In the early years of China’s rise to economic and military prowess, the guiding principle for its government was former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) maxim: “Hide your strength, bide your time.”
Now, more than three decades after paramount leader Deng launched his reforms, that policy has seemingly lapsed or simply become unworkable as China’s military muscle becomes too expansive to conceal and its ambitions too pressing to postpone.
The current row with Southeast Asian nations over territorial claims in the energy-rich South China Sea is a prime manifestation of this change, especially the standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) in China and Taiwan.
“This is not what we saw 20 years ago,” said Ross Babbage, a defense analyst and founder of the Canberra-based Kokoda Foundation, an independent security policy unit. “China is a completely different actor now. Security planners are wondering if it is like this now, what is it going to be like in 20 years time?”
As China also continues to modernize its navy at breakneck speed, a growing sense of unease over Beijing’s long-term ambitions has galvanized the exact response Deng was anxious to avoid, regional security experts say.
In what is widely interpreted as a counter to China’s growing influence, the US is pushing ahead with a muscular realignment of its forces toward the Asia-Pacific region, despite Washington’s fatigue with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Pentagon’s steep budget cuts.
Regional nations, including those with a history of adversarial or distant relations with the US, are embracing Washington’s so-called strategic pivot to Asia.
“In recent years, because of the tensions and disputes in the South China Sea, most regional states in Southeast Asia seem to welcome and support US strategic rebalancing in the region,” said Li Mingjiang (李明江), an assistant professor and China security policy expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “Very likely, this trend will continue in coming years.”
Last week, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta laid out the details of the firepower the administration of US President Barack Obama plans to swing to the Asia-Pacific region.
As part of the strategic pivot unveiled in January, the US plans to deploy 60 percent of its warships in the Asia-Pacific region, up from 50 percent now. They will include six aircraft carriers and a majority of the US Navy’s cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines.
“Make no mistake, in a steady, deliberate and sustainable way, the United States military is rebalancing and bringing an enhanced capability development to this vital region,” Panetta told the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security conference in Singapore attended by civilian and military leaders from Asia-Pacific and Western nations.
For some of China’s smaller neighbors like the Philippines, there is a pressing urgency to build warmer security ties with Washington.
A two-month standoff between the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal shows no sign of resolution, with both sides deploying paramilitary ships and fishing boats to the disputed chain of rocks, reefs and small islands about 220km from the Philippines.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III met Obama on Friday at the White House, where the two discussed expanding military and economic ties.