Part 1 can be found here.
For the last 40 years, Russia, China, and Japan have each relied on the presence and policy of the US to act as a stabilizing counterweight to the other two. US policy in the region has not changed in its fundamentals since Nixon signed Okinawa back over to Japan in 1971.
But in late 2010, rumors were accumulating in East Asia that the US, tiring of a dispute with Japan over the placement of a Marine Corps air base in Okinawa, was beginning to look further south along the Asian perimeter for places to base American forces. The Obama administration’s activities fed those rumors.
The reported intentions of the US about rebasing forces carried implications of a particularly destabilizing nature: first, that the US commitment to Japan might be weakening; and second, that America was looking to base Marine Corps and naval forces closer to the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca. Hillary Clinton did nothing to dispel alarms about US military intentions in July 2010, when she proclaimed the disposition of the disputed South China Sea archipelagoes to be a US “national interest.” (The US position had always been couched previously as an interest in freedom of the seas through chokepoint areas rather than the disposition of the islands.)
August 2010 saw a historic joint naval exercise between the US and Vietnam in the South China Sea, punctuated by the equally historic visit of USS George Washington (CVN-73) to Da Nang. Much to Beijing’s chagrin, George Washington has also been a frequent visitor to the Yellow Sea in the last two years, after she became, in October 2009, the first US carrier to penetrate those waters since the Korean War (see here, here, and here).
The dual perceptions that the US may be losing interest in Japan, but is out to probe China’s most sensitive areas, are a potentially explosive combination. China is bound to react badly to them, and that cannot fail to alarm Russia.
Russian forces in the Far East
So observers of the Russian military were interested, but not surprised, to learn in May that Russia would be deploying the first squadrons of her new Ka-52 army assault helicopter to the Far Eastern base of Chernigkova – instead of to a base in the Western theater facing Europe. Other Asian reporting indicates Russia’s newest fighter jet, the Su-35, will also be deployed to the Far East. Both types of aircraft will be based to the east of China’s extreme northeast border, facing the Sea of Japan; they are not being placed on the border with China in the Asian interior.
Russia is also planning to put the Mistral-class amphibious assault ships being purchased from France in the Far East. The emerging character of the build-up in the region is one that would enable Russia to project power around China’s eastern flank, rather than confront China head-on in the continental interior.
Continued in Part 3.