By Dr Subhash Kapila
Western Pacific as the Western half of the Pacific Ocean has never been free of major powers rivalry ever since the end of World War II. The Cold War in Europe got extended to the Western Pacific which witnessed the United States and the Former Soviet Union locked in a military tussle.
During Cold War I the United States put into place a dual strategy for the forward defence of Mainland USA, far deep into the Western Pacific. It comprised a spider-web of bilateral security alliances with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Philippines providing for US security guarantees against any Communist threat from the USSR and China. Secondly, the United States entered into agreements with these nations, excepting Taiwan, for hosting Forward Military Presence of US Forces in their territories.
This US security architecture has held firm ever since then despite the disintegration of the USSR and the fading away of the Russian threat. Only the Philippines as part of its China hedging strategy had withdrawn the facility of United States using its naval and air force bases.
In the decade when the USSR was in the last throes of disintegration, China had made significant economic progress by kind courtesy of US and Japanese foreign direct investments. In the Post -Cold War I Phase, China with a burgeoning economy had carried out rapid military modernization and up- gradation with aspirations to emerge as the dominant power in the region of the Western Pacific.
The China Threat was therefore in the making in the 1990s and fully manifested itself in the decade of the2000s. China in the pursuit of its great power aspirations had unleashed unabashedly in the second decade of the 21st Century, what can be termed as Cold War II comprising designation of Taiwan, Tibet, Xingjian and the South China Sea as China’s ‘Core Interests” meriting China going to war to protect its “Core Interests”. Military aggressiveness, armed interventions and gunboat strategies started emerging from China.
Obviously, the United States with entrenched strategic and security interests in the Western Pacific could no longer be a passive spectator The China Threat manifesting itself in multiple forms to its security and to those of its Allies in the Western Pacific who shouldered and hosted the US security architecture in this vital region.
The security environment emerging in the Western Pacific has both regional and global military implications. This also has regional and global economic implications when one remembers that the global shift of economic power to Asia has primarily arisen from China and Japan.
With the above in mind, this Paper would like to focus on the following related issues:
- Western Pacific: The Strategic Significance for the United States and China
- Western Pacific: Notable Features of the Security Environment in 2013
- Western Pacific Does Not Lend itself to Conflict Resolution
- Future Perspectives on Western Pacific Security Environment
Western Pacific: The Strategic Significance for the United States and China
The strategic significance of the Western Pacific for the United States and China lies in the geographical configuration whose notable features are as under:
- The Western Pacific rests on the East Asia littoral comprising Russia, China and Vietnam.
- Parallel to the East Asia littoral the Western Pacific run a strategic islands chain extending from the Korean Peninsula to the Indonesian archipelago.
- This island chain virtually hems in the East Asia littoral and comprises Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. Each of these also having sovereignty over outlying small islands which are now disputed by China.
- The Western Pacific comprises a number of seas. Starting from the North these are the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and the South China Sea. Moving a bit westwards is the Sea of Japan
The strategic significance for the United States of this geographical configuration of the Western Pacific emerges from the following military considerations:
- The United States is provided both an outer perimeter of defence of Mainland United States and a springboard in close proximity to China for a military intervention.
- With a combination of geographical proximity to Mainland China and the military deployments of United States and its Allies, this permits a virtual hemming-in of China in military terms.
- In this island chain configuration only a few corridors exist for the Chinese Navy to breakout into the wider Pacific Ocean.
To breakout of such a military gridlock China’s primary strategic priority should have been to sow doubts on US reliability as a security guarantor of the countries of the Western Pacific which in turn could unravel the US security architecture. China succeeded temporarily in this direction in case of South Korea and Philippines.
More significantly are the Chinese claims to islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea. This is not only determined by hydrocarbon reserves but also by the military factor that these disputed islands in China’s possession would provide China bases for deployment of its military assets as part of its area denial and anti-access strategies against US naval and air power intervention.
Such disputed islands which virtually lie astride vital sea lanes of commerce to Japan and South Korea and Western United States could be strangulated by China by deployment of long range anti-ship missiles on these disputed islands.
Western Pacific: Notable Features of the Security Environment in 2013
The Western Pacific in 2013 seems to resemble the Cold War I security environment. The only difference being that the USSR stands replaced by China as the major threat to Western Pacific security and stability.
Further, unlike the USSR in Cold War I, which was set in a strategic tussle with only the United States at the global level, China’s strategic tussle in Cold War II manifests itself both at the global level in terms of seeking parity with the United States and at the regional level with Japan , Vietnam and other ASEAN countries.
In 2013 in military terms, China by its own aggressive and posturing has generated security disquiet in all Western Pacific countries and generating a palpable ‘China Threat” perception.
The first decade of the 21st Century witnessed The China Threat assuming dangerous contours due to US military distractions in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving China to advance unrestrained in its military expansion.
Sensing the strategic concerns generated by China in the Asia Pacific, the United States made a riposte in the nature of the Obama Doctrine incorporating a US ‘strategic pivot’ to Asia Pacific and ‘rebalancing’ of US military postures in Western Pacific.
In 2013, the security environment in Western Pacific seems to be marked by the following:
- China’s military aggressiveness and assertiveness becoming noticeably marked in the South China Sea with ASEAN countries and with Japan in the East China Sea.
- Chinese military brinkmanship is touching dangerous levels and adding to flashpoints in the Western Pacific
- More than 30% of the colossal Chinese Defence Budget is now being devoted to build-up of Chinese naval power and force-projection assets.
- North Korea as China’s military protégé and proxy for disruptive activities in the Western Pacific is not being restrained by China
- Countries in the region can be said to be engaged in military acquisitions and modernisation as a consequence of the above.
- Japan as the competitor of China is now actively engaged in rebalancing its defence postures, including amending its Peace Constitution.
- The United States has gone in for a Southward realignment of its military deployments permitting better response times against any Chinese armed conflict in the South China Sea.
- Philippines is reconsidering opening the old US bases in its territory for US reactivation
- Reports also suggest that Vietnam may offer the Cam Ranh naval base to the United States.
In overall terms, such feverish military or military related activities suggest that the Western Pacific security environment in 2013 is fast emerging as one pregnant with explosive possibilities.
Western Pacific Does Not Lend itself to Conflict Resolution
The Western Pacific very much like Central Europe in Cold War I seems headed towards congealed lines of confrontation, though this time it is more in the maritime domain.
Western Pacific military confrontations are operating at two separate planes. The first is the overall strategic tussle between the United States and China. China as the revisionist power would gamble on brinkmanship to achieve its national aspirations to be counted as a strategic co-equal of USA.
The second level is of the United States as the status-quo power sustaining its existing security architecture in the Western Pacific and now reinforcing and rebalancing it. Basically it would involve that the United States stands by its security guarantees to its Allies in the region against any armed conflict ensuing from China on their territorial disputes. This would also include the commitment of a US nuclear umbrella, in the event of a ‘China Threat’ emanating.
In the first case, there is no ideological conflict or even any territorial dispute. It is out and out power struggle which brooks no conflict resolution initiatives. Can China as part of any conflict resolution initiative be advised to give up its global aspirations? Can the United Sates be asked that it should now cede strategic space in the Western Pacific to accommodate China’s global aspirations? The answer in both cases is ‘no’.
In the second case too where US allies or its new strategic partners and friends are involved in territorial disputes with China, the latter is not receptive to any conflict resolution. China resorts to a subterfuge that any dialogue on disputes can only be bilateral in nature. Inherent in any conflict resolution initiatives is the involvement of mediators/regional organisations/multi-party mechanisms, a fact that China is not willing to concede.
On both counts therefore the Western Pacific does not lend itself to any conflict resolution.
Future Perspectives on Western Pacific Security Environment
In terms of perspectives, the Western Pacific security environment offers no scope for optimism. On the contrary, unless there is slow-down or breakdown in the growth of Chinese economy, China’s expanding military profile both conventional and nuclear can be expected to grow.
China’s resort to political and military brinkmanship is unlikely to cease in the coming decades. Chinese nationalism is at an all-time high and is likely to grow as the Chinese regime stokes nationalism to divert attention from China’s growing domestic unrest and problems.
As China’s military brinkmanship intensifies on territorial disputes, there is an increasing likelihood of a US military intervention especially in the case where Japan is involved. The US secretary of State and the US Defense Secretary have publicly asserted to that effect.
While China can be expected to step back from an all-out armed conflict involving the United States, the reality that is likely to persist is that a Cold War template will persist in the future in the Western Pacific.
Also what needs to be noted that in terms of military perspectives any future conflict in the Western Pacific would primarily be maritime in nature to begin with. Hence the current race in the Western Pacific amongst all protagonists for build-up of naval warfare capabilities and submarines.
In the Western Pacific intersect most intensely the strategic interests and power tussle between the United States and China. Also intersecting within this overall framework are the regional power rivalries between China and Japan and between China and Vietnam and the Philippines on the South China Sea islands disputes.
Increasingly, the United States would tend to get drawn in regional disputes between US Allies and friends with China. The United States would not be allowed the luxury of ‘strategic detachment’ from the prevailing Western Pacific security environment. It would then run the risk of witnessing the unravelling of its security architecture in the region
The United States will ultimately have to resort a containment strategy against China in the Western Pacific.
(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email:[email protected])