Some analysts have speculated that the US has new interests in asserting its hegemony over the region. However, as a keen observer of this part of the world, it is clear to me that Obama's move is in response to recent Chinese muscle-flexing in the region.
For more than a decade now, US foreign policy has concentrated more on the Muslim world in the Middle East and Central Asia. After a generation of battling communists in Korea and Vietnam, the events of 2001 redirected focus to the "war on terror."
Aside from the pressure extended on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program, the region, and particularly the Southeast Asian region, had receded from the American foreign policy forefront. At least that was the case from the security standpoint. The economic rise of countries like China and India, on the other hand, continued to attract significant interest.
What has changed in the region
While there have been some minor incidents in the last few decades involving the US in Asia, they have mostly faded away without much fanfare. For example, in 2001, a confrontation arose after a US EP-3 surveillance plane crashed into a Chinese aircraft near Hainan island. The Hainan nuclear submarine base is the closest point in China to the hotly-contested Spratly Islands region.
After Beijing turned over the crew of the lost aircraft, the US immediately pushed up military aid to Taiwan. There was a war of words in official and media circles for a short period, but it did not take too long for things to cool down.
The recent situation, though, is much different. Starting early last year, the Chinese began a series of aggressive moves in the Spratly region, an area rich in gas and oil with disputed areas claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Spoilin' in the Spratlys
While tensions in the South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea) is nothing new, the intensity of Chinese chest thumping in the maritime region is unprecedented.
In 1974, South Vietnam and China did engage in a brief naval battle over the nearby Paracel Islands. Other than that, the only real military action to take place in the Spratlys was a minor skirmish between China and Vietnam in 1988.
In February of last year, authorities in the Philippines claimed that a Chinese warship had fired on three Philippine fishing boats near Jackson atoll. Later in March, the Philippines accused Chinese vessels of harassing a seismic exploration vessel contracted by a Philippine company near Reed Bank off Palawan.
In May of the same year, Vietnam accused China of deliberately destroying cable laid out by the Binh Minh 02 oil-surveying vessel. The interesting thing about these incidents is that they did not occur in disputed areas, but within the internationally-recognized Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that extends from a nation's coastline 200 miles out to sea.
In the same month of May, the Philippines reported that two suspected Chinese fighter jets had intruded into Philippine airspace.
Trouble in India
Since the events of last spring, China has engaged in more provocative activity than in the past two decades combined, not only in disputed areas of the the Spratlys, but even within the EEZ of the Philippines and Vietnam.
However, the provocations were not limited to Southeast Asia. China is also apparently pushing its territorial ambitions far to the west in India. The two countries have always had border disputes, but the latest flareups are a matter of serious concern.
What is most astonishing is that, for the first time, China is not only challenging India to the north but also in the Indian Ocean to the south of the country. Chinese warships, including their new amphibious landing dock ship, are now frequent visitors to the Indian Ocean. They have just concluded an agreement with the Seychelles for refueling privileges and they should gain access to a port that they helped build in Pakistan soon.
The tension with India is so great that news reports this month indicate that the country is preparing for the possibility of limited war with China. New Delhi's countermeasures also include striking up a new relationship with Vietnam that includes joint exploration for resources in the country's EEZ and invitations to Indian warships to visit Vietnamese waters.
Now clearly, it is these recent events that must be the main impetus for Washington's new pivot to Asia. Not so much because the US has so much concern about the interests of Asian nations, but more due to the threat posed by China's moves to its own interests.
So what are the reasons behind China's new assertive policy in Asia? Some have speculated that China feels trapped in a corner by Western powers seeking containment. Other theories point to fear of an "Arab Spring" type uprising in China or to the possibility that China suddenly needs more energy resources to keep its economy running.
None of these theories though draws support from the available evidence. The Western attitude toward the entire region including China has been laissez faire over the last decade or two. Even the North Korean nuclear tests drew, at best, a lukewarm response.
In Taiwan, nationalists have worried that the US was giving in to Chinese demands for reunification.
Internally, the recent Arab Spring movement within China does not hold a candle to the Tienanmen Square uprising or even to the Falun Gong movement. And to the energy question, China is still an oil exporter and there is nothing in recent events that would explain any sudden need to acquire new energy sources. If anything, China's moves have been more toward renewable energy technology.
To find the real explantion behind the latest Chinese moves, I believe you need to look at developments within the Chinese armed forces.
The dragon awakens
In the March-April volume of Foreign Affairs, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger writes about the evolving relationship between China and the United States.
In the article, Kissinger takes special note of recent Chinese military developments: "Its invulnerable second-strike nuclear capability will eventually be paired with an expanding range of antiship ballistic missiles and asymmetric capabilities in new domains such as cyberspace and space."
During the Cold War, the Chinese nuclear arsenal was minimal, and some military experts even thought a nuclear war with China was "winnable." However, recent advances including long range submarine launched ballistic missiles now place the possibility of a nuclear exchange with China definitely in the category of "mutually assured destruction."
The latest JL2 submarine launched missile can strike New York City while docked in the harbor of Shanghai and it can carry up to four independently targeted warheads. The latest Chinese sub may carry up to 24 of these missiles and Beijing four of these subs operational with another seven or eight on the way.
Antiship ballistic missile
The ICMB shield enables China to flex its conventional might more than ever before and the most noteworthy advance in the latter field is the world's first antiship balllistic missile, the DF-21D.
What makes this missile such a game-changer is that Chinese forces can fire it from safe mobile land-based launchers and hit ships, including aircraft carriers, up to 1900 miles away. The missile can strike with pinpoint precision and even when only armed with a conventional warhead, it can potentially sink a carrier with just a single hit.
