Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 09/2012

By Invitation, Mostly: the International Politics of the US Security Presence, China, and the South China Sea

Christopher Freise

August 2012

S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies


Much attention has been devoted to the Obama Administration’s “Pacific Pivot” and the vocal reassertion of an upgraded security, economic, and diplomatic presence in East Asia by the United States. Commentators have ascribed various rationales to these efforts, including speculation that this is part of a “containment” strategy towards China, a reaction to the US presidential election cycle, or, more benignly, an effort to forestall concerns of American withdrawal from the region. These explanations have some elements of truth, but also fall short of fully describing or understanding the strategic rationale behind these moves. Significantly, these public steps to assert American power in Southeast Asia have been largely welcomed by, and come at the invitation of, Southeast Asian states. This does not suggest that these states support or are participating in a “containment” policy towards China, but rather that Southeast Asian states have actively sought to ensure a continued American security presence in the face of increasing Chinese assertiveness and aggressiveness over the South China Sea. The South China Sea has therefore become a bellwether in Southeast Asia for how a more powerful China would act. While responses have varied within ASEAN, the willingness of the United States to pursue successful diplomatic efforts through ASEAN-led venues like the East Asia Summit suggest that Chinese actions have resulted in the very thing Beijing has sought to avoid – an increasingly legitimatized American security presence within Southeast Asia. For the states of Southeast Asia, the attractiveness of the United States’ presence stems from a strategy of hedging or potential insurance should China act more aggressively in the future. While China retains important advantages in Southeast Asia, including proximity and the allure of continued economic growth, these also remain issues that elicit some concern amongst Southeast Asian states – particularly over the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) substantial budgetary and strategic expansion. Chinese leaders face difficult decisions over the South China Sea: unable to back off its initial claims due to nationalistic sentiment or to aggressively assert its military advantage over fellow claimants due to the (invited) security presence of the United States and undoubted backlash that would certainly occur, it is forced to pursue its claims in multilateral forums in which it is outnumbered, or attempt to pressure other claimants bilaterally, a tactic that may confirm fears many Southeast Asian states have about what form a “rising China” may take in the future. China retains the most power over how the South China Sea situation will be resolved, but the present options available will likely force some compromise of China’s maximalist territorial claims within the Sea.