”

B A Hamzah is a professor at the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defence University, Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia and frequently lectures on international affairs.