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South China Sea claims mapSeptember 21 – My American friend Ken, a military veteran who did logistics work in the United States Navy, tried to explain to me what his job entailed, particularly in the Philippines and Japan.

I couldn’t quite understand the point of military exercises in foreign territories, which seemed like a waste of time and money (not to mention an egregious encroachment onto people’s land), since Asia does not have an actual war going on.

There are reportedly 800 US bases in foreign countries, including 113 in Japan, 83 in South Korea, and hundreds more in around 80 countries. US troops or other military personnel are also present in about 160 foreign countries and territories. 

The human toll from overseas US bases is significant, such as crime like rape of local women by US troops in Okinawa and other places, environmental damage, and displacement of local peoples. The establishment of US bases in Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia have sparked radicalism. The deterrence effect of US bases is also overestimated. 

The US military has a massive presence in the Asia-Pacific, including 154,000 active-duty American military personnel, major bases throughout Asia, two-thirds of the Marine Corps’ combat strength, more than half of overall US naval power, five aircraft carrier strike groups including 180 ships and 1,500 aircraft, and five Army Stryker Brigades. 

Earlier this month, US and Japanese navies conducted joint military exercises in the South China Sea, with the US military reportedly showcasing its power in the contested region through bomber overflights and carrier exercises in competition with an increasingly assertive China. 

Defence experts argue that American military presence in the Asia-Pacific region is necessary to balance out China as the Eastern country turns uninhabited rocks in the South China Sea into fortified islands, reportedly complete with anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, radar-jamming equipment, and even nuclear-capable bombers. 

But rather than rely on the US forever for protection, Asean should consider creating a military alliance.

Asean’s total military expenditures in 2013 reportedly totaled US$38 billion, just about a fifth of China’s expenditures that year of US$188 billion. Even though China is far more powerful than Southeast Asian countries combined, a united Asean with an integrated military could still pose a substantive deterrence against further Chinese advances in the region.

A previous military alliance of Asean states, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO), reportedly failed because its main purpose was to halt the spread of communism in the interest of American policy, not so much to organise collectively to defend the security and sovereignty of the region. 

Even though the Spratly Islands are subject to competing claims by Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan, Asean member states should put aside their differences and unite against their biggest competitor, China.

Asean should also insist on resolving the issue with China as a single group, instead of Beijing trying to conduct separate bilateral negotiations with individual Southeast Asian claimants. 

A military alliance in Asean would send a much stronger signal than a vague “code of conduct” draft without any set deadline for conclusion. 

A strong and united Asean with shared military resources may lessen, to some extent, the need for the US to constantly project its strength in the region. Chinese government-affiliated academic Hu Bo from Peking University denied claims of Chinese expansionism, saying that “excessive” American involvement in the South China Sea had forced China to send more defensive equipment there. 

Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the Western media does seem hypocritical at times. So it’s okay for America to be great but not China? After centuries of Western imperialism, with the world continuing to revolve around America, isn’t it time that the nexus of power shifted to the East?

While the US remains in the South China Sea, Asean states must take the opportunity to develop themselves as quickly as possible and get a military alliance going so that if America decides to pull back from the region one day, we will be ready to negotiate from a position of strength.

We cannot remain small and weak forever. We must have grand ambitions and strive to be rich and powerful. As one of the wealthier countries in Asean, Malaysia in particular should buck up and be more competitive in achieving developed nation status.