Writing for the Lowy Institute, Australian defense expert Peter Layton takes stock of the military and strategic gains made by China in recent years, and it isn’t pretty:
Over the last year, there has been a sharp regional strategic shift. In the South China Sea, China has built six large islands, three substantial air bases and three sizeable electronic surveillance installations. China has effectively moved some 1100km closer to Australia, deep into the geographic heart of the ASEAN region. […]
China now dominates militarily the central ASEAN region. In times of peace and crisis, this military capability could be used to intimidate, bully or cajole regional states. In a time of limited regional war, China is now the odds-on favourite.
Current strategies to counter Beijing’s behaviour in the South China Sea have failed dismally. ASEAN’s multilateral push has stalled on Chinese intransigence and China’s splitting of the organisation through peeling away Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines. America’s approach of occasionally sailing ships close to the islands is for China a momentary annoyance, at best. President-elect Trump’s tweets expressing his displeasure seem similar. China will not suddenly abandon its costly new facilities. They are now a permanent part of our region.
Layton’s full account of China’s gains doubles as a bleak assessment of Obama’s legacy in the region. For all the rhetorical hype about a pivot to Asia, the Obama administration failed to deter China’s expansionist push or to offset its enhanced capabilities in the South China Sea. Countries like Australia are now waking up to this reality and seeking new approaches to push back against the Chinese threat. Layton’s primary recommendation is for an expansion of collective regional air defense; notably absent is any suggestion of a U.S. role in this effort.
Increasingly, Asian countries are making calculations on China without any assumptions about future American commitments. That holds true for economic policy as well as military strategy: as we noted in November, Australia was among the first countries to publicly cut its losses on the Obama-supported TPP and support China’s alternative trade deals. The larger legacy of Obama’s ineffectual Asia policy, then, is not just the rise of China but the diminishment of American credibility among its Asian allies. Many of those allies are already casting worried eyes on Trump, so it will be no easy task to restore trust while rolling back Chinese gains.