Trump treads in uncharted waters

PerryScope
By Perry Diaz

Nawaz Sharif and Donald Trump

Nawaz Sharif and Donald Trump

For President-elect Donald J. Trump, there is nothing wrong in calling Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to introduce himself or establish personal contacts, after all Trump would soon be the next leader of the Free World. A few words exchanged between the two leaders would probably have been within the bounds of diplomatic civility. But Trump, whose unorthodox ways and style have at times been viewed as uncivil and undiplomatic, had reportedly violated diplomatic protocol during his conversation with Sharif.

As reported, Trump was quoted as telling Sharif: “You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work, which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you, Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long.” For Trump to flatter Sharif as a “terrific guy” and praise him to high heaven for his “amazing work,” it’s considered a diplomatic faux pas, which could cause big problems in dealing with other countries that are not on friendly terms with Pakistan, such as India.

Pakistan alliance

Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi: Friends or Foes?

Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi: Friends or Foes?

With the U.S. trying very hard to attract India to her side in the rivalry between the U.S. and China for dominance over the vast Indo-Asia-Pacific, Pakistan – although still considered technically as an American “ally” – has been veering towards China and Russia. While Pakistan is helping the U.S. in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been cozying up to Russia who happens to be India’s major arms supplier.

If you think that geopolitics in South Asia (oftentimes referred to as the Indian subcontinent or the “subcontinent”) is complicated enough, the Asia-Pacific – which is a subset of Indo-Asia-Pacific – is today’s most volatile region. There are so many players whose political and economic agendas differ from – or in conflict with — one another. The major players are the U.S. vs. China and Russia. But what is at stake here is the South China Sea (SCS), which is one of the busiest – if not the busiest — maritime trade routes, in which $5 trillion in trade passes through every year. These sea-lanes are vital to China, Japan, and South Korea where most of the goods shipped from the Middle East and Africa are destined to, including 80% of China’s foreign oil imports.

Malacca Dilemma

Major crude oil trade routes in the South China Sea (2011)

Major crude oil trade routes in the South China Sea (2011)

China’s biggest fear is if the Strait of Malacca is blocked. China’s oil imports account for 60% of her total oil consumption, 80% of which passes through the Strait of Malacca. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if the chokepoint at the Strait of Malacca were blocked, China’s economic engine and war machine would come to a halt in a couple of weeks, or perhaps just a matter of days. This is called the “Malacca Dilemma,” which China is trying to solve by bringing oil to China from the Middle East and Africa without going through the Strait of Malacca. And this is where Pakistan plays a key role by providing an oil pipeline that runs from Gwadar on the Indian Ocean to Western China; thus, bypassing the Strait of Malacca. Another pipeline runs from the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar to Kunming in Southern China. While these two pipelines would not totally eliminate the imported oil that passes through Strait of Malacca, it would decrease the volume; thus, mitigating the threat to China’s economy and national security.

For as along as the Strait of Malacca is kept open, and with the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and Scarborough Shoal under China’s control, China could create a “strategic strait” between these three island groups; thus, converting the SCS into a “Beijing Lake” and controlling the maritime traffic.

“One China” policy

strategic-strait-scsBut China has an Achilles heel. It’s Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. In 1979, the U.S. acknowledged China’s claim that Taiwan was part of China. They also established a set of protocols known as “One China” policy, which governed U.S.-China relation vis-à-vis Taiwan. Henceforth, the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But notwithstanding the “One China” policy, the U.S. continues to maintain military ties with Taiwan by supplying her with military armaments and material needed to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion as required by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979. TRA has defined “substantial but non-diplomatic relations” between the people of the two nations. It requires the U.S. to intervene militarily if China attacks or invades Taiwan