By Dr Subhash Kapila
China for decades has chafed at the overwhelming geopolitical and military predominance that the United States had superimposed in the Western Pacific at China’s doorsteps. China for decades has employed various geopolitical and military stratagems to prompt the exit of the United States from the Western Pacific. In 2018, China seems to be succeeding in this aim.
Post-World War II victories the United States crafted security architecture in the Western Pacific comprising bilateral military alliances with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and supplemented by placing US Forward Military Presence the Cold War manifestations as in Europe, in terms of thousands of US Military Forces at major military bases in these countries. Even in 2018, with the exception of the Philippines, the security architecture so crafted has survived.
US Forward Military Presence in the Western Pacific was earlier designed against the Soviet threat, But with the dissolution of the Former Soviet Union and the exponential military rise of China, the US Forward Military Presence now had to cater for the China Threat on a larger scale to peace and security of Western Pacific countries.
The Western Pacific with its spider-web of bilateral military alliances and a sizeable number of US Forward Military bases in these countries formed the Outer Perimeter of defence of Continental United States. It also enabled the United States springboards for US military interventions against China should it endanger the security of US Allies in the region. Not to be forgotten is that the United States stands committed to a ‘nuclear umbrella’ to these countries and with this commitment has held back Japan and South Korea going in for nuclear weapons for their security
China in the above security setting has long felt hemmed in by US Forward Military Presence and the security relationships of Japan and South Korea with the United States.
With its growing military clout and economic strengths, China by 2018 has felt emboldened to challenge the United States military predominance in the Western Pacific. This process actually commenced more noticeably from 2012-13 onwards with the ascension to undisputed power in Beijing of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China’s game plan to ease out the United States from the Western Pacific has analytically to be viewed by examining the Western Pacific in two segments. The Southern Segment of the Western Pacific basically revolves around the South China Sea. The Northern Segment of the Western Pacific basically revolves around Japan and South Korea.
Analytically, China’s strategy in the Southern Sector rested on the employment of brute military forces whereas in the Northern Sector because of Japan and South Korea’s relatively more military capacity the Chinese strategy has been one of employment of geopolitical and political tools.
The Southern Segment of the Western Pacific in terms of geographical factors lends itself more to use of United States military predominance in naval and air power for close-in military operations against China’s Pacific Ocean littoral.. In the South China Sea Region the United States has no Forward Military Presence after the US withdrawal from its bases in the Philippines. Unlike Japan and South Korea in the Northern Segment of the Western Pacific with appreciable military clout supplemented by US Forward Military Presence, Vietnam and the Philippines are not in the same category.
The South China Sea therefore became the easiest option for China to implement by military means its own version of ‘Chinese Forward Military Presence’ by forcible military occupation of the South China Sea Islands both in the Paracels and the Spratlys group. With this military capability, China can not only choke Japan and South Korea by choking their sea lane of economic survival but also impede transference of UD Navy from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.
In 2018, China has achieved ‘Full Spectrum’ military dominance over the South China Sea maritime expanse by military fortifications on both the natural islands and artificially created islands. By doing so, China has achieved multiple military aims. China’s vulnerability to US ‘Close-In’ military Intervention against China’s Pacific littoral will now be at great military cost. Chinese Navy submarines breakout into the wider Pacific has become more easier. In the absence of clear United States military resolve to stem China’s aggression in the South China Sea, the image of the United States in Asian capitals stands dented.
In the years since 2005 onwards as China was ‘salami slicing’ its way to ‘Full Spectrum’ dominance of the South China Sea, the United States stood immobilised and shackled into gross strategic negligence of not restraining China. The United States stood paralysed into inaction by its ‘China Hedging Strategy’ and its ‘Risk Aversion’ strategies.
China was fully aware of these United States hesitations and felt emboldened to pursue more vigorously to establish complete sovereignty over the South China Sea. United States claims in 2018 made by some US officials that the United States has the capabilities to blast out islands under Chinese military occupation at any time needs to be tested. Does the United States have the political will to do so?
In 2018, it can be stated that in the Southern Segment of the Western Pacific, China has succeeded in easing out the United States and its military predominance. FONOPs operations by US Navy in the South China Sea aided by its military allies in no way has diluted China’s ‘Full Spectrum “military dominance of the South China Sea.
To offset the above military infirmities, the United States would have to work seriously in cultivating Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia into some sort of military security grouping and basing rights for US Military Forces.
In the Northern Segment of the Western Pacific China has employed multi-pronged strategy to dilute, weaken and neutralise US military predominance. China employed political and military coercion against Japan and a mix of carrots and sticks strategy against South Korea.
Japan has not buckled under China’s coercive strategies even in the Senkaku Islands. Japan prevailed over the United States to make a public assertion that it stood bound under Article V of the Mutual Security Treaty to militarily aid Japan in the event of Chinese military aggression in the Senkaku Islands claimed by China. China thereafter has visibly backed off from throwing its military might against Japan in the Senkakus.
South Kore aat various times has gravitated towards China under Chinese inducements and more to spite Japan in whose case South Korea has not been able to rise above its historical hangovers against Japan. However, South Korea has not deemed wise to shed off its bilateral security ties with the United States nor the withdrawal of US Forces stationed in South Korea.
Cleverly, China in tandem with its military occupation of South China Sea islands embarked in the build-up of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and with ICBM delivery means to threaten Continental United States. This fruitation has been achieved in 2017-18. China therefore now has potent proxy nuclear weapons State in North Korea to further its strategic aims against USA.
North Korea is China’s most valuable bargaining chip against the United States and the same is most visibly evident today in mid-2018. In the years preceding China soft- pedalled the Six Party Talks for denuclearisation of North Korea.
In 2018, China has succeeded in contriving the security environment such that the United Sates is at the geopolitical and strategic crossroads in the Northern Segment of the Western Pacific by holding the Singapore Summit when President Trump met the North Korean President Kim for the doubtful dialogue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
The United States at the Singapore Summit without recognising the strategic costs surprisingly conceded to North Korean demands for “Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”; the calling-off of the Annual major Joint US-South Korean military exercises; and a public assertion that the United States would like to bring back US Forces stationed in South Korea.
United States above concessions to North Korea have been correctly read in the region as United States obsession to eliminate the ICBM threat posed by North Korea against Continental United States. It additionally has been read in Western Pacific capitals as the United States caving-in to proxy demands of China articulated by the North Korean President.
Analytically, if the United States does not carry-out course corrections to United States concessions conceded to North Korea carry the implicit dangers of a possible United States exit from the Northern Segment of the Western Pacific.
China therefore can be said to have out-manoeuvred the United States in Western Pacific and very close to unravelling the substantial security architecture that successive US Administrations had perfected and put in place. Trade Wars cannot tame China nor can they supplant a weakened United States resolve to maintain its military predominance in the Western Pacific.
Concluding, what needs to be emphasised and over-emphasised is that the United States to maintain its status as a Superpower and so also the military predominant power in the Pacific and now the Indo Pacific, the United States cannot afford to let China loosen its grip and predominance in the Western Pacific.