Hedging bets to keep China in check

By Peter Brooke, Special to The China Post

The navies of India, Japan, Singapore, Australia and the United States on Tuesday started holding several days of exercises in the Bay of Bengal in the largest multilateral, peacetime naval maneuvers in the Indian Ocean — ever.

Naturally, the five participating capitals claim the exercises aren’t aimed at any particular country — especially if that country might happen to be a very large Asian nation whose name starts with a “C.” U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Timothy Keating said that the exercises, consisting of as many as 25 ships and submarines — including two U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers and one Indian (formerly UK) flattop — aren’t directed at China.

“You could connect the dots geographically … But there’s no effort on the part of the U.S. or on the part of any of these other countries to isolate China,” the four-star admiral insisted during a late August visit to India. He added: “Rather than give the perception that we are looking to isolate China, quite the contrary, we are looking to embrace them to the extent that we should and can and want to, and the extent that they want” to be embraced.

Of course, this came just days after Keating expressed concern about China’s unprecedented military build-up following Beijing’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization war games in early August — which also featured Russia and four Central Asian states.

In Cambodia, Keating said: “China professes to be advocating a peaceful rise.” But “some of the capabilities that they’re demonstrating would indicate to us that perhaps their intentions aren’t exactly beneficial to security.”

So, is this unprecedented assemblage of naval clout about China — or not?

Sure, these exercises could be directed at enhancing counterterrorism cooperation. One nagging worry in the region is that a terrorist attack could try to close the world’s busiest waterway — the strategic Malacca Strait.

Or perhaps the maneuvers are aimed at countering a growing piracy problem. Modern-day Blackbeards plague shipping in South Asian and Southeast Asian waters, especially in and around the Malacca Strait, where 30 percent of the world’s trade passes.

There’s also counterproliferation. Ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction and their components are often transported by ships. The United States and its partners have conducted maritime interdiction/exercises under the Proliferation Security Initiative.

And energy security, too. Through the Malacca Strait passes a quarter of the world’s oil shipments; disruption would have a significant effect on Asian economic powerhouses like China, Japan and South Korea.

The drill might also boost future humanitarian efforts. India, Japan, America and Australia all worked closely to provide aid to Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami, forming a core group of democratic states known as the “Quad.”

But all these plausible reasons don’t fully explain the large complement of aircraft carriers, ships, submarines and aircraft doing a week’s worth of maneuvers in the eastern Indian Ocean.

What’s really at hand here, in a word, is hedging.

Quite simply, China’s meteoric rise is making Asia and America nervous. The People’s Republic now has the world’s third-largest — and fastest-growing peacetime — defense budget, with an 18 percent rise this year alone.

China is exercising with Russia (alarming the United States and Japan), building a port in Pakistan and cultivating ties with Burma and Bangladesh (unhinging India), throwing its weight around in Southeast Asia (unsettling Singapore) — and still hasn’t renounced force against Taiwan (unnerving all).

None of the countries involved in the exercise would admit it publicly — and understandably so — but they’re all hedging their bets against China’s ascendance in Asia (and the world) through cooperation on activities such as these exercises.

Of course, the Quad plus Singapore can work together on terrorism, proliferation, piracy, energy security and humanitarian-relief operations. Indeed, they should consult, coordinate and cooperate for the betterment of all.

But since China’s actions aren’t fully predictable — no matter what Beijing says — it makes perfect sense for like-minded nations, especially democracies, to cooperate, even informally, on political, economic and security issues to help shape the Middle Kingdom’s rise.

None of these countries see China as an enemy, but the exercises remind Beijing that some of Asia’s most powerful states will, at a minimum, work to balance China — if Beijing’s rise approaches anything but “peaceful” and “harmonious.” Heritage Senior Fellow Peter Brookes is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense. He can be reached at peterbrookes@heritage.org.