Barack Obama has overseen an “unprecedented” US military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region, according to Chinese government-backed analysts, who warn that a dramatic rise in US surveillance activities threatens stability in the region.
At the dawn of a new era in US foreign policy heralded by the election of Donald Trump as US president, analysts at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies said they saw the “rebalance” to Asia launched by the US in 2009 as dangerously escalatory.
The US “is continuously increasing its military deployments and military base network in the Asia-Pacific region,” Wu Shicun, the institute’s director, said at a press conference on Friday. “Currently the scale of US military deployments in the region is unprecedented.”
The event, along with a report by the institute on US military deployments, appeared to be an effort to challenge the US narrative of an assertive and confrontational China.
Beijing has long chafed at an increase in what it sees as military challenges by Washington — such as surveillance flights near China’s shores and efforts tosend ships into disputed territorial waters claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, named “Freedom of Navigation” operations by the US.
The US “targeted” China with 1,200 close reconnaissance missions by ships and aircraft in 2014, up from 200 in 2009, according to the institute’s report. American military vessels and aircraft carried out more than 700 patrols in the South China Sea region during 2015, making China the country’s number one surveillance target, it said.
Mr Wu also reiterated past warnings that China could decide to set up an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea if the US continued to intensify patrols and surveillance in the region. Such a move would in effect claim airspace over an area that is contested by many countries.
Washington insists the so-called rebalancing under Mr Obama is a peaceful effort at “engagement” with the region but Beijing sees it as an effort to contain China’s rise.
“I think it is fair to say that the US has increased the pace and intensity of surveillance flights all along China’s periphery, and that has been commensurate with China’s military modernisation,” said Alex Neill of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies in Singapore. “I think the reason that this is becoming an issue now is that we now know who the new US president is going to be.”
Mr Wu admitted that when the report was prepared, the institute “like everyone else” believed the next US president would be Hillary Clinton. However, he and other analysts said the conclusions were still relevant.
Zhu Feng, an expert on the South China Sea from Nanjing University, warned on Friday that while “Trump might not use the word ‘rebalancing’, he will retain key elements within the rebalancing strategy framework”.
“No matter what the Trump foreign policy will be called … I personally think that for his foreign and security strategies, consistency will outweigh change.”