It made headlines as the likely source of the Navy’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, but the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s port call in March to Da Nang, Vietnam, may be remembered in the long run as a milestone in a major power shift in Asia.
The Roosevelt, only the second U.S. aircraft carrier to make a port call in Vietnam since the fall of Saigon in 1975, marked 25 years since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations.
But Pentagon officials and private analysts say the openness about military cooperation between the former enemies is part of a larger reaction by Asian countries to China’s increasingly assertive polices. U.S. defense officials, who have long sought to enlist China’s neighbors in an effort to contain Beijing, are increasingly finding open doors.
Vietnam has talked of increasing U.S. weapons purchases as it clashes with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. India, which had a brief but bloody border confrontation with China last month, conducted joint exercises this week with the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean. Australia and Japan joined the U.S. in naval exercises in the Philippine Sea.
“In just the last few months, Beijing has asserted control over Hong Kong, intruded into Taiwan’s airspace, trained guns on the Philippine navy, harassed Malaysian vessels, sunk a Vietnamese fishing ship, rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel, reignited a deadly border conflict with India, and conducted cyberattacks and economic coercion against Australia,” said a ForeignPolicy.com analysis this week by Charles Edel of the U.S. Studies Center at the University of Sydney and American Enterprise Institute senior research fellow Zack Cooper.
Trump administration officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are making the case that China’s neighbors must work with the U.S. to counter Beijing’s strategic belligerence.
China is engaging in “systematic rule-breaking, coercion and other malign activities” while attempting to bully smaller nations around the South China Sea, Mr. Esper said during a discussion Tuesday with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Mr. Esper cited the Malaysian and Vietnamese incidents as a harbinger of things to come.
“This catalog of bad behavior accompanies a pattern of the [Chinese Communist Party’s] brazen disregard to international commitments,” he said. China “has engaged in this sort of behavior for many years. Today, its true intentions are on full display for all to see.”
The United States, in response, has been offering assistance to Vietnam and other countries in the region. In 2016, the U.S. lifted its ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Hanoi. It transferred a Coast Guard cutter to Vietnam a year later to help its maritime law enforcement capabilities and last year approved the transfer of a second military-grade vessel.
“We continue to bolster our growing network of Indo-Pacific allies and partners — a strategic advantage our competitors cannot match,” Mr. Esper said.
India and the Philippines have long tried to pursue a balancing act between Beijing and Washington. They have relied heavily on China as the region’s economic superpower but kept ties to the U.S. to prevent Beijing from dominating East Asia.
Mr. Pompeo said this week that incidents like the border battle are clear signs to India and other countries in the region that they should reduce their links to China and embrace closer ties with Washington.
China’s official press has been filled in recent days with warnings that India will be disappointed if it casts its lot too heavily with Washington. Analysts say the warnings are signs of rising concerns in China about warming U.S.-Indian ties.
India has “a significant military, and it’s a military that is getting better,” said Bradley Bowman, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said several smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific region are interested in participating in U.S.-led freedom of navigation operations through disputed waters in order to challenge China’s expansive sovereignty claims.
“They all face the same concern: an unconstrained China operating in the South China Sea and making extreme and excessive maritime claims,” Mr. Hoffman said.
China claims large swaths of the South China Sea, including areas where other countries also have claims. The U.S. has increasingly stopped calling for negotiations over the conflicting demands and said it now rejects China’s claims and its efforts to intimidate smaller neighbors.
“We’re going to stand with our allies and partners in Southeast Asia to help them uphold their sovereign rights,” said Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. “This is not a U.S.–China issue. This is an international rules based order-China issue.”
‘Nightmare scenario’ for China
Effectively deterring China will require military relationships with long-standing allies including Japan and Australia along with deepening ties to countries such as India and Vietnam, Mr. Bowman said.
“If you’re a Beijing military planner, that’s a nightmare scenario,” he said. “There are significant elements in the defense and political establishment that are calling for a full-fledged alliance with the U.S.”
Even long-standing friction points between the U.S. and China have worsened. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said this week that China has stepped up military activities nearby, including mock invasions of an island that the mainland insists is part of China.
“What China is doing now is continuing to ramp up preparedness to solve the Taiwan issue,” Mr. Wu told reporters Wednesday in Taipei. “The threat is on the rise.”
The United States continues to expand its defense sales to India, and Mr. Esper said he looks forward to a meeting this year between the defense and foreign ministry officials of both countries, known as a 2 + 2 dialogue.
“If I were to make a short list of countries that we need to partner with more effectively, in order to effectively deter [Chinese] aggression over the long term, I would put India at or near the top,” Mr. Bowman said. “We have an alignment of democratic values. They are soon to be the world’s most populous country. They share a border with China, [and] they fought a border war with China.”
India has spent most of its defense money on Russian weapons over the years.
“In many cases, [the weaponry] is old and not particularly good. There’s a need for India to periodically buy additional parts and logistical maintenance items for that equipment from the Russians,” Mr. Bowman said. “There is a segment of the political and military establishment in India, even now, that has nostalgia for Russia. There’s an inertia that develops if you’ve been buying equipment from a certain country for decades.”
But India has been increasing its purchase of big-ticket American items, including C-17 Globemaster III cargo jets, Chinook CH-47 heavy-lift helicopters and the AH-64E Apache attack helicopter, The Indian Express newspaper reported.
“We’re already doing a lot with them, but we could do more,” Mr. Bowman said.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, led by Adm. Davidson, covers 36 countries, 14 time zones and more than 50% of the world’s population.
“It’s the single most consequential region for America’s future and the United States’ priority theater,” Adm. Davidson told defense reporters Tuesday from his headquarters in Hawaii.
A 2018 U.S. defense strategy paper identified major nation-states, in particular a rising China, as the biggest long-term challenge for American security. U.S. officials warn that China is trying to exploit the global disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to take a more assertive stance in the region, even as bilateral relations with the U.S. deteriorate.
The government of Chinese President Xi Jinping “is actively seeking to supplant the established rules-based international order [and] trying to dictate new norms and behaviors on the international community,” he said. “The People’s Republic of China represents the greatest long-term strategic threat to security not only to the Indo-Pacific but to the entire globe.”
It’s important for the United States working alongside partners, both large and small, to keep Beijing in check, Adm. Davidson said.
“We can certainly lose without fighting in this environment,” he said, but “the United States is not alone in this effort. We remain deeply committed with our allies and partners here in the Indo-Pacific.”