China’s brief moment of glory as Asia’s number-one power – a few months in mid-2010 spent pushing the Japanese around over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and snarling over the South China Sea – comes to a sudden end with the news that Uncle Sam is back in the region. That, at least, is the gist of today’s Daily Telegraph report on an US$GBP8 billion upgrade of military bases on Guam. No-one else is covering the story, which leads us to one of two conclusions: either the Telegraph is being uncharacteristically modest in not loudly claiming it to be an exciting, historic exclusive, or it isn’t news.
The latter would appear to be the case. What promises to be a riveting and thrilling tale about the plucky, still-life-in-the-old-place USA thwarting the uppity, xenophobic, paranoid middle kingdom’s plans to rule the world rapidly deteriorates into environmentalist blather about coral reefs. If telegraph.co.uk was a pay-per-page-view site, you would want your money back.
The debate about where to build a carrier wharf on the Pacific island is old hat. The background is the relocation – agreed in the mid-2000s and largely paid for by Japan – of over 8,000 (out of 15,000) marines from reluctant host Okinawa. This necessitates much bigger naval berths in Guam. Bomb-proofing and air defence systems are also being improved. The current upgrade kicks off with a dog kennel, and Beijing looks on nervously.
This follows buildups in reconnaissance and bomber aircraft and attack submarines in Guam going back at least five years. Forces in South Korea may move there later. It is partly about the ease of operating in your own sovereign territory, but it is ultimately about China (and North Korea). Otherwise, these forces would be pulled back to the US and indeed disbanded.
The Telegraph article carries an interesting quote from one Ian Storey, an expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “China’s charm offensive is over,” he says “and it’s given way to what you might call an adolescent foreign policy.” I must have been distracted during the charm offensive, but the ‘adolescent’ tag rings true: brooding sulkiness, inexplicable hostility, sudden tantrums and angst about being misunderstood, plus unpredictable swings between insecurity and over-confidence. Does the country have acne, too?
Guam – base of the B52s that bombed North Vietnam – is perfectly placed, in a respectful, arms-length sort of way, for intervention in the event of threatened trouble around the Diaoyu/Senkakus and, of course, Taiwan. China meanwhile is working on area denial systems like ballistic anti-ship missiles to threaten US forces straying too close to these hotspots. A bit like a moody teenager hanging a ‘Keep Out’ sign on the bedroom door and whining about everyone picking on him.
Maybe it’s just a phase.