Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies think tank (NISCSS), has issued a landmark report on the United States’ military presence in the Asia-Pacific.
“There will not be a reversal in the Asia-Pacific policy, but the strategic rivalry between China and the US is likely to continue over the South China Sea,” he told reporters in Beijing.
The institute’s report is the first of its kind by a Chinese academic institution to compile available data on US military spending and deployment in the region.
It said the US has taken action to counter what it perceives as China limiting freedom of navigation in the region, which has created fears of military conflict between the two powers.
“From the US perspective, China’s large-scale construction activities in the South China Sea confirmed US suspicion that China intended to implement an anti-access/area-denial strategy,” the report said.
“The US has made the South China Sea issue an important vehicle for it to implement its Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy. Its direct involvement in the South China Sea would increase the cost of China’s rise.”
According to the findings, the US military has carried out more than 700 naval and aerial patrols in the region over the past year.
Mr Wu warned these continued targeted operations could lead to militarisation of the waters, increasing the likelihood of conflict in the region.
“China could possibly set up an Air Defence Identification Zone in the South China Sea if the US continues to intensify patrols and low-altitude spying in the region,” he said.
WHERE DOES DONALD TRUMP FIT INTO THIS?
Mr Wu warned it’s “very possible” for Donald Trump to deploy extra vessels in the disputed region.
The President-elect was notably silent on the South China Sea conflict during his campaign, with the exception of a March interview in which he said China had “total disregard” for the US.
“We have rebuilt China and yet they will go in the South China Sea and build a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen,” he told The New York Times.
“They do that, and they do that at will because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country.”
Since the election, his transition team has said it is looking to increase America’s military force against China.
Last week, Rudy Giuliani revealed the president-elect intends to prioritise building a “gigantic” military force to overthrow China’s ambitions in the region, which would allow them to fight a “two-ocean war”.
He said the US had made China a rich country through “bad trade deals”, adding that “they are totally disregarding our country”.
Macquarie University security studies analyst Adam Lockyer told news.com.au it was likely America would have “a lot more military muscle” under Mr Trump’s presidency.
While we can’t get ahead of ourselves, much of that will likely go into the Asia-Pacific region, because China’s a major challenger.
“On one hand they’re paying less diplomatic and critical attention to the region, but on the other they’re building more military presence in the region.”
Zhu Feng, director of the South China Sea Centre at Nanjing University, told reporters in Beijing there would be “more continuity” of the existing US military policy under Mr Trump.
Both him and Mr Wu agreed there was a high possibility of increased US military spending in the region under Mr Trump.
‘EACH SIDE NEEDS TO WORK TOGETHER’
Asia-Pacific security expert Jingdong Yuan from the Centre For International Security Studies told news.com.au that neither China nor the US were being realistic about the conflict.
“Beijing and Washington will have to work on their differences while at the same time work together on things they both agree,” he said.
“This is a very complex relationship and neither America’s will to remain predominant nor China’s desire for a Sino-centric order in Asia are realistic.
“Indeed, if they both pursue these extreme goals, conflict will become more likely and it will be deeply destabilising for the region — Australia included.”
The NISCSS stressed a similar need for the two powers to work side-by-side.
“Given their differences in history, culture, tradition, social system, ideology and level of economic development, it is inevitable that China and the United States have differences and even frictions over some issues,” it said.
“Both countries want to see a peaceful, stable and prosperous Asia-Pacific, including the East and South China Seas, and to the global commons such as the outer space, cyberspace and the sea.
“Therefore, the two countries need to always keep the whole picture in mind, stick to the overall objective of building a new model of major power relationship, and recognise their shared interests far outweigh their differences.
“The two also need to manage crisis and prevent frictions in a timely way, and stay committed to increasing understanding and building more consensus through dialogue and consultation in a constructive way.”