Evan Vucci/AP
In this July 2015 photo, President Obama meets with Vietnamese Communist party secretary general Nguyen Phu Trong in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Mr. Obama is visiting Vietnam this week.

With eye on South China Sea, China's neighbors weave new security web

President Obama visits Vietnam and Japan this week. The US approach to security in the region is shifting as its friends in the region forge new ties among themselves.

President Barack Obama’s visit to Hanoi is doubtless replete with historic and symbolic significance. On Monday, he offered to sell America’s old enemy lethal weapons. But for a clue as to how nations across Asia are redrawing their security map in novel ways, look instead at two lower-profile recent visitors to Vietnam.

One was Philippines Foreign Minister Jose Rene Almendras, in Hanoi a month ago to agree on an action plan expected to lead soon to joint maritime exercises. The next day the Japanese Navy showed up, in the shape of two destroyers docking at Cam Ranh Bay, the first ever such visit.

China’s neighbors are alarmed by Beijing’s rising defense budget and its increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea, where it has built pinprick reefs and shoals into weapons-ready islands. Their response? To weave a thickening web of new ties among themselves.

From Japan to India, and from Australia to Vietnam, “all sorts of new security configurations have evolved,” says Bonnie Glaser, a regional analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

For decades, Washington protected its interests and friends in East Asia by throwing a “hub and spoke” security blanket over the region, constructed from a series of bilateral arrangements.

But now, America’s friends are getting together directly, in all sorts of ways and at all sorts of levels.

There are trilateral mechanisms, such as the high level talks that began last year among Japan, Australia, and India on topics including maritime security. Or bilateral deals, such as India’s $100 million loan to Vietnam to buy patrol boats, and Japan’s leasing of five surveillance aircraft to the Philippines, bolstering those Southeast Asian nations’ ability to keep an eye on waters where China challenges their territorial claims.

At the end of last year, India and Japan agreed on their common “Vision 2025” pledging “closer coordination and effective communication, bilaterally and with partners, to address existing and emerging challenges in spheres of security, stability and sustainable development.”

A few months earlier, India and Australia held their first joint naval exercises for many years. Also last year, Canberra agreed to hold joint naval exercises with Vietnam and to train the Vietnamese military.

The US role

These emerging relationships are underpinned, of course, by regional nations’ existing ties with the United States, which Washington is keen to deepen with Mr. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy.

Last month, for example, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said India and the US had agreed in principle to use each other’s military bases for resupply, repair, and rest.

Japan, after bitter public debate, recently renounced its self-imposed bans on both arms sales and on sending troops to assist allies, such as the United States or its forces in Asia, if they came under attack.

Australian troops joined US and Filipino soldiers and sailors in joint exercises in the Philippines last month, prompting China to warn “outsiders” against interfering in regional disputes. In March, Manila became Washington’s most important partner in Southeast Asia with a deal allowing for a rotating US military presence at five bases in the Philippines.

Washington and its partners explain their increasingly dense network of security arrangements by the need to guarantee a rules-based international order on the high seas. That implicitly points the finger at Beijing, whose claims to almost all the South China Sea – and assertive moves to bolster those claims - have brought it into conflict with many of its neighbors.

China complains that the US and its allies are pursuing a cold war-like policy of containment, seeking to deny Beijing’s right to build more warships and send them far afield into the Pacific and Indian oceans.

'Quadrilateral security'

Such complaints, forcefully expressed, contributed to the demise in 2008 of a short-lived “quadrilateral security dialogue” among the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. That did not stop Adm. Harry Harris, head of US Pacific Command, from re-launching the idea in March.

“We are all united in supporting the rules-based order that has kept the peace and is essential to all of us,” Harris said in a speech in Delhi titled “Let’s be ambitious.”

The project does not, however, seem to have gained much traction. Such a four-way partnership would inevitably be led by the United States, says Raja Mohan, head of Carnegie India, a branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank. That, he suggests, “would play into the Chinese argument that if only the Americans left the region, everything would be fine.”

Shinzo Abe, the Japanese premier who first promoted the idea of a “security diamond” of Asian democracies 10 years ago, would like to revive it, but “there have been no clear results,” says Akihisa Nagashima, a former vice defense minister of Japan.

“It would be premature to rush into a quadrilateral mechanism,” Mr. Nagashima adds. “We have to be prudent about ganging four major countries up” against China.

The Indian view

India, with its long tradition of diplomatic and military non-alignment, is especially reluctant to join anything that smacks of an anti-Chinese alliance, says P.K. Ghosh, a former Indian naval officer who now works at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in Delhi.

“India would not like to be seen to be too close to Western military forces,” he explains. But even as Delhi tries to be even-handed, Dr. Ghosh adds, “of course we are apprehensive of the way China is going in the Indian Ocean,” where Chinese naval vessels, including submarines, have been increasingly active since they first appeared nearly a decade ago.

That has prompted India to reach out not only to its immediate neighbors such as Bangladesh, the Maldives, and the Seychelles, but to look further afield. India is training Vietnamese submariners in one of its many cooperative projects with Hanoi, and last year agreed to let Japan join its annual Malabar exercises with the US Navy.

“We can achieve our aim – interoperability of our forces – without an upfront quadrilateral security dialogue,” says Dr. Ghosh. “We can do it with separate bilateral and trilateral arrangements more subtly, with finesse.”

In the light of India’s reservations, such ‘minilateral’ mechanisms “are actually much more effective” than a four-way arrangement restricted by a lowest common denominator, says Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australia’s National University in Canberra. “There has been much more profound cooperation – high-level exercises and sensitive intelligence sharing” than would have been possible in a "quad," he adds.

That regional approach also “sends signals to China that its behavior is obliging [its neighbors] to strengthen security relations with each other and with the US,” Prof. Medcalf says.

What's next?

Though there are few signs yet that Beijing is changing its behavior as a result, the next few weeks “will probably be a very critical juncture,” predicts Ms. Glaser. How China reacts to an expected ruling against its South China Sea claims by an international maritime tribunal, and whether or not it occupies and fortifies Scarborough Shoal, also claimed by the Philippines and Taiwan, will be decisive.

If China steps up its assertiveness, says Nagashima, “that would make us think about a different stage of reaction, including the ‘quad.’ ”

“Those four countries would be a pretty powerful constellation to counter Chinese influence if they ever joined forces,” adds Medcalf. “It is a good idea to keep it as an option, an arrow in our quiver if Chinese behavior worsens.” 

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