On Sunday, the last of the American troops exited out of Iraq to mixed emotions and minimal fanfare, ending a long, painful war that has incurred great economic and human costs among US troops and Iraqi civillians. Before the metal gates finally closed on the Khabari border crossing, the US reaffirmed its resolve to refocus on Asia, buffing up their military in the region at the risk of damaging US relations with China.
In an academic article outlining plans for the US Navy in 2025, US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert declared that a number of the US’ newest littoral combat ships will be stationed in Singapore. In addition to decisions in the past month to place troops in Darwin, Australia, and a Myanmar visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, observers have been quick to point out that the US’ Asian strategy will likely upset China.
Shi Yinhong, professor and director at the Center for American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing does not doubt that these new developments are aimed at China, even though, as per Obama’s policy, US officials continue to publicly seek a cooperative stance towards Beijing.
Andi Widjajanto, a defense expert from the University of Indonesia, sees the navy’s plans as part of an effort to anticipate increased Chinese military activity in the South China Sea. Aside from Singapore, the US is also considering stationing surveillance and combat aircraft in the Philippines, which is significant as China and the Philippines are among six claimants to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea has long been a source of contention. Six different countries have laid claim to the Spratly Islands, which are intersected by a number of important sea lanes, and supposedly contain massive stores of natural fuels which are now within reach of new drilling technology, heightening tensions as various Asian nations step up their energy consumption and seek new stores of energy.
US Admiral Greenert claims that the littoral combat ships will be posted in Singapore to conduct cooperative counter-piracy and counter-trafficking operations around the South China Sea. These ships are shallow draft vessels which operate in coastal waters and can counter coastal mines, submarines and small, fast, armed boats.
Observers on all sides are watching the situation closely. China’s Xinhua news agency has yet to cover this new development, and the government of China and the Philippines, among others, are keeping mum and abstaining from commentary for now. Now that the United States has effectively removed itself from Iraq, Asia is waiting to see whether this new US focus on the region “presages an era of tense relations between China and the United States.” (Washington Post)
Report: China warily watches U.S. withdrawal from Iraq [Washington Post, 15 December 2011]
Report: US Navy expects to base ships in Singapore [AFP, 17 December 2011]
Report: Planned US deployments aimed at China [The Jakarta Post, 19 Dec 2011]
Report: Palace mum on US plan to station warships, planes in region [GMA Network (Philippines), 17 December 2011]
Report: Deadly Iraq war ends with exit of last U.S. troops [CNN, 18 December 2011]