Steaming for the Pacific: An Almost Impossible 'Re-Balancing' Act

Wariness over China's intention tilts U.S. back to the Pacific.

The forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex steams off the coast of northeastern Japan with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force Ship JS Hyuga on April 6, 2011 at sea in the Pacific Ocean.
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"This is not a zero-sum game," says the State Department's Russel. "The Pacific is big enough for everyone, and we are not looking for countries to choose between the U.S. and China."

Pacific Tiger

All discussions about power plays in the Pacific begin and end with China, a singular reality.

"The Asia-Pacific is very much not just a capabilities game, but it's a perceptions game," says Bonnie Glaser, an expert on the region with the D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Regional nations are nervous about China's growing presence and power, says Glaser, who previously served as a consultant to the Defense and State departments.

"They're worried that the U.S. is going to again get sucked back into the Middle East and won't be able to deter China," she says. "Or, we won't be willing to stand up to China in the event that China is using coercive means against them."

The Philippines, for example, lost fishing rights around the Scarborough Shoals in 2012 after Chinese ships seized control of the immediate area. The rich fishing grounds are roughly 140 miles off the Philippine mainland, and 500 miles from China.

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"Countries that are weak and vulnerable and small feel they are under pressure to accommodate China, when in some cases they don't want to," she says. "If you're close to China's coastline, you feel you are vulnerable geographically."

"In the security realm, some want to be more reliant on the U.S. Others want the U.S. to be very present as a counterweight to China," she says.

China is the No. 1 trading partner for 124 countries as of the end of this year. The U.S. has only 76 such nations. China's economy grew by almost 8 percent over the last year, versus 3.6 percent for the U.S.

Acting as the so-called counterweight remains difficult for the U.S. China's military is still far behind America in terms of capabilities and capacities, but it is growing every day along with its increasingly industrialized economy. China unveiled a highly mobile missile in October that its military says can target and destroy a carrier. The U.S. uses such massive ships as the basis of its maritime framework.

"If you have a hypersonic missile that can hit a carrier from a thousand miles away, what good does a carrier do you?" says Tom Snitch, an Asia expert who served as a nuclear and weapons control adviser to the State Department in the 1980s.

"When you start thinking about what [the Chinese] have been able to do when they put their political will behind it, and their resources behind it, you're facing -- if they continue to move in this direction -- a real contestant to power in Asia."

Snitch refers to the Chinese government's "salami tactics" of slowly exerting more power and control slice by slice throughout the region. It exercises the kind of calculus that pushes boundaries but doesn't always exceed them.

"They're probably thinking, 'Is the U.S. going to pivot to Asia? If so, let's try to find out how strong that pivot is going to be,'" says Snitch. China will also test how much the U.S. is willing to commit in terms of national prestige, power and economic relationships.

Simply keeping up with Chinese technological developments is a leviathan task. Nobody can truly predict whether the U.S. will be able to keep pace.

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"This is not a static issue, it's very dynamic," says Glaser. "The Chinese are moving forward all the time. They are churning out lots of ships, lots of submarines. They have an enormous amount of missiles, highly accurate."

"It is challenging for the U.S. to maintain [its] ability to have access and freedom to maneuver," she says. "That's a big question mark."

'Don't Give Up the Ship.'

All is not yet lost as the U.S. and China continue to determine their relationships in the region.

"We see ourselves as a part of the family in this region," says DOD's Singh. There are times when the U.S. disagrees with its allies and disagrees among allies, he says. "We don't want to be naive about how hard some of these things can be to address."