The January 5 edition of the South China Morning Post reported that the US passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) to reaffirm and reassure its “allies” that America is committed to protecting and promoting democracy in the Asia-Pacific. To do so, America will spend US$1.5 billion annually for five years to “show its presence” and increase “freedom of navigation operations” (FNOPs).
The US will also recruit countries in the region and beyond to help keep the East and South China Seas safe for freedom of navigation operations.
Uncle Sam will impose penalties on individuals or countries stealing US technology.
The US claims the ARIA did not specify China, but few if any believe it. Indeed, some analysts even suggest that the act might, in fact, be a new tactic to contain China.
Is China the “aggressor” in the Asia-Pacific?
Critics and security analysts were quick to point out that the ARIA could be a “headache” for China. Singapore-based analyst Colin Koh assumed US regional allies would rally to join the US in countering China. Tony Nash, chief of Complete Intelligence, said the act shows the US has “friends” in the region. Derek Grossman, a senior analyst at the Rand Corporation, suggested the ARIA demonstrates the US commitment in the Asia-Pacific. All three analysts suggested that Asian countries would choose the US over China.
However, the reality on the ground might tell a different story, in that most countries – except for Australia and New Zealand – might, in fact, be wary of US intrusion in the region.
China is the biggest trade partner for most, if not all, countries in the region. Contrary to accusations of China using “predatory” economics or “debt traps” to win influence, Chinese investment is largely responsible for the region’s relatively high economic growth rates and dynamism. Choosing the US over China amounts to cutting the hand that feeds them.
Contrary to US claims, China has never blocked FNOPs because a big chunk of the US$5 trillion of trade transiting the waterways is Chinese imports and exports. If one bothers to check, FNOPs were never a problem until then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton declared the South China Sea (SCS) a US “national interest,” even though America is thousands of kilometers away.