Smaller Asian countries are increasingly finding themselves caught in an intense battle between the major powers for friends in the region, as Vietnam did recently
The United States has asked Vietnam to deny Russian air tankers access for refuelling at Cam Ranh Bay, because - says the US State Department - they facilitate "activities that could raise tension in the region". More specifically, US General Vincent Brooks, commander of the US Army in the Pacific, said these tankers refuel Russian nuclear-capable "Bear" bombers that have made "provocative" forays in the region, including circling Guam, the site of major US air and naval bases. This revelation provides a peek at the behind-the-scenes pulling of Asian countries into the vortex of the strategic struggle between major powers.
Indeed, the US concern regarding the Russia-Vietnam military connection is only one example of how small Asian countries are facing critical decisions on competition between the US, Russia and China for influence in the region. In this case, Vietnam has to decide between offending Russia, on which it depends for arms, and the US, which it hopes will buffer it against China. Meanwhile, China is likely to support Russia's activities as long as they are aimed at the US and not itself.
As part of the US "rebalance" to Asia, it is enhancing its military relations with its allies - Australia, Japan and the Philippines - and deepening them with Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. It is also stepping up its intelligence collection in the region and requesting that its allies and others assist.
All major countries collect intelligence on potential enemies. Indeed, if one wants to know a country's intent, the focus of its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities is a good indicator. A small component of such efforts by the US is relatively transparent, or at least deducible from the stationing and activities of its maritime, air and surface intelligence collection platforms.
From China's perspective, the US is encircling it with them. China's active challenge to what it sees as pesky "flies at a picnic" has led to serious incidents and could lead to more. The US-China military relationship is already strained by various encounters.
In the bigger picture, the US rebalancing is coming face to face with China's naval expansion, rising capabilities and ambitions. China is developing what the US calls an anti-access/area denial strategy that is designed to control China's near seas and prevent access by the US in the event of a conflict - say, between Beijing and Taipei. The US response is the air-sea battle concept, which is intended to cripple China's command, control, communications, computer and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. This is the "tip of the spear" for both and each is trying to dominate this sphere over, on and under China's near seas.
The US EP-3, and now its replacement the P-8A Poseidon, surveillance aircraft fly out of Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. Some US Poseidons also fly out of Pampanga in the Philippines, and Malaysia has offered to allow them to refuel in Labuan. The US is also considering supplying Vietnam with EP-3s that it will probably use to put Chinese activities under surveillance (and share the results). Moreover, some US surveillance flights are likely to come out of northern Australia and even the Cocos Islands - and overfly Indonesia, thus drawing it into the equation.
Most of these "hosts" are defensive about the surveillance associations, arguing the purpose is to enhance their own security, and that each flight is approved on a case-by-case basis. Of course, China may not buy that explanation.
The US claims its activities are a lawful part of freedom of navigation. But China argues they are an abuse of this right and of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that requires consent for "marine scientific research".
The most recent publicly known incident occurred last August and involved a Chinese J-11 fighter jet coming within 10 metres of a US P-8A Poseidon sub-hunter some 220km east of Hainan Island. The J-11 flew past the P-8's nose and performed a barrel roll at close proximity.
The US protested, claiming that the Chinese jet had operated in a "dangerous, unsafe and unprofessional" manner. China said the claims were "totally groundless", and that the incident's root cause was US surveillance of China. The US then stated it would continue to operate in international airspace and waters. Already, US surveillance flights average more than one a day off China's coasts.
It is thus small wonder that China has been actively opposed to such "provocative" probing. More importantly, China probably considers the hosting of these irritating "flies" as an unfriendly act, probably placing the hosts in its potential enemy category.
The US request to Vietnam and the enabling of US surveillance activities demonstrate how smaller countries are being drawn into major countries' strategies and tactics. The request also reveals that the principle and tolerance of the US for freedom of navigation does have limits when invoked and implemented by other powers. The US doesn't like it - and neither do the targets of US surveillance.
But these activities are only the visible tip of an iceberg of broader strategic competition involving the US, China, Japan and Russia - and thus we can expect a lot more of the same.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China