Military spending has ramped up in Asia, led by China, whose addition of submarines to its fleet has inspired similar ambitions among its neighbors.
Beyond hardware, however, countries in Asia are also reassessing the balance of power there, contemplating how to engage China and what role the US — long a guarantor of security and trade in the region — will play going forward.
"Everyone out in Asia is, on one hand, scared of China, and, the other hand, they need China for trade," Mike Fabey, author of the 2017 book Crashback, about tensions between China and the US in the Pacific, told Business Insider. "Also there's a real sense of, 'China's right here. America's on the other side of the world.'"
Officials in the region felt the Obama administration "was letting China slide with a few things here and there" to secure cooperation, or at least noninterference, from Beijing on other issues, like the Paris climate accord, Fabey said. "But even with that, there was still definitely a feeling, 'Hey, America's got our back.'"
The Trump administration has referred to the region as the "Indo-Pacific," in what is likely meant to be a rhetorical swipe at China, though it also points to the region's maritime dimensions. But, Fabey said, "with the recent administration, there's much more of a feeling now in the Western Pacific, even from folks like Australia, who are really wondering exactly how far America would go now if China were to do anything."
Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo from Moscow Kremlin)
That has translated into greater interest in local partnerships.
"You're starting to see Australia, Japan, and India, for example, there's a new emerging trilateral out there, and that they're counting the US out. The US is involved," Fabey said, but there's now more of a feeling of, "'we're on our own more, at least we should act like we're on our own more, and we'll do it without the US if we have to.'"
'They're very good at playing that card'
First proposed in 2007, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, made up of the US, Japan, Australia, and India, gained new life in 2017, when officials from those countries met to discuss a "free and open Indo-Pacific" and seven core themes, including freedom of navigation, maritime security, and a rules-based order in the region.
Some members of the Quad have tread carefully out of concern about China, which protested its restoration. India has also expressed reticence about the partnership — in part over concerns about its own autonomy as well as doubts about the other three countries' approaches to China.
"China likes to play the card, 'Look, you're Asian. We're Asian. Quite honestly, no Western power is going to protect your Asian rights out here ... You can't depend on the West to do that,'" Fabey told Business Insider. "And they're very good at playing that card."
But cooperation between countries in the region continues, with an eye on securing and enhancing trade and security.
A US sailor aboard Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Howard gives a tour to Indian sailors during Malabar 2017. (US Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tyler Preston)
Japan has increased efforts to counter China's Belt and Road initiative, ramping up international partnerships and investments — including in Sri Lanka, where a recent Chinese port project has angered India.
Australia has followed suit, talking to the US, India, and Japan about a joint regional infrastructure program to rival Beijing's outreach.
Australia, India, and Japan have been pursuing a trilateral partnership since late 2015, aimed at ensuring "open and free" movement in the region and advancing their shared interests.
The Malabar 2017 exercises in summer 2017, in which India, Japan, and the US took part, emphasized antisubmarine warfare — including submarine-on-submarine exercises. "Nowhere else does the American Navy do that," Fabey noted, saying cooperation between US and Indian navies "is unlike any other in the world." (While New Delhi blocked Australia's participation in Malabar 2017, their defense cooperation has progressed.)
India and Japan did three days of antisubmarine exercises in the Indian Ocean in October 2017.
In March 2018, Vietnam's president visited India, where the leaders of the two countries put out a statement pledging to continue defense cooperation. Two days later, US carrier made a port call in Vietnam — the first such visit in four decades and a sign of growing ties between the US and Hanoi (whose acquisition of submarines has also irked China).
Around the same time, India's army chief said that New Delhi was working with Australia, Japan, and the US to guarantee "freedom of navigation" in the region. A few days later, India began its Milan 2018 naval exercises, underscoring New Delhi's growing engagement with the region.
The Milan exercises were first held in 1995 with four countries. This year, 16 countries joined the drills, which, for the first time, included a joint multilateral exercise at sea. The naval portion took place around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, strategically located near the Malacca Straits, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans.
US Navy Rear Adm. Bill Byrne, commander of Carrier Strike Group 11, observes Indian, Japanese, and US ships from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz during Malabar 2017 in the Bay of Bengal, July 17, 2017. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Holly L. Herline)
That was followed in late March 2018 by the fourth meeting between US Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Indian navy chief Adm. Sunil Lanba, where they "discussed ways to improve interoperability to include additional naval exercises and staff talks."
As with the Quad, India, which uses Russian-made military hardware, has been reluctant about joint operations. Its reticence about information-sharing has reportedly hindered those exercises and broader interoperability.
'Like their Caribbean'
China has made clear its displeasure with such regional cooperation.
When Japan's inclusion in the Malabar exercise was permanent in late 2015, Beijing reacted sharply, saying it hoped "the relevant country will not provoke confrontation and heighten tensions in the region."
The rivalry between China and India in the Indian Ocean appeared inflamed in February 2018, when both looked poised to respond in the Maldives, where the government imposed a state of emergency, jailed opponents, and stifled protests. (The state of emergency was lifted in late March 2018.) India has long wielded influence in the Maldives, but the government there has courted China, buying into what critics fear is Beijing's "debt-trap diplomacy."
China has also flexed its muscles in the South and East China Seas. In January 2018, a Chinese sub was detected around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are controlled by Japan but disputed by Beijing. It the first confirmed identification of a Chinese sub that area and drew a Japanese protest. Chinese ships have entered that area on six days this year, most recently on March 23, 2018.
A Chinese Shang-class nuclear attack submarine in the contiguous zone of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. (Photo by Japanese Ministry of Defense)
In recent days, Vietnam, which has sought to mollify Beijing after the US carrier's visit, assented to Chinese pressure to scrap an offshore oil-drilling project — the second time in a year Hanoi has done so. The cancellation is likely to be read in Beijing as a sign Vietnam's strategic thinking has not changed, despite US shows of force in the area.
Such a victory means Beijing's efforts to assert its claims, and to influence its neighbors, are unlikely to end. Even with regional efforts to counter China, the country's geography, resources, and military put it in a position to wield considerable influence over the region and the trade that passes through it — which makes a continuing US presence all the more important, said Fabey, author of Crashback.
"If the US were to pull back from there ... China would take control, and if China wants to do this, they basically would," he told Business Insider. "The South China Sea could be like their Caribbean. How we control the Caribbean, China says it wants to control the South China Sea."
"Now as long as everything's equal — that is to say, that China is benefiting from that being free and open — then I guess there's no problem," Fabey said. But that could change, he added, if Beijing decides changing it is in its interests. "China will always do what's best for China."