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South China Sea
U.S. and Asian Powers Step Up Joint Activity on South China Sea

In a show of force which will surely catch China’s attention, the United States and the Philippines began joint military exercises yesterday. Reuters:

Over the next two weeks, the allies will test their command-and-control, communications, logistics and mobility procedures to address humanitarian and maritime security, Philippine defense officials said.

Their troops will also simulate retaking an oil-and-gas platform and practice an amphibious landing on a Philippine beach.

“The Balikatan exercise is designed not to address a particular concern but the whole lump in the spectrum of warfare,” Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, the Philippine military’s exercise director, told a news conference.

Despite the obvious optics at a time of tension over Beijing’s presence in the South China Sea, Lopez made a point of saying, “China is not part of the idea.” That’s how American officials often talk about Asia exercises too. For example, Washington has repeatedly said its freedom of navigation operations are intended to protect the seas for everyone, against sovereignty claims from anyone.

Yet at other times American officials have been clearer that China is the chief aggressor in the region. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will stop by the joint exercises in the coming days, and it will be worth seeing if he mentions China specifically. The well-connected David Ignatius suggested two weeks ago that the Defense Department is unhappy with the White House’s comparatively softer stance on China.

Although the United States seems more assertive these days, the White House has wavered for a year on confronting Beijing more directly in the South China Sea. In the meantime, Japan and other regional powers have stepped up their own military and naval power projection—forming alliances with each other in which the United States played no formal role. One of those collaborations was on display Sunday, when a Japanese submarine docked in the Philippines this week, and it brought two Japanese destroyers along—an unusual event. The three Japanese ships are expected to make a similar “goodwill” visit to Vietnam later this month.

The U.S. remains a critical part of the web of alliances and relationships seeking to put pressure on Beijing, but joint exercises and occasional freedom of navigation exercises clearly aren’t instilling total confidence in Asian powers worried about an assertive China. It’s difficult not to suspect that rising military spending and activity on the part of formerly quiescent powers like Japan are a vote of no confidence in American leadership. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for a joint G-7 statement on the South China Sea, according to reports in the Japan Times. If Washington supports his effort to make a forceful declaration, it could signal that the era of American dithering in the South China Sea has come to a welcome end.

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