(Reuters) – In the early years of China’s rise to economic and military prowess, the guiding principle for its government was Deng Xiaoping’s maxim: “Hide Your Strength, Bide Your Time.”
Now, more than three decades after paramount leader Deng launched his reforms, that policy has seemingly lapsed or simply become unworkable as China’s military muscle becomes too expansive to conceal and its ambitions too pressing to postpone.
The current row with Southeast Asian nations over territorial claims in the energy-rich South China Sea is a prime manifestation of this change, especially the standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal.
“This is not what we saw 20 years ago,” said Ross Babbage, a defense analyst and founder of the Canberra-based Kokoda Foundation, an independent security policy unit.
“China is a completely different actor now. Security planners are wondering if it is like this now, what is it going to be like in 20 years time?”
As China also continues to modernize its navy at breakneck speed, a growing sense of unease over Beijing’s long-term ambitions has galvanized the exact response Deng was anxious to avoid, regional security experts say.
In what is widely interpreted as a counter to China’s growing influence, the United States is pushing ahead with a muscular realignment of its forces towards the Asia-Pacific region, despite Washington’s fatigue with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Pentagon’s steep budget cuts.
And regional nations, including those with a history of adversarial or distant relations with the United States, are embracing Washington’s so-called strategic pivot to Asia.
“In recent years, because of the tensions and disputes in the South China Sea, most regional states in Southeast Asia seem to welcome and support U.S. strategic rebalancing in the region,” said Li Mingjiang, an assistant professor and China security policy expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“Very likely, this trend will continue in coming years.”
Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laid out the details of the firepower the Obama administration plans to swing to the Asia-Pacific region.
As part of the strategic pivot unveiled in January, the United States will deploy 60 per cent of its warships in the Asia-Pacific, up from 50 per cent now. They will include six aircraft carriers and a majority of the U.S. navy’s cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines.
“Make no mistake, in a steady, deliberate and sustainable way, the United States military is rebalancing and bringing an enhanced capability development to this vital region,” Panetta told the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security conference in Singapore attended by civilian and military leaders from Asia-Pacific and Western nations.
For some of China’s smaller neighbors like the Philippines, there is a pressing urgency to build warmer security ties with Washington.
A two-month standoff between the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal shows no sign of resolution, with both sides deploying paramilitary ships and fishing boats to the disputed chain of rocks, reefs and small islands about 220 km (130 miles) from the Philippines.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino met President Barack Obama on Friday at the White House, where the two discussed expanding military and economic ties.
Obama later told reporters that clear, international rules were needed to resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
While the standoff continues, reports last week in China’s state-controlled media and online military websites suggested that the first of a new class of a stealthy littoral combat frigate, the type 056, had been launched at Shanghai’s Hudong shipyard with three others under construction.
Naval analysts said the new 1,700-tonne ship, armed with a 76mm main gun, missiles and anti-submarine torpedoes, would be ideal for patrolling the South China Sea.
These new warships would easily outgun the warships of rival claimants, they said.
The type 056 is the latest example of an accelerated military buildup that allows China to dominate its offshore waters.
While these warships were designed for lower-level regional conflict, experts say one of the primary goals of Beijing’s wider deployment of advanced, long-range missiles, stealthy submarines, strike aircraft and cyber weapons appears to be countering the U.S. military in the region.
“China is investing in a whole raft of capabilities to undermine the U.S. presence in the Western and Central Pacific,” said Babbage, a former senior Australian defense official.
“It is a fundamental challenge to the U.S. in Asia.”
Panetta and other U.S. officials routinely reject suggestions that the pivot is aimed at China but military commentators in Beijing appear in no doubt.
In a report last week on the U.S. military, the China Strategic Culture Promotion Association, a non-government security analysis group, said Beijing should be on alert in response to the U.S. military “return to Asia” and any attempt to intervene in disputes in the South China Sea.
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