The leading political paper in Germany is—as one might recall even outside Germany—Der SPIEGEL and I remember vividly that when I first developed an interest in politics some two decades ago, I took to the weekly for my insight into the world. But in recent years, the weekly cannot really pride itself in its journalism. Instead it has often taken an alarmist tone, even when that would defy reality. Commenting on President Obama's visit to Australia, the paper ran an article today called Obama provoking the red leaders, characterising Obama's policy in the Pacific as a fundamental re-orientation of the United States' foreign policy. That is quite a strong statement, considering that the Pacific ocean and the South China Sea have been a focus of international security policy for more than a decade now, with the U.S. being involved in it to a larger extent ever since George W. Bush managed a rapprochement with Vietnam in the early 2000s. And sometimes the paper is getting outright absurd in its coverage, arguing today that the U.S. is not only about to permanently station U.S. Marines in the North of Australia but also warships and fighter jets in a move to encircle China. Even though up to 2.500 Marines will permanently rotate through Australia, the part on the increased presence of fighter jets could not possible be more off the mark. What the agreement does say is that the United States will be allowed to use the facilities of the Royal Australian Air Force for its own planes, which is quite different from establishing a permanent base for fighter jets (which would be nonsense anyway, since no jet in the U.S. arsenal could do much about the South China Sea from a base in Northern Australia, you know, the stuff about range, refuelling, overflight rights, etc. I am just saying...).
Is this really provoking the Chinese? Well, in a sense, certainly. But not because Chinese interests are really threatened. The People's Republic has replaced its long-standing foreign policy rationale of a peaceful rise with a more assertive stance in the South China Sea. A sense of entitlement to predominance in an area, where other sovereign states have just as legitimate interests (Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia). Beijing can hardly be surprised that its military build-up is being met with these powers having an interest in an American counterbalance. And in that sense, its China that really invited the U.S. But 2.500 Marines and access to some air force and naval facilities are not going to change the military balance in the region and given China's recently made gains in anti-ship and area-denial systems, even an additional U.S. carrier group would not tilt the balance more in the U.S.' favour. What is missing in the picture presented not only by SPIEGEL is that China's neighbours are investing in their armies and navies as well, investments that are far more important than a slightly increased U.S. naval presence—even though that remains an important stabilising factor in the Pacific.