US steps up Asia-Pacific pivot
The US is stepping up its strategic engagement in the Asia-Pacific as an increasingly assertive China poses a challenge to the regional order and unnerves its allies and partners relying on its security assistance.
Under its "rebalancing" policy toward the emerging centre of power, Washington has been strengthening regional defence alliances, its military presence and multilateral institutions on security and economic matters.
The rebalancing also appears intended to target what Western analysts call China's "string of pearls" strategy, which could help the Asian power gain a strong maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, an area covering crucial sea lines of communication en route to the mainland.
The US is rebalancing not only toward the region but also within it. Washington has sought a more balanced distribution of its military resources, which had long been concentrated on Northeast Asia.
With South Korea and Japan remaining its staunch allies, Washington is refocusing its foreign policy on Southeast Asian countries, some of which are called "swing players", balancing the interests of the US and China without taking the side of either in order to maximise their own national interests.
Southeast Asian states are of great strategic importance as they stretch across the Indian and Pacific Oceans where the world's most crucial trading and energy supply routes pass including the vulnerable and congested Strait of Malacca.
Many of the countries harbour enmity towards China due to the escalating territorial rows in the energy-rich South China Sea. Many, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have sought America's help in backing them over the escalating spats.
From Washington's perspective, China's aggressive behaviour in the maritime disputes could disrupt the regional "rule-based" order, which the US has fostered since the end of World War II.
Striving to use the 10-member Asean as a crucial tool to maintain regional stability and security, the US has stressed the freedom of navigation and argued that the maritime disputes be resolved peacefully, not coercively, with an oblique reference to China.
"The US is apparently seeking to prevent China from becoming too strong both militarily and economically so that it can continue to maintain regional primacy," said an Asean security expert, who wished to remain anonymous.
"The US may fear that if it fails to counter the rise of China, it may have to be withdrawn from the region. So, it appears intent on developing ways to weaken China's power projection capabilities."
Manila has been in an intense dispute with Beijing over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Thus it has sought stepped-up security protection from the US. To defuse tension, China reportedly made a proposal earlier this month to jointly develop untapped oil and natural gas reserves in the disputed area.
Vietnam, which had also shunned the US troop presence, has sought to build military ties amid its own territorial dispute with China over the Spratly and Paracel islands. Hanoi has been seen gradually allowing the US to use its naval bases as calling ports.
Singapore has also agreed on the rotational deployment of four US littoral combat ships for shallow-water operations. In the city state, the US navy runs a small logistical support facility.
Thailand also signed a joint vision statement with the US last year to strengthen their military cooperation in maintaining regional maritime security, humanitarian relief and other areas of mutual concern. Their military ties date back to the Vietnam War when the US used its territory to launch air strikes.
Australia has showed off its robust alliance with the US by agreeing to the rotational deployment of up to 2,500 US marines to its northern city of Darwin.
But in line with their deepening economic interdependence with China, some of these countries including Australia feel that they should not damage the relationship with Beijing too significantly.
Other than gaining greater military access to the region, Washington has also sought to forge the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal for a free-trade bloc linking the Pacific-rim states. This move is based on its belief that economic interdependence would lead to greater trust among states, and regional stability and prosperity.
China has virtually been excluded from the bloc and apparently believes it is another move to hamper its rise as a global power.
'String of pearls'
For China, securing an unimpeded, stable supply of energy and resources is of paramount importance to continue economic growth and thus strengthen public support for the political leadership.
It has sought to develop safer, shorter and more cost-effective maritime and overland trade routes by strengthening relations with Indian Ocean states including Pakistan and Myanmar through economic assistance and other support programmes.
The West has eyed the moves with suspicion, arguing that its creation of the so-called string of pearls would be a prelude to building a series of naval bases that could undermine the freedom of navigation and challenge the US for regional preponderance.
The vital nodes in China's grand geopolitical strategy include Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, and Sittawe and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar.
China argues that these sites are for commercial ports that would help reduce its heavy dependence on the risky maritime choke-points such as the Strait of Malacca, controlled by the US and its partners. More than 80 per cent of its oil imports pass through the strait.
"As the US's strong naval power is projected in the South China Sea and over other major shipping lanes around the world, China feels much pressure. Thus, it seeks to develop pipelines passing through Myanmar and Central Asian states, and Arctic shipping routes," said Ahn Se-hyun, international relations professor at the University of Seoul.
"Rivalry over energy appears more intense than the Cold War-era contest. As China relies mostly on overseas energy resources, it would deal a serious blow to its economy, should energy prices go up due to shipping problems."
China could send its warships to its overseas ports under the name of energy security, Ahn added.
One of the most crucial "pearls" for China is Myanmar, which could give China direct access to the Indian Ocean and help it build an overland route to transport oil from the Middle East and Africa to its southwestern province of Yunnan.
Aware of its geopolitical value, Washington has recently sought to mend ties with Myanmar. In November, President Obama made a historic visit to the Asean state, which the West has rewarded for its progress toward reform and democracy with the lifting of long-standing economic sanctions.
Jang Jun-young, senior research fellow at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said that Myanmar is unlikely to take the side of any great power to maintain its geo-strategic flexibility.
"Myanmar had been leaning toward China, but it has recently moved toward the centre of the pendulum as its relationship with the US has improved. But historically, Myanmar, surrounded by big powers such as China and India, has not employed any foreign policy relying on any one big power," he said.