By Perry Diaz
With the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) between the U.S. and India, U.S. President Barack Obama achieved a key part of his “Pivot to Asia” strategy. Indeed, it is a major accomplishment considering that the U.S. had been negotiating such an agreement for the past 12 years.
And the beauty of it is while it strengthens the foundation of Obama’s rebalancing of U.S. forces in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, it also reinforces Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East policy; thus, extending India’s reach beyond the Indian Ocean into the Western Pacific. What the U.S. and India have accomplished is create a strategic partnership that would be a counterforce to China’s aggressive moves in the East and South China Seas and, eventually, the Indian Ocean.
In an opinion editorial (op-ed) written by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in January 2013, he said that Chinese power is increasingly transfiguring the East and South China Seas into “Lake Beijing.” It sounded ominous then. But today, it is pretty close to becoming a reality. China had reclaimed seven reefs in the South China Sea (SCS) and had built artificial islands around them, all within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. Recent satellite photos showed that China is building military fortifications including runways, deep-water harbors, lighthouses, and radar installations. And once China declares an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over 90% of the SCS that she claims, it would then be nigh impossible to reverse what China did without going to war.
Geopolitical and military experts are divided on a timetable. But most of them agree that war between the U.S. and China could happen sooner or later. Some say within a year. Some say 2020, while a few others say 2034.
Evidently, China has put her military modernization plan on the fast tract. While the U.S. still has military advantage, China is fast catching up. And many experts believe that 2020 would be the year when China could surpass the U.S. if the U.S. lets up with her technological edge over China. It is important to note that the Chinese generals have the mindset of Sun Tzu; that is, they wouldn’t go to war for as long as they believe the U.S. is stronger than China.
First and Second Island Chains
If you’ve been following American military strategy since the beginning of the Cold War, she’s been busy building military alliance with countries in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. To date, the U.S. has defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia. These treaty allies – with the exception of the Philippines – are strong militarily, politically, and economically.
While the Philippines may be the weakest link in the First Island Chain – from Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, and Vietnam – it’s geostrategic location is a natural barrier against Chinese intrusion into the Second Island Chain –from Japan through Guam, the Marianas Islands, and Papua-New Guinea.
It did not then come as a surprise when the U.S. and the Philippines signed – over the objections of leftists politicians and activists — an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which is to allow the deployment of American military forces on a “rotational” basis in the country. Right now, four airbases and an army base have been selected to base them. In addition, the U.S. Navy is using the former Subic Bay Naval Base for port calls and to replenish supplies, while American surveillance aircraft are stationed at the former Clark Airbase.
In addition to the six treaty allies, the U.S. has strategic partnership with Singapore, where an American naval flotilla is home ported. The U.S. is also developing defense relationship with Vietnam, while Malaysia and Indonesia aren’t too far off the grid. With Malaysia and Indonesia having maritime territorial disputes with China on their own, they welcome the presence of American warships in the SCS. They know that for as long as the U.S. maintains a superior naval presence – more than 200 warships and 400 warplanes deployed to five aircraft carrier strike groups — in the Indo-Asia-Pacific waters, China would be contained.
The question is: How can the U.S. maintain her primacy in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region? The answer is in Prime Minister Abe’s op-ed. He said: “To counteract China’s primacy in southern waters [SCS], Japan must augment its combat and police capabilities while forging a ‘diamond’ with the United States, Australia, and India to defend the commons in East and South Asia.”
The Chinese must have taken note of Abe’s op-ed because recently Kyodo News reported that China’s Ambassador to Japan, Cheng Yonghua, had told a Japanese official that if Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force joined the U.S.-led freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the SCS, Japan would have crossed a “red line.”
In another diplomatic incident, China warned Australia about a media release pertaining to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling that favored the Philippines. The media release quoted Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop as saying: “The Australian Government calls on the Philippines and China to abide by the ruling, which is final and binding on both parties.” Immediately, the Chinese protested against Bishop’s “wrong remarks.”
Meanwhile, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sent former President Fidel V. Ramos to Hong Kong to meet up with some contacts in China. While nothing definitive came out of the meetings, the way is paved for Duterte to initiate bilateral talks with China. China agreed. However, she said that the Philippines mustn’t bring the PCA ruling to the table, which raises the question: Would China be willing to give some concessions to the Philippines or would she insists on having it all? But the question is not about keeping those little rocks, reefs, and shoals, it’s about who would reign over the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific region?
In 1982, Chinese Admiral Liu Huaqing, the architect of China’s modern naval strategy, was quoted as saying that it would be necessary for China to control the First and Second Island Chains by 2010 and 2020, respectively. “The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040. If China is able to dominate the Second Island Chain seven years from now, the East China Sea will become the backyard of the PLA Navy,” he said.
However, China is running behind schedule. But if nobody stops her from reclaiming the Scarborough Shoal, she would be in a position to control the First Island Chain by 2020, the Second Island Chain by 2030, and the Indian Ocean by 2050.
Ultimately, it would all come down to who would be the strongest. But if what Abe had envisioned in 2013 would come to fruition, which is to form a strategic partnership among the four Indo-Asia-Pacific maritime democracies – Japan, U.S., Australia and India — the time may not be too far away for them to challenge any attempt by China to assert total control over the region. Indeed, with the signing of LEMOA, the “strategic diamond” is taking shape in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.