Military Competition in Pacific Endures as Biggest Flash Point Between U.S. and China

The New York Times
Date: Nov. 14, 2018
By: Edward Wong

American Navy pilots during a mission to observe Chinese construction activity on reefs and islands in the South China Sea in September.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Trade disputes have for months been the focus of souring relations between the United States and China. But intractable problems in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait underscore that competition for dominance of the Pacific Ocean remains the most volatile source of conflict between the two nations — and the tensions are rising.

That became clear in barbed comments during a meeting in Washington last week in which Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, negotiated with their Chinese counterparts. And it is evident as Vice President Mike Pence is in Asia this week to talk to East Asian and Southeast Asian leaders to shore up support for American efforts to counterbalance China.

Mr. Pence’s trip includes stops at two Asia-Pacific summit meetings, where he plans to speak about checking China’s influence and power projection. Since his broad speech last month on American competition with China, Mr. Pence has become the face of the administration’s aggressive approach to Beijing.

Some Asia analysts say, though, that President Trump’s absence sends a signal that the United States is not committed to the region: President Xi Jinping of China and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia are each attending at least one of the gatherings.

Strategy for the region, in Washington and Beijing, revolves around how each country can assert military dominance in the Pacific. For now, the most powerful military in the region is still that of the United States, which relies on the ability to have unfettered naval access to the South China Sea and the support of the self-governing island of Taiwan to bolster its standing.

But China has become more aggressive in trying to assert dominance over both. And its state-owned companies are making inroads in the islands of Oceania — from Saipan to Vanuatu — with infrastructure projects. American officials say those could eventually become beachheads for the People’s Liberation Army, which would pose a challenge to the United States Navy’s operational command in the far island chains. Australia is also watching closely because the South Pacific has traditionally been its sphere of influence.