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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Misreading of events, the war games: US-Japan 'Dawn Blitz, US-Philippine 'CARAT', Russia-China joint naval drill

US - Japan War games: An amphibious vehicle landing on Red Beachat Marine Corps Camp Pendleton - AP

Yet again, unrealistic assumptions about China’s military power are producing unhealthy and unhelpful pronouncements about the region’s future.

FOR two weeks in June, US and Japanese military forces converged on southern California for amphibious war games designed to boost their attack capacity against a third party.

The “Dawn Blitz” exercise near San Diego involved 1,000 Japanese troops with three of their warships and several attack helicopters, and more inputs from the US forces. Mock Air-Sea Battles (ASBs) were staged on San Clemente Island and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

War games are repeatedly staged between the US and Japan, but Dawn Blitz was the most ambitious yet for Tokyo. For the first time, Japanese troops and warships traversed the Pacific to prepare for war.

Dawn Blitz also saw joint preparations on all planetary fronts: land, sea and air. In involving armies, navies and air forces, it implied plans for more than just strictly “Air-Sea Battles”.

The war games came after China’s re-assertion of sovereignty around the disputed Pinnacle Islands in the East China Sea in April, which China calls Diaoyutai and Japan calls Senkaku. That move in turn came after Japan nationalised the uninhabited islands.

Dawn Blitz also came just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping met his US counterpart Barack Obama in California. How was China’s response to the exercises?

Diplomats and government spokespersons in Beijing remained tight-lipped, as they did in Washington and Tokyo.

However, Japan’s Kyodo News Service, citing unnamed Japanese officials, reported that China had asked the US and Japan to cancel the military exercises. Nobody would confirm or deny that such a request had been made.

It is doubtful if such a request would ever be met. If China showed that the US-Japan military drills were an irritant, there could be more of them.

Last week, a six-day joint military exercise between US and Philippine forces took place in the South China Sea. CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) 2013 came after Manila complained of Chinese assertions of sovereignty over disputed islands, following Philippine moves deemed provocative.

Such exercises have energised Philippine nationalists into thinking that the US would come to the Philippines’ “defence”, however widely defined, in any altercation with a third party.

That assumption has been elevated into an argument for intemperate Filipinos to enlarge and extend military operations in disputed territories. Such actions would never be contemplated without the prospect of US intervention, yet they are based entirely on the untenable presumption that there would surely be such interventions.

Sober observers would question the extent and conditions that would make US military interventions in East Asia compelling. But in the heat of sabre-rattling and self-righteous posturing, sobriety is easily and often lost.

Events that otherwise would be regarded as significant or of interest may also be overlooked. Chinese officials may not be forthcoming with telling remarks on such occasions, but neither are Chinese policymakers standing still.

On the day that US-Philippine drills were launched (June 27), China’s southernmost Hainan province established a “maritime fishery resource breeding and research base” in the waters of Zhongsha Islands or Macclesfield Bank.

The islands are claimed by China and Taiwan, with conflicting reports of whether the Philippines also claims them. Complicating the issue is the fact that the “islands” are not really islands because they are completely submerged, so that territorial claims over them are inadmissible under UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea).

Nonetheless, Philippine nationalists who are not otherwise distracted might find cause to be alarmed by the establishment of a Chinese “base” in such a place at such a time. Notwithstanding the innocuous official purposes of fishery resource breeding and research, it is a timely observation post in a strategic location.

But if Philippine or Japanese nationalists are hunting for hotter, full-blooded causes to rant over, they will have little difficulty after the joint military exercises with the US.

On Friday, China and Russia launched military drills in Peter the Great Bay and the Sea of Japan. Already, the occasion has prompted speculation about a “China threat”.

Beijing and Moscow see it differently, of course. For other countries in the region, if the US and Japan or the Philippines can do it, why not Russia and China?

Officials in Beijing and Moscow see their military exercises as safeguarding the peace, security and sovereignty of the region. They also say that the drills are routine, and set in “the context of the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries”.

An objective account of the situation would approach the following positions.

First, no country or alliance of countries can have a monopoly of conducting military exercises permitted under international law. Such drills have happened before and will continue to happen.

Second, military exercises by allies tend to “inspire” similar exercises by others. Ultimately it should not matter who started them, only that they be conducted lawfully and peaceably.

Third, a question: do war games promote or threaten peace? Unless a prevailing peace has clearly been broken as a result, the answer may seem moot or academic.

Seen from several angles, tensions in parts of the South China Sea and adjacent waters have lately provoked discussion of the prospect of war involving the US and China.

That prospect is currently most improbable. Yet however unlikely a development, there are those in some of the interested countries already contemplating it.

Given a choice, neither China nor the US will want to consider waging war with the other. However, the prospect is increased when third countries attempting to further their national interests oblige the US to intervene in regional disputes.

Some analysts promote such dire outcomes with three narrow outlooks.

The first assumes that Chinese military upgrades in recent years resulted directly from such events as the 1996 US show of force in the Taiwan Straits, following Chinese missile tests and military exercises in the area. But major policy decisions like military modernisation have more complex roots than that.

China has for decades endured an outdated military infrastructure and hardware, even as it remained bogged down with an oversized army in need of retraining. Economic growth has enabled the sea change, beginning with demobilisation to cut down staff numbers while relying more on technology.

The second unhelpful assumption is more specific: that China’s military modernisation is focused on anti-access or anti-denial capabilities. Thus Chinese forces are seen to be concentrating on blocking the movements of US forces as the dominant power in East Asia.

Such an analysis typically neglects considering how China’s military development spans a range of offensive and defensive functions, including but not necessarily being obsessed with blocking US military manoeuvres. But negative readings will in turn spawn negative outcomes, making for self-fulfilling prophecies.

The third misreading of events presumes that China seeks to challenge and replace US military domination of the region. But why would savvy and pragmatic Chinese leaders want to incur the high costs of doing that, when US naval patrols in the Pacific are already safeguarding shipping routes in serving various national interests, particularly China’s?

Military exercises have a logic of quantity, that is more of them will beget even more of them. But sound analysis needs a logic of quality, where common and easy assumptions are critically and continually questioned.

Behind the headlines by Bunn Bagara

> Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.
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Who owns Diaoyu Islands? 
Who owns the South China Sea islets in the eyes of the world ... 
 Chinese Navy defends South China Sea

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