Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

Gunboat diplomacy returns to East Asia as China sets sail

Gunboat diplomacy, so prevalent during the imperial era, has made something of a comeback in South-east Asia.

It is naval exercise season in Asia. The last two weeks have seen joint naval exercises between the US and the Philippines, the US and India, and the first joint Sino-Russian demonstration as well.

The Sino-Russian exercises, dubbed Naval Cooperation 2012, have caught the headlines. Involving 14 combat vessels and two submarines from China, and four major combat vessels from Russia, combining in a robust naval presence.

In South-east Asia, the annual Balikatan exercises involve 4,500 US marines and 2,300 Philippine troops. One of the exercises performed during the two-week practice was the seizure of an offshore oil platform, an operation that has obvious meaning for the various small bases in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, in the Bay of Bengal, the annual Malabar exercises, which saw a US aircraft carrier, cruiser and destroyer team up with an Indian frigate, two destroyers and a corvette, were wrapped up after 10 days of war games.

Two major trends can be discerned from the flurry of exercises in East Asia. The first is a tendency for regional navies to use a form of gunboat diplomacy as a deterrent. Gunboat diplomacy, so prevalent during the imperial era, has made something of a comeback as newly powerful navies have undertaken substantial exercises and ostentatious displays of their power to coerce potential rivals. Demonstrating naval power is a cost-effective way to prove an intention to protect claimed sovereignty without actually resorting to conflict.

The second trend is the growing rivalry between Chinese and US navies in East Asia. This has been a long time coming, but increasing concern over China's naval power, which has area-denial capabilities that are seemingly designed to limit US freedom to manoeuvre in the western Pacific, has redoubled in recent years. Combined with a reducing commitment in the Middle East and South Asia, this has facilitated the much-vaunted US "pivot" to Asia.

Exemplified in the planned deployment (although not basing) of four coastal combat ships to Singapore and the rotation of up to 2,500 US marines through Australia on six-month tours for joint training, this pivot is manifesting itself in a more dispersed US deployment throughout the region. Given the details of the published Joint Operational Access Concept and the still-classified Air-Sea Battle Concept that the US is employing, this dispersed deployment is clearly intended to overcome China's anti-access and area-denial capabilities.

In truth, the actual deployment of US forces to East Asia announced so far is relatively limited, as the US struggles with a new era of constrained budgets and seeks to avoid confrontation with China. As part of a longer-term strategy, the US has also been withdrawing forces from bases in South Korea and Japan as it seeks to minimise troops stationed within range of Chinese missiles and contain costs.

Nonetheless, Washington is also demonstrating its commitment to its allies through other activities, such as increased joint exercises, reaffirmation of mutual-defence treaties and the transfer of military equipment.

One of the primary recipients of this US commitment in East Asia is the Philippines. In November, the two countries signed the Manila Declaration, which reaffirmed the 60-year-old mutual defence treaty. During her visit to sign the declaration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a highly symbolic speech describing Washington's newfound zeal for its defence obligations while standing on the deck of the USS Fitzgerald.

The US has also stepped up its defence transfers to the Philippines to allow it to defend its sovereignty claims. But recent events demonstrate just how risky an increased US commitment to its allies in South-east Asia is. This month, China and the Philippines were involved in a high-profile stand-off near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, when the Philippine navy's flagship claimed to have discovered illegal fishing practices among Chinese fishing boats. China sent two maritime paramilitary vessels to intervene, and eventually the Chinese fishermen left without being arrested.

Symbolically, the Philippine gunboat involved in the spat, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, was previously a US Coast Guard Hamilton class cutter that was handed over last year. At just over 3,000 tonnes, she is a medium-sized frigate, and with just a 76mm gun and torpedo tubes she is heavily outgunned by, for instance, China's missile-laden Jiangkai II class frigates that are participating in the exercises with Russia.

The fact that this relatively modest vessel is the Philippine navy flagship speaks volumes about the paucity of Manila's capabilities. The Philippines relies heavily on the US for its defence, a fact not lost on Washington, which fears becoming embroiled in the South China Sea by proxy.

What the past few weeks has demonstrated is that a dangerous game of brinkmanship and bluster may be played out in East Asia over coming years. Neither China nor the US want conflict, but both are limited in their actions - in Beijing, by a nationalism that abhors perceived weakness on issues of sovereignty after its "century of humiliation"; and in Washington, by defence commitments to allies increasingly wary of a rising regional hegemon.

The result is a new era of naval competition, which may not rival the Dreadnought arms race in Europe in the early 20th century, but will certainly lead to more instances of imperial-esque gunboat diplomacy in the foreseeable future.


Christian Le Mière is a research fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies

Updated: April 30, 2012 04:00 AM