By Perry Diaz
With all the trouble spots around the world where the U.S. is involved one way or another, it makes one wonder: Where will the war take place? Okay, let’s try this: Take your pick? (1) Baltic States (U.S. and NATO vs. Russia), (2) Middle East (U.S. vs. ISIS), (3) Senkaku Islands (U.S. and Japan vs. China), (4) Korean Peninsula (U.S. and South Korea vs. North Korea), (5) Scarborough Shoal (U.S. and the Philippines vs. China).
Let’s take a look at each of these trouble spots.
1) Baltic States – With Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the civil war in Ukraine, which is actually a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia, the 28-member-state North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will soon be deploying four battalions in Poland and the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The troops will be combat-ready and prepared to slow down invading Russian forces, which the NATO believes could happen if and when Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to attack and occupy the Baltic States. NATO military planners believe that Russia could easily overran Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. While four battalions of NATO troops are not sufficient to stop a Russian invasion, it would give the U.S. and her NATO allies a little time to send their troops to the Baltics. Recently, it was reported that Russia was planning to deploy – or might already have deployed – the Iskander nuclear-capable missile system to Kaliningrad to counter NATO.
2) Middle East – Right now, war is raging in Syria and Iraq where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has gained considerable territories. Although the U.S. is providing bombing raids against ISIS infrastructure and troop movements, she has not sent combat troops to fight ISIS on the ground. However, there are about 5,000 American military advisers, including special operations personnel, whose primary role is to train the Iraqi combat personnel. But with the increasing intensity of the war, U.S. military planners would like to see American “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Syria. But President Barack Obama is against it. However, nobody knows what his successor – Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump — would do when he steps down in January 2017.
3) Senkaku Islands – An unpopulated small group of five islands in the East China Sea is claimed by both Japan and China. Although Japan has administrative control over these tiny islands, China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a large portion of East China Sea over the Senkakus. If China and Japan go to war over the Senkakus, the U.S. is obligated to come to the aid of Japan because of their mutual security agreement. The question is: Would China risk war with the U.S. at this time?
4) Korean Peninsula – Recently, North Korea test-launched two “Musudan” medium-range ballistic missiles, which were condemned by the U.S., Japan, and South Korea as a violation of U.N. resolutions. Reputed to possess nuclear warheads, North Korea had been threatening to launch nuclear ballistic missiles against the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korea have been negotiating for the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to South Korea to intercept incoming Musudan missiles. China is concerned that the U.S. would use THAAD as part of a broader strategy to encircle and contain China. However, many analysts believe that it’s just a matter of time before THAAD is deployed to South Korea. The question is: Would North Korea – with China’s blessing — attack South Korea in an attempt to neutralize the THAAD batteries before they become operational?
5) Scarborough Shoal – It is anticipated that the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) would soon pass a final judgment on the case that the Philippines unilaterally brought before the PCA concerning, among other issues, the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Both the Philippines and China are signatories to UNCLOS; however, China challenged the arbitration process and declared that she will not abide by the PCA’s ruling, which makes one wonder: If China ignores the PCA’s ruling, what are the Philippines’ options and what would the U.S. do to protect her national interests?
A few days ago, the Philippines’ president-elect Rodrigo Duterte told the media that he was not keen about confronting China and had expressed doubts that the U.S. is committed to side with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal territorial disputes.
During the U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg’s courtesy visit on June 13, Duterte asked him bluntly, “Are you with us or are you not with us?” Goldberg’s response was: “Only if you are attacked.” Clearly, what Goldberg said was true because the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) says so. In other words, if Duterte decides to reclaim the Scarborough Shoal and meets Chinese resistance, Duterte would be on his own. And what weaponry does the Philippines have to fight China? Two coast guard ships and two fighter jets? Forget it.
So, whatever the outcome of the arbitration case is, Duterte is not going to war against China, which makes sense. But the Scarborough Shoal has geostrategic values to both China and the U.S.
In my column, “Tensions heat up in the SCS” (May 13, 2016), I wrote: “It is obvious that China wants to end America’s dominance in the SCS; thus, taking full control of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, economically, militarily, and politically. It will be the end of Pax Americana and the advent of Pax Sinica. And this begs the question: What would the U.S. do in the event that China went ahead with the reclamation of Scarborough Shoal?” Or, what would Obama’s successor – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – do? That is the $64,000 question.
Indeed, a new U.S. administration under Clinton or Trump would be faced with multifaceted scenarios. And the worst-case scenario would be: What if Russia attacked the Baltic States, China attacked the Senkakus and reclaimed the Scarborough Shoal, and North Korea attacked South Korea?
But going to war is like a game of poker. If the other players sense that you have a weak hand, they’d bluff you. If they think that you have a strong hand, they’d fold theirs. Obama isn’t a good player in the game of geopolitics. He has yet to beat Putin. And Chinese President Xi Jinping proved to be a good bluffer and Obama lost several islands to Xi in the Spratly archipelago. And Kim Jong-un is an all-time bluffer. He has been playing a hand with nothing but a lowball in a high stakes game.
At the end of the day, with all these trouble spots around the world, can America engage Russia, China, and North Korea all at once? The answer is yes because America is still the sole superpower in the world today. Putin admitted that recently in a televised interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN. Indeed, with 11 aircraft carrier battle groups, America can project power anywhere in the world. But the question is: Is America prepared for war?