DF-21D launchers stationed on the mainland can, therefore, not only cover the entire West Philippine Sea/South China Sea, but they can also strike US ships around the waters of Japan and even off the coast of Guam! A launcher perched near the Chinese border with Bhutan and Nepal can fly across foreign territory and hit ships anywhere in the Bay of Bengal and off the coast of Sri Lanka.
A launcher on the border with North India can cover the entire Arabian Sea and western coast of India.
The DF-21D now makes it far more dangerous for US carriers to project power in the maritime regions of Southeast Asia and South Asia. Should the missile ever see deployment on submarines the threat would become even more ominous.
Other military advancements
In addition to ballistic missile capability, the Chinese have developed supersonic stealthy antiship cruise missiles and jet fighters with ranges capable of covering the entire Spratly archipelago from bases in South China.
Moreover, the Chinese appear on the road to increasing their force projection capability with three aircraft carriers on the way including an ex-Russian carrier on sea trials. They have plans on activating four more amphibious landing docks for a total of six vessels capable of long-distance sea-land missions.
All of these developments led by the active deployment of the DF-21D in 2009 seem to provide the answer behind Beijing's new-found belligerence.
The launching of the second Type 071 landing dock, the Jinggang Shan, may have been the last component for a force capable of challenging China's Asian neighbors. The two landing docks can act as modern flagships for amphibious invasions with their fast, air-cushion landing craft capable of launching from well beyond the sight of shore defenses.
China's sudden move to exert "influence" in the region apparently surprised everyone in the region and beyond. The general mode of thinking was that China would not jeopardize its standing as a premier economic power by engaging in "old school" militarism.
If China was to conquer the world, it would be through economic competition and business savvy.
While it is impossible to say for sure what has motivated China over this past year, the announcements in 2011 that China was conducting maneuvers with the carrier Varyag and that it was building two carriers at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, seals the deal for me.
China apparently has achieved benchmarks that allow it believed would allow it to safely exercise control in the region, through intimidation if not through force.
However, the reaction in Southeast Asia and by America has been equally surprising to many. While Southeast Asia looks weak on paper compared to the rising dragon, it has a special strength of its own. The nation cooperates through a grouping known as the Association of South East Asian Nations or ASEAN for short.
The Obama pivot is in close alliance with this grouping and in a sense owes its origins to events linked with ASEAN.
At first the reaction by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her department to events early last year followed the same cautious tone that characterized US policy in this region throughout the preceding decade. However, as the conflict between the Philippines and China over the Spratlys continued to escalate, the administration began formulating a new policy.
By June, Clinton announced that it was standing by the Philippines on its Spratly claims. During the ASEAN Regional Forum in July, Clinton announced that ASEAN would serve as the "fulcrum" for regional cooperation between the United States and other nations.
Then, when President Obama visited Asia and announced his pivot policy, Clinton was in Manila where she voiced support for the nation's new name for the South China Sea, i..e. the West Philippine Sea. Also, the November issue of Foreign Policy published Clinton's article "America's Pacific Century" in which she claimed the "future of politics" would be decided in Asia.
She writes in the article:
...President Obama will participate in the East Asia Summit for the first time in November. To pave the way, the United States has opened a new U.S. Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN. Our focus on developing a more results-oriented agenda has been instrumental in efforts to address disputes in the South China Sea. In 2010, at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, the United States helped shape a regionwide effort to protect unfettered access to and passage through the South China Sea, and to uphold the key international rules for defining territorial claims in the South China Sea's waters. Given that half the world's merchant tonnage flows through this body of water, this was a consequential undertaking.
ASEAN strength in regional and international cooperation
ASEAN lies in a region that served as a crossroads for international trade for thousands of years. The ships of the spice trade sailed through these waters unimpeded. The nations in this region have a different cultural background than those of Northeast Asia where nations like China and Japan have often tended toward isolationist and xenophobic policies.
In Southeast Asia, the people are outward oriented and look at the sea not as a border as much as an extension of their territory. The strength of the ASEAN grouping is that it sees itself more a part of the world community rather than as an independent whole. Possibly, the nation's long history of maritime trade helped to forge this identity.
In this sense, it is no surprise that the nations in this region immediately began seeking external alliances when it dawned on them that China might not be all that disinterested in empire building. Naturally, they looked for help from nations that depended on these ancient sea routes.
Make no mistake about it, when Europe first "discovered" Southeast Asia, it was by no means dominated by China. The sea lanes were open and the nations were fully independent and actually they were arguably more influenced by Indian and Arab culture than Chinese. So there is something of a tradition involved in these modern disputes.
Where is Obama's pivot heading?
With the advent of China's formidable sea denial capabilities, the importance of aircraft carriers in this region is probably over. Carriers are likely to mostly stay out of harm's way. It would make little sense to place them in vulnerable areas like the Strait of Taiwan or the Spratly region.
ASEAN nations are investing more in submarines that are not vulnerable to ballistic and cruise missiles. They are also buying more advanced multirole aircraft.
Obama's pivot looks centered initially on increasing the ability of US forces to maneuver in the region. Forces will rotate at a facility in Darwin, Australia, and littoral ships will function out of ports in Singapore.
The Philippines will no doubt play an important role as will Vietnam since they basically sit at the mouth of the region for China. Philippine officials seem eager to cooperate as the country has failed to develop any significant defense capability since ending the US bases treaty in 1992.
The policy is definitely one of containment, but a containment desired not simply by the US, but by all the players in ASEAN along with India further west.
For President Obama, it could be one of the most decisive moments of his presidency. The planned end game, though, is still an open question for outside observers. However, one must wonder how long the region will be able to tolerate a China set on mastery of the region. Will the leadership in Beijing make the right "adjustment" or will we see efforts to seed a "Chinese Spring" from this new pivot alliance of nations.