The Race for US/Asia-Pacific Alliances

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On November 23, 2013, the People’s Republic of China declared its East China Sea Air Defense and Identification Zone, which asserted expanded territorial boundaries. The new zone includes international waters as well as areas claimed by both Japan and Taiwan as sovereign territories.

 

East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone Image by Voice of America, public domain

East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone
Image by Voice of America, public domain

 

The Senkaku Islands southwest of Okinawa are a part of this new territorial grab. The Senkakus are uninhabited, but they are astride international navigation routes used daily by Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the US, and other nations. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea refused to recognize China’s claim to them.

As part of the new Defense Zone, the People’s Republic of China wants all aircraft to report to Chinese controllers and obtain their permission to fly through. Since China declared this, the USA and Japan have responded by increasing military flights through the zone without complying with China’s request. This is their way of asserting their continued right to access international waters and airspace without having to submit to illegitimate Chinese authority.

It might seem counterproductive for China to encourage resistance and distrust from its important trading partners in and across the Pacific.

None of China’s Pacific neighbors, except its “allies” in North Korea, pose China with a national security threat. However, by declaring the new Defense Zone, other Pacific nations have been energized to increase their defense spending and to seek closer alliances with each other and with the US.

So why set up an annoying “Defense Zone” only to have it ignored by other Pacific nations? Did China miscalculate?

In my opinion, the People’s Republic of China anticipated the international reactions and accepted those costs in order to begin enacting a broader long-term strategy. China is not playing at politics for this week or this year, but rather it is focused on slowly achieving important goals during the next few decades. In that context, their feeble Defense Zone takes on a different meaning.

The Defense Zone does not keep the US and Japanese military planes away, and, in fact, it attracts more of them. But in the minds of communist government rulers, it has a value in the realm of psychological warfare.

For one thing, those rulers can ignore the outcome of their declaration and proclaim it a victory to their imprisoned citizens. In Japan or the US, that sort of thing would not play well, and it would most likely inspire criticism from citizens. However, we should never forget that for despotic regimes like China, the greatest psychological warfare battles must be fought at home.

Since extending its imaginary sovereignty over the Senkakus, China has increased its ongoing imperial claims by occupying some of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

The Spratly Islands range in size from “too small for people to comfortably inhabit” to “small wet tidal sand bars.” Both China and Taiwan claim sovereignty and exclusive rights over the entire South China Sea, including the Spratlys. These claims are absurd in the extreme, but communist China never shies away from absurdity in politics. (See US-Philippine Relations Hit Critical Threshold.)

The Spratlys are all closer to Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines than they are to China. In fact, in the Philippines, the sea area around the eastern Spratlys is referred to as the West Philippine Sea. When viewing a map of the Spratlys and their neighboring countries, it is easy enough to see how territorial claims for the Spratlys might be in dispute, but China is not in that neighborhood, so their claims are by far the least legitimate.

Because it expanded and militarized a few of the Spratly Islands, China claims that it now has exclusive territorial rights over the Spratlys. The United Nations rules – rules that China agreed to as a UN member nation – make it clear that occupation of artificially expanded reefs gives no right of territorial claims in the surrounding waters. However, the People’s Republic of China only recognizes rules and agreements when it suits its purpose. The Chinese rule has always has been, “We do whatever we can get away with.”

The impacts of the Chinese imperial ambitions in the Spratly Islands have been fairly predictable.

Important trade routes that include oil shipments to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the US run through the waters around the Spratly Islands. Before reaching the Spratly Islands, a tanker journeying from the Indian Ocean to Japan, China, Philippines, etc., would have to navigate the narrow Straits of Malacca between Sumatra and the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.

Freedom of passage through the Straits of Malacca is important to all Pacific nations, but they are China’s most critical vulnerability. If oil tankers did not traverse the Straits to China on a regular schedule, the Chinese economy would soon be paralyzed.

Since the impacts of the China’s South China Sea campaign were obvious to me, then I have to assume that they were also obvious to the Chinese, but again, they are playing for the long game. The short-term diplomatic and political repercussions are acceptable costs to the communist Chinese regime.

The most obvious impacts of the newly declared Defense Zone have been the shift toward cooperation with the US by nations such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei, and a refocus on US relations in the Philippines and Taiwan.

From a US perspective, China’s expansionist strategy seems to require a clear and manageable response. The US government believes that the nations bordering the South China Sea should take reasonable steps to improve their military capabilities and their regional cooperation.

It’s all clear and simple when viewed from the Washington, D.C. universe. The situation is more complex when viewed from the shores of the SW Pacific nations.

Each of the Pacific nations has responded in its own unique way with its own unique goals and obstacles. Each of them wants to reshape its relationship with the US, and it is best that each be considered as a separate case. In our next installment, we will examine the evolving US-Philippine relationship.

Taiwan’s Election is a Communist Rejection

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

On January 16, 2016, Taiwan held national elections. The results were clear. Dr. Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party (“DPP”) chairperson and presidential candidate, won a landslide victory with 56.1% of the votes. Eric Chu of the Kuomintang Party (“KMT”) garnered 30.1% percent of the votes.

 

President-Elect Dr. Tsai Ing-Wen Image by MiNe(sfmine79), wikimedia commons.

President-Elect Dr. Tsai Ing-Wen
Image by MiNe(sfmine79), wikimedia commons.

 

In the same elections, the DPP achieved a clear majority in the legislature, winning 68 of 110 seats. That is enough for the DPP to legally overcome any opposition in the legislature. Whenever a national election results in a landslide, usually at least one of two things is true – either the elections are the single candidate, North Korean style farce, or the voters are unhappy with the status quo. In the case of Taiwan, it is the latter, but there is more to it than that.

Prior to the elections, the Taiwanese public had made it clear that they were tired of the corruption and economic mismanagement that their government had inflicted on them. On January 16, they were largely voting for change.

At the same time, a significant portion of previously steadfast KMT loyalists had lost faith in their party because the KMT had shifted toward overt cooperation with the communist regime in Beijing. The KMT had bet heavily on the benefits of economic cooperation with Communist China. That bet did not pay off.

It is a mystery why the Kuomintang Party ignored the pathetic examples many Western nations have set by trusting Communist China in business and diplomatic dealings. A glance at the last thirty years of US history would have let them know what to expect. They either never took that glance, or they were serving interests other than those of the people of Taiwan.

Communist China’s reactionary response to the DPP’s victory was swift and predictable. The regime in Beijing publicly warned Taiwan that any attempt at declaring independence will result in an immediate, crushing military defeat by the Red Army.

To Westerners, this response might sound a bit severe and childishly undiplomatic, but nobody in Taiwan was surprised. The communists have been demanding the “return” of Taiwan to Communist China since the Chinese Nationalist Army retreated to that island in 1949. Since then, “obey our rule or die” has been Beijing’s standard mantra toward Taiwan.

 

Taiwan, Chinese coast, and that pesky 110 miles of water. Image by CIA, public domain.

Taiwan, Chinese coast, and that
pesky 110 miles of water.
Image by CIA, public domain.

 

One might wonder why, since the Maoist regime in Beijing was so easily able to invade and occupy Tibet, wouldn’t they do the same with Taiwan?

The answer is water – about 110 miles of it. That’s the distance from the mainland shores to the beaches in Taiwan. The Red Army did not require a navy to invade and occupy Tibet. Invading Taiwan, on the other hand, would require a strong enough navy, and China does not quite have that yet. They are working on it. For decades, Communist China has consistently declared its intent to “reunite” Taiwan “by force, if necessary.” So far, the threats have not caused the Taiwanese to surrender their freedom to Beijing. When the KMT decided to move closer to the communist regime the Taiwanese voters threw them out.

So what do the election results mean for Taiwan’s Western Pacific neighbors?

For South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Viet Nam and Brunei, it’s good news. All of them have grown weary of Communist China’s increasingly aggressive policy. Taiwan’s increasing acquiescence to Beijing had been a worrying development for them.

What does it mean for the United States of America?

For the moment, the reaction in the US has been quiet relief. In diplomatic terms, here is the official US response:

“We share with the Taiwan people a profound interest in the continuation of cross-Strait peace and stability. We look forward to working with Dr. Tsai and Taiwan’s leaders of all parties to advance our many common interests and further strengthen the unofficial relationship between the United States and the people of Taiwan.”

Leave it to the folks at Foggy Bottom to simultaneously use the terms “profound” and “unofficial” when taking a “stand.” Or would that be a “non-stand?”

Diplomatic ambiguity aside, US leaders, albeit at the pace of a disabled snail, have come to realize that China has, in fact, been telling the truth for the last sixty-six years concerning its aggressive intentions, and that even the government in Beijing occasionally speaks the truth.

Hard core Beijing-lovers in Washington have fallen on hard times. Their cash is still welcome, but they are as out-of-fashion as integrity inside the Washington Beltway. In practical terms, the US government will continue to pretend to believe that fair and friendly cooperation with Communist China is possible. In the meantime, the US will allow a dribble of military aid to flow to Taiwan and the Philippines. Relations with Viet Nam will improve, and the US will send that country token military aid. The cost of the PR photo shoots in Viet Nam heralding in the new cooperation will be greater than the value of the equipment we send them.

In my view, the election results in Taiwan are good news. Let us hope that for the sake of the people of Taiwan, and for the sake of everyone in the Western Pacific, the DPP will use its power to truly represent the democratic will of the people of Taiwan.