Below details out the US-China confrontation in the South China Sea, highlighting the Malacca Strait and bringing into focus the real strategic stakes that are in play. This is a timely piece, as the specific issues and contentions are now shifting into the broader regional as well as global issues.
At the start of 2017, the world is very much on edge. The guessing game on Donald Trump is of course a big and potentially decisive variable. But there are other scheduled events out there that can potentially change the future of the world. If the wave of populism and protectionist movement continues into the French election in May and the German election in September, then together with the uncertain process of Brexit, the West as we know it as a geopolitical entity may no longer exist for the first time since WWII. If US containment policy on China intensifies or the Korean Peninsula flares up, then together with the unleashing of Japan’s militarism, the stabilized East as we know it since the Vietnam War may also cease to be so.
Then there is the overturning of the sphere of influence in the Middle East as Russia, Turkey and Iran jointly settled some matters on Syria with the exclusion of the US. This can stretch in any direction, either way, and ignite flareups in areas that are hard to predict, for example, Eastern Ukraine.
We are not quite under the Gathering Storm, as Winston Churchill described the mood leading up to WWII. But we are certainly looking at a very overcast sky, and not knowing where and when the sun may break through.
I am continuing to work on my end, to throw some light onto the landscape.
US-China Faceoff in the South China Sea
Round 1: the Malacca Strait
Strategically, the tension over the South China Sea is first and foremost about the Malacca Strait, among other things. In the event of a vicious confrontation between the US and China, the Malacca Strait would be a main chokepoint on China, and a key control objective in US military strategy. With China’s dramatic development of advanced weaponry systems and successful diplomatic relations in the last few years, it has effectively neutralized the American ability to place a stranglehold on China’s southern defense perimeter, at least for the time being.
However, the two countries’ faceoff has not ended. The US will intensify its maneuvers to destabilize other peripheral areas around China, and resort to alternative means to thwart China’s growth in strength and influence. China will capitalize on the US confrontational approach and use it to consolidate its capabilities and comparative advantages, including steps that would not be politically feasible otherwise.
1．What the Malacca Strait Means to China’s National Security
If you look at a map of the world, the South China Sea is a relatively small stretch of water, approximately 20% smaller than the combined size of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. It stands on China’s front-yard, much as the greater Caribbean does on the US. (To insert a map of the world.)
If you zoom out from it to look at China, Southeast Asia, South Asia to the mouth of the Persian Gulf in one frame, you realize the critical strategic significance of the Malacca Strait.
With the economic rise of Asia and China, over sixty percent of the world’s sea commerce today passes through the Malacca Strait. At least seventy percent of that are to and from China, including over sixty percent of its energy imports. China relies on foreign sources for over half of its energy requirements, and has a relatively low strategic reserve. Its national security vulnerability is therefore apparent, particularly with the US policy of maintaining absolute control over all of the world’s strategic waterways. To China, any potential threat to the flow of its strategic resources through the Malacca Strait must be vigilantly defended against. That is at the crux of US-China relations when the US announced its Rebalancing Policy under the Obama administration, making Asia its global priority and China’s rise as the focal threat.
2．Peace and Stability in the South China Sea
Nothing stimulates China’s military reflexes more than when someone agitates the long-prevailing peace and stability in the South China Sea. Territorial disputes are quite normal between neighboring nations throughout the world, and there are almost as many of them as there are boundaries between nations. These disputes usually take years if not decades to resolve without necessarily upsetting the overall relations of the countries involved. In the South China Sea, there had not been much tension since shortly after the Vietnam War. (A separate paper will discuss the territorial sovereignty and economic issues in more detail). The US sudden challenge of the status quo in the region, picking the South China Sea as a pivot to force its way “back to Asia” (with an official policy to redeploy a targeted 60% of US global military resources to the region by 2017), changed everything as far as China is concerned.
The above map shows the islands and reefs in the most hotly-contested zone of the South China Sea. They are within the so-called nine-dash line delineating China’s sea boundary in the South China Sea that had been recognized by the international community since WWII. They are depicted as Chinese territory in world maps published by all countries, in UN documents and US’s Rand-McNally atlases. In fact, the US helped the Republic of China (the PRC predecessor) reclaimed sovereignty over the main islands in 1945, lending it three warships to arrive there, raise the Chinese flag and plant the sovereignty stone monuments.
In 1982, things changed after most of the world’s nations adopted the UN Law Of The Seas (“the Convention”). In an attempt to establish entitlement to economic zones recognized under the Convention, neighboring countries began to grab and squat on some of the islands and reefs. Vietnam grabbed the most, 27 (ones with the brown dots), and physically controlled and built installations on them, and the Philippines grabbed 5 (ones with the yellow dots). China has effective control over 7 of the main islands (ones with the red dots) and began expanding the installation of infrastructure there in the past several years. Taiwan controls and administers the largest island to the north, and has had military installations there since many years ago. The US is not a signatory to the UN Convention, because it is the US long-held policy to not accept the jurisdiction of any international laws except when they serve its interest in specific instances, on an ad hoc basis, according to its own interpretation.
China’s position on the disputed territories is clear — set aside territorial dispute for negotiation and proceed with joint economic development. There has not been any disruption of or threat to maritime traffic during the protracted process of negotiations, which China insists should be conducted on a bilateral basis between contesting nations only, i.e., without third-party interference or meddling. China’s idea is to let mutual economic benefits override the costs for nations to defend territorial sovereignty claims via other means. The US and Japan, two nations outside the region, have different ideas, although not exactly the same agenda.
3．US Military Containment Policy On China
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the US eventually reached an internal consensus that the only country in the world that can pose a challenge to US global hegemony would be China. The prevailing US military doctrine has been to maintain at least a two-generation lead in military technologies, and to try to develop the capabilities to control the seas of the world, including twenty-one passageways it deemed strategic (meaning nobody else can pass if the US find reasons to deny such passage). That is the essence of US hegemony, or exceptionalism. Malacca Strait is one of them. Other ones in the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea and Bohai are also of concern to China’s defensive core interest, but is not the subject of this paper.
To the US, its invincible prowess rests fundamentally on its overwhelming aircraft carrier fleets (totaling ten in service, including all ten of the world’s largest, and with no other nation having more than one, until next year when China will likely launch its second). They are tantamount to “portable airbases” that enable America to come to its opponents’ doorsteps, when and if it wishes. Once there, it can use a combined 3-D sea-air clinical “blinding” of the enemy’s defense, in the overture to war. Electronics, GPS and programming from space are the structural backbones of this robust architecture of the US war machine.
By 2015, the US completed its formulation of the so-called “Combined Air-Sea Battle Concept for China“. Politically, it began to promote the notion that China is a threat to its neighbors. Various think tanks converged on the creation of a narrative that China is somehow “unprincipled” in its long-held territorial sovereignty claims. US operatives began to direct and orchestrate the Philippines President on seeking a so-called “international arbitration ruling” on the dispute between it and China. (A separate paper will describe the dubious validity of the maneuvers and the disingenuous objectives they were orchestrated to serve.)
4．China’s Dramatic Progress In Military Technology And Capabilities
I will not go into too much detail on this subject because of confidentiality and verifiability issues. Suffice it to say that the Chinese have brandished enough “mojo”, hard and soft, tangible and intangible, over the last three years or so, to cause the US military and national security establishments to have to go back to reassess what the new military drawing board might look like.
China’s most-publicized weaponry system pertinent to this particular standoff is, of course, its dazzling array and customizable ensemble of missiles and specialty tools to sink aircraft carriers (and other warships) within an increasingly distant radius. Underlying that capability is a satellite positioning system, the Beidou, which is purportedly more advanced and robust than the US older GPS (or so it is claimed in some circles). In addition, the Chinese capability to “defend” its related assets in outer space has been convincing. In Peter-Rabbit language: US warships within China’s vicinity, and as far away as Guam, are literally Sitting Ducks.
Taking advantage of the standoff, the Chinese responded to the US martial posturing and belligerent stance with landfills and infrastructural installations on some of the islands and reefs it effectively controls. What is particularly significant is the stunning speed at which these projects got completed, and the next steps got underway. Some observers say the Chinese may in effect be installing “permanent aircraft carriers and missile-launching bases” right smack in the middle of those South China Sea areas that it claims.
US military command is wasting no time to talk trash back at the Chinese. Most of the US officers and personnel have been under a lot of stress due to across-the-board budget cuts, a process that has persisted year after year. Picking a fight and strutting their stuff is almost the last straw to survival for many assigned to the region. They would ironically greet the confirmation of Chinese military strength with relief — “Now we surely have to spend more, deploy more, and develop more new weapons”. Trump added: “And we will make our allies pay more, no free ride”.
Meanwhile, new Chinese warships are launched from dockyards like raviolis (their word, not mine). A variety of new fourth-generation warplanes and redesigned third- and third-and-a-half-generation fighter jets are test-flying and being deplored rapidly.
Enough said, the policy of maintaining a two-generation gap between the US military and its closest rival is not even a tenable myth. Accordingly, US policy has to undergo adjustments.
5．China Plans Multiple Bypasses of the Malacca Strait
Meanwhile, as part of its ongoing One Belt One Road initiatives, China is negotiating several infrastructure projects that will gradually displace the significance of the Malacca Strait as a throughway of world commerce.
(1) The China-Pakistan high-speed rail corridor — This will link China’s Kashgar (Xinjiang) to the new Port of Gwadar in southwest Pakistan, directly into the Indian Ocean near the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The corridor will provide Pakistan with a 1000-km belt of new economic development zone, to the west of the existing Karachi corridor. Over the long-term, economic development will also hopefully stabilize the area against the fomentation of terrorists.
(2) The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor — This will link China’s Yunnan province with Myanmar’s southern seaport in the Bay of Bengal. For Myanmar, this will enable it to access the entire Chinese mainland markets and link up with China’s developmental infrastructure. Over the long-term, the economic benefits will hopefully pacify the unstable ethnic regions in Northern Myanmar.
(3) Kra Canal, South Thailand — At the southern tip of Thailand, before it joins up with Malaysia, and not far from the southeastern tip of Myanmar, is a narrow strip of land, an isthmus, that separates the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The Thai government and China are discussing the building of a canal here that will form a new gateway between Asia and the Indian Ocean. This will have economic potential far greater than the Panama Canal, and is much shorter than the Suez Canal in length.
At the same time, a Chinese-Malaysian joint venture to develop a new seaport on the west coast of Malaysia near the historic British outpost of Malacca (now an old city), has been launched. Singapore can foresee its potential gradual diminishing geopolitical significance and has quickly signed up on a new high-speed rail linking it with Kuala Lumpur, a project already agreed between China and Malaysia, in order to solidify its commercial future. Diplomatically, it is beginning to shift its pro-US stance to a more neutral one.
6．US Losing Traction, Militarily And Diplomatically
After the announcement of the so-called “arbitration ruling”, the Southeast Asian nations became wary of US intentions and began to question the reality of so-called “American military protection”. There are three major areas of concern:
- The US-orchestrated ruling, which cost the Philippines US $30 million, was of highly-questionable legitimacy (a separate paper will discuss that in more detail). What caused everyone to react with total silence and incredulity was the outrageous assertion in the ruling that none of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea were “islands” under the UN Convention. Thus, nobody in the area has any claim over exclusive economic zones. That in effect screwed everyone who was making a territorial claim, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc. The only parties benefited by the “arbitration ruling”, as everyone now discovers, is the US and US oil companies which now have the same rights as all the nations in the region, except for a narrow 12-mile territorial sea along their landmass coastal boundaries. As for the rest of the South China Sea, the US can rule with its military might, and offer paid protection to the local nations. These nations feel they have been swindled by this US-orchestrated set-up.
- That is if China will let it happen. The new military balance, with China convincingly displaying both technological deterrent capabilities and invincible political will, makes nations in the region question the credibility of American resolve. They doubt that the US will intervene on their behalf in case of hostilities. They began to see the sale of expensive weapons and extortion for “protection money” as the true US agenda. They would rather warm up to China and cultivate developmental interests, than to engage in confrontation at the prodding of the Americans. They also see clearly that the parties benefiting from the creation of tension in the region is the US and Japan, in cahoot. That is what Obama referred to as the US “pivot to Asia”, except it riles up a Dragon that is proving too powerful for it to deal with.
- The outcome of the US election made everyone realize the unreliability of an American commitment. Trump’s abandonment of TPP and the supposed free-trade spirit behind it, after rounds of bludgeoning everyone into playing by US-set rules, signaled to the countries in the region the perils of going along with any American administration, Trump’s in particular.
In the meantime, China’s foreign policy objectives, and its One Belt One Road initiative, are both appealing and making sense to all. China takes a practical approach and offers workable solutions, based on fairness and equality, under its longstanding Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in foreign affairs. It advocates setting aside outstanding disputes and seeking cooperation to attain mutual benefits. Territorial disputes between it and other countries may take years to resolve to mutual satisfaction, but there were numerous successful examples of ultimate resolution through peaceful process of patient negotiations. In the case with Vietnam, for example, notwithstanding numerous conflicting claims in the South China Sea, the two countries have successfully concluded a negotiated land border. After two centuries, China concluded its 4,300-km boundary with Russia a few years ago, splitting up some areas in the most practicable if infinitesimal compromises, after each side had not budged an inch for the twenty-plus years of marathon negotiations. That style of conflict resolution is beginning to appeal to more and more of China’s antagonists in its immediate neighborhood.
In recent months, more and more Southeast Asian countries are engaging China in warming of relations. The Philippines’ new president is calling the Americans out, and seeking instead to forge a closer relationship with China and Russia. Malaysia signed major development projects with China after the ruling. Even Singapore is backing off from its supposed alliance obligation to the US and reverses some of its positions targeting China.
7．New Flashpoints and Potential Crises In 2017
At least for now, political realism is tilting in China’s favor. But the US will most likely not allow that to stand for long. It is already trying to establish alternative pivots. Destabilization of every border country with China, from North Korea, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Pakistan, India, etc. are all operable options. Even Taiwan is a possible card, albeit highly risky. Many of these options had been planned, and resources deployed, for years. There are reports that templates for color revolution have been placed in Hong Kong. Hundreds of non-governmental organizations (or NGOs) have been seeded and set up in practically every country in the region as fronts for potential clandestine activities. Google has … okay, no more speculations.
But one US move has definitely ired both China and Russia, and turned East Asia into a dangerous and real military flashpoint. That is the planned deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system in South Korea, scheduled to be completed by July 2017. Announced as a defensive move against North Korea’s missile threat, the US cannot fool the Chinese or the Russians because THAAD covers large portions of China and Siberian Russia, whereas an 800-km range conventional system would suffice for any North Korean threat. Moreover, missile defense technology is hardly safeproof and the term “defense” is a camouflage; once different warheads are put on, the system is effectively an offensive weapon. Placing it in the Korean Peninsula is like putting the barrel of a gun under China’s chin.
A parallel can be drawn to how the US missile “defense” plan in Eastern Europe (supposedly against Iran) caused Moscow to vigilantly reciprocate and retaliate, thus leading to the eventual conflicts in Ukraine and Russian move into the Middle East. In 2017, China has to make moves in reaction to THAAD. Meanwhile, US and South Korea are rapidly escalating their joint military exercises, and exhibit every indication of attempting to reach readiness for a preemptive war against the North Korean regime. One miscalculation on either side, or an adventurous maneuver by a scheming Japan, and we may all be at war.
Then, there is the option of all options — comprehensive cooperative partnership with China instead of thwarting its rise. China is open to that idea, and has in fact been promoting it in the form of a proposed New Form Of Big Nations Relations since the beginning of Obama’s second term. In my opinion, it is in fact the best option for both sides under the current polycentric power reality in the world. There are a lot of details that have to be worked out, but it is the best way for both to get out of the quagmire.
To explain the rationale of that alternative, I will prepare a paper entitled “The Vertical Initiatives“, as part of the roadmap on US-China relations.