The USS Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) arrives in Da Nang, Vietnam for a scheduled port visit. The Carl Vinson Strike Group is in the Western Pacific as part of a regularly scheduled deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Devin M. Monroe/Released)

The January 5 edition of the South China Morning Post reported that the US passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) to reaffirm and reassure its “allies” that America is committed to protecting and promoting democracy in the Asia-Pacific. To do so, America will spend US$1.5 billion annually for five years to “show its presence” and increase “freedom of navigation operations” (FNOPs).

The US will also recruit countries in the region and beyond to help keep the East and South China Seas safe for freedom of navigation operations.

Uncle Sam will impose penalties on individuals or countries stealing US technology.

The US claims the ARIA did not specify China, but few if any believe it. Indeed, some analysts even suggest that the act might, in fact, be a new tactic to contain China.

Is China the “aggressor” in the Asia-Pacific?

Critics and security analysts were quick to point out that the ARIA could be a “headache” for China. Singapore-based analyst Colin Koh assumed US regional allies would rally to join the US in countering China. Tony Nash, chief of Complete Intelligence, said the act shows the US has “friends” in the region. Derek Grossman, a senior analyst at the Rand Corporation, suggested the ARIA demonstrates the US commitment in the Asia-Pacific. All three analysts suggested that Asian countries would choose the US over China.

However, the reality on the ground might tell a different story, in that most countries – except for Australia and New Zealand – might, in fact, be wary of US intrusion in the region.

China is the biggest trade partner for most, if not all, countries in the region. Contrary to accusations of China using “predatory” economics or “debt traps” to win influence, Chinese investment is largely responsible for the region’s relatively high economic growth rates and dynamism. Choosing the US over China amounts to cutting the hand that feeds them.

Contrary to US claims, China has never blocked FNOPs because a big chunk of the US$5 trillion of trade transiting the waterways is Chinese imports and exports. If one bothers to check, FNOPs were never a problem until then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared the South China Sea (SCS) a US “national interest,” even though America is thousands of kilometers away.

Further, history is on China’s side. The territorial claims were made by past Chinese governments. It was the Nationalist government that drew the “Nine Dash Line” in the SCS in 1947, two years before the “evil” communists founded the People’s Republic of China.

The US was a signatory and major force behind the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations, demanding Japan return all territories it annexed to their rightful owners after World War Two. Although the declarations did not specifically name the Diaoyu Islands (Senkakus to Japan), they are within Taiwan’s exclusive economic zone. And Taiwan was mentioned.

China was exempted from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which erased all historical claims because those of China were made long before UNCLOS became effective.

According to Singaporean political observer Chua Chin Leng, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that ruled against China is not affiliated with the UN, but an administrative organization having permanent resources to settle disputes between two parties.  He dismissed the PCA as a US-inspired “kangaroo court” whose ruling  was rejected not only by China but Taiwan as well.

Han Dongping, a professor at Warren Wilson College in the US, concurred. He claimed that the PCA existed only because it serves the US’s interest. Ruling against China did just that, giving “legitimate” cover to US meddling in the SCS.

In light of Taiwan siding with the mainland government to reject the PCA ruling, no future government – Communist, Nationalist or multi-party democracies – will recognize claims within the “Nine Dash Line.”

Asian countries unwilling to join US

It is difficult to fathom why any Asian nation, including Australia and New Zealand, would side with the US to “contain” China, being fully aware that siding with America could risk their economic well-being and security.

A proxy war between China and the US would be fought in the South or East China Sea, crushing the neighborhood like two elephants on a rampage

A proxy war between China and the US would be fought in the South or East China Sea, crushing the neighborhood like two elephants on a rampage.

Because of national interest risks, the majority of  businesses and people in the region would likely oppose any formal alliance with the US. Indeed, the opposition to join the US is already in motion, in that businesses are forcing the anti-China Abe government in Japan to seek rapprochement with its neighbor.

Even US businesses are urging their government to cooperate with rather than fight China. The latest is Apple, which has lost almost 10% of its value because the Chinese are switching from iPads and iPhones to Chinese-made electronic gadgets. Apple is losing its “shine” because its products are overpriced and overrated, although the economy slowing down played a role.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, including ones making territorial claims against China, have agreed to establish a code of conduct on the SCS and platforms to jointly develop the region. India seems to be walking away from the “Quad” proposal, seeking closer economic and security relations with China.

Vietnam has no reason to “love” America after it relentlessly bombed the country, killing hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese over a lie. In light of reports of American soldiers committing crimes, it is also doubtful that the majority of South Korean and Japanese people want their countries to host US military bases.

In short, few if any countries in the region want to choose sides. They only want to left alone to develop their economies and improve their people’s lives, preferring to settle territorial claims with China through dialogue.

Past US attempts

Past US attempts to “contain” China failed miserably. The “pivot” to Asia was largely responsible for China building islands to reinforce its claims. US FNOPS caused China to install military assets on the islands. Senior US officials’ warnings of Chinese “predatory” economic practices and “aggression” culminated in more Chinese investment and were largely ignored. The list goes on.

In this regard, there is no reason to believe ARIA will be anymore successful. The fact of the matter is that China is too big and strong to be coerced. The latest FNOP was conducted by the USS Campbell in China’s exclusive economic zone. The destroyer was quickly chased away by Chinese forces. It would seem that China is determined to defend its “core interests,” with force if necessary.

Besides, it is doubtful that China did what the US claims: stealing US technology, practicing “predatory” economics, and other “evil” deeds.

Ken Moak

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.

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