China is demonstrating that it can deploy forces far beyond its coastal waters on patrols where they conduct complex battle exercises, according to Japanese and Western naval experts.
Chinese shipyards are turning out new nuclear and conventional submarines, destroyers, missile-armed patrol boats and surface ships at a higher rate than any other country.
Operating from increasingly modern ports, including a new naval base in the south of Hainan Island, its warships are patrolling more regularly, in bigger numbers and further from China in what is the most sweeping shift in Asia’s maritime power balance since the demise of the Soviet navy.
China’s military diplomacy with Southeast Asia is rapidly evolving as it takes steps to promote what Beijing describes as its “peaceful rise.”
The Chinese navy’s hospital ship Peace Ark recently treated hundreds of patients on a swing last month through Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia — its first such mission across Southeast Asia. Its naval vessels returning from regular international anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden have made calls in Southeast Asian ports, including Singapore and Vietnam.
Still, analysts and diplomats say Beijing has a long way to go to catch up with not just the long-dominant US, but other regional military powers such as Australia, Japan and Russia.
“China has come late to the party,” said Richard Bitzinger, a military analyst at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍), one of Washington’s most key allies in the region, said it was disappointing Obama would not be visiting Asia.
“Obviously we prefer a US government which is working to one which is not. And we prefer a US president who is able to travel to fulfill his international duties to one who is preoccupied with his domestic preoccupations,” Lee said after arriving in Bali.
“It is a very great disappointment to us President Obama is unable to visit,” he said.
US officials dismissed the notion that Obama’s no-show would imply any weakening of the US commitment to the region.
Just last week, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and US Secretary of State John Kerry were in South Korea and Japan to reaffirm the US military commitment to the two key allies, and Kerry will fill in for Obama at the two Asian summits.
“The bottom line is that the United States of America is not going to change one iota the fundamental direction of the policy under this president,” Kerry said on Saturday.
“I think everybody in the region understands. Everybody sees this [the cancelation of the visit] as a moment in politics — an unfortunate moment — but they see it for what it is,” he said.
The US has ramped up military funding and assistance to its close ally the Philippines, expanded military exercises with other nations and increased regional port visits.
From only 50 ship visits in 2010, nearly 90 ships have visited the Philippines since January this year alone.
Washington has stationed surveillance planes there and promised up to US$30 million in support for building and operating coastal radar stations, all aimed at improving its ally’s ability to counter China’s naval encroachment in the disputed South China Sea that has alarmed several Asian nations.
However, talks to establish a framework agreement on a regular rotational US military presence in the Philippines have yet to bear fruit, and are unlikely to have been helped by Obama’s cancelation of his planned visit to Manila.