By Boris Volkhonsky
On Wednesday, as reported by Reuters, the U.S. Navy announced that the first of a new class of coastal warships will be sent to Singapore next spring for a roughly 10-month deployment.
The proposed move may seem insignificant in terms of the total capacity of only one warship, but it definitely highlights a strategic pivot in U.S. policies in Asia Pacific, and the determination to engage regional powers with one sole purpose of containing China.
Recent months have witnessed a growing tension in the maritime area of South China Sea between China on the one hand, and Vietnam, the Philippines and several other littoral countries on the other. China claims that most of the islands in the South China Sea fall under its territory – a claim other littoral countries are not ready to agree with. In April, China and the Philippines narrowly escaped the option of a maritime dispute turning into a military standoff, when China deployed warships in order to protect fishing vessels fishing in the disputed waters and threatened to be arrested by the Philippine navy. Similar incidents happened throughout March and April between China and Vietnam.
The territorial disputes have attracted attention of other important players from outside the region, namely the U.S. and India, both trying to expand cooperation with China’s rivals.
The new U.S. strategic pivot was announced last year, when President Obama ordered stepped-up emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region in a “rebalancing” of U.S. national security planning. Since then, several important developments have taken place, including the posting of 1,500 U.S. marines in Australia, and maritime drills with the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Now, what’s so special about Singapore. The fact is that this tiny state is strategically located on the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula, and thus creates a convenient stronghold for the control of a strategically important choke point in the narrowest part of the Strait of Malacca.
It should be noted that the Strait of Malacca is one of the most important global trading thoroughfares with almost 40 percent of world trade flowing through it. That amount includes the overwhelming portion of oil supplies transported to China from the Persian Gulf and Africa. Imagine that the current standoff between China and any of its neighbors turns into an open warfare. In that case, one warship would be basically sufficient to completely block the bottleneck of the Strait of Malacca which at its narrowest point does not exceed 2.8 km (1.5 nautical miles). Deprived of oil, China would not last long in a military standoff even with much weaker rivals.
In recent years, China has been extensively building up its strategy called “the string of pearls” consisting in creating port, road and pipeline infrastructure in the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean basin (namely, Pakistan and Myanmar), which would enable it to bypass the narrow Strait of Malacca. But the strategy has not yielded its fruit, and the Strait of Malacca remains the only gateway for the goods to enter Chinese waters.
Deployment of U.S. warships in Singapore, accompanied by the marines in Australia, and Indian and U.S. navies regularly penetrating into the South China Sea dramatically alters the whole strategic situation in the region. In fact, China appears to be surrounded by its geopolitical rivals, having no allies in East and South East Asia, except North Korea, and no reliable allies whatsoever.
So, the move of one U.S. warship to Singapore should not be underestimated. This is only a first step, and the U.S. is definitely going to pump up its military presence in the region by establishing permanent stations in Southeast Asia.
The whole situation leaves only one question unanswered. The Strait of Malacca is famous not only as an important trading thoroughfare, but, along with the African Horn, also as one of the two maritime areas most seriously affected by pirates. If blocking the Strait for cargo ships and oil tankers seems to be an easy task that may be accomplished by a few warships, then why would the U.S. not pay greater attention to anti-piracy struggle. Indeed, that would be a much more helpful use of military power than trying to isolate China.
Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies