A few weeks ago, I speculated that the purpose of China’s creation of artificial island chains and military outposts was to be able to project military force quickly anywhere in the South China Sea. With this new ability, China could exploit oil reserves and other natural resources to the exclusion of other Pacific countries, establish and enforce treaties and agreements, and control trade. As it turns out, the Chinese have begun to do just that, with fishing.
With the presence of Chinese forces, Chinese threats will now have teeth and can begin to influence activity in the area. If my suspicion is correct, the Chinese are aiming to establish a sort of economic or customs union and assume control of trade in the Southeast Pacific to their own benefit. After the latest Hague ruling for the Philippines and against China’s claims went ignored, US attempts to rally the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, against China failed. Two members friendly to China, Laos and Cambodia, prevented any official denunciation from being issued by the group.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is the Obama Administration’s foreign policy answer to China’s expansionism. The “soft power” tactics of the current administration are an attempt to entice regional cooperation by removing tariffs, expanding corporate powers in domestic and international law, and protecting workers’ rights. However, there are an equal number of criticisms to the treaty, including the loss of national sovereignty, the loss of jobs, and the industry influence and secrecy mandated during its drafting. The proposal is so unpopular domestically that both presidential candidates have sworn to reject the treaty, although I suspect that both will still pass it in a modified form. Due to a loss of trust and legitimacy in international matters, US soft power diplomacy is far less effective. But the Obama administration will continue to ham-fistedly cram a square peg in a round hole.
In contrast to that strategy, Donald Trump has threatened to pull the 29,000 strong US force out of South Korea, much to our allies’ dismay. The chances of this happening are almost zero, but it serves as a reminder to the Southeast Pacific of the stabilizing contribution America has been making for decades in the region. Without the US military stationed on the 38th parallel, the rest of the region will have to deal with the belligerent, unreasonable North Korean regime. As bases in Japan and Turkey are facing widespread anti-American sentiment, Trump’s Nixonian behavior is an abrupt change of strategy in this theater.
If tensions boil over between China and the Philippines, we could see an escalation of the guerilla insurrection in the Philippines, China’s key rival for resources in the South China Sea. A recent truce between the Filipino government and Maoist Communist rebels suffered a setback when the Maoists attacked and killed a Filipino militia member. If the Chinese were so inclined, a covert proxy war in a historically unstable country could remove the Filipinos from the picture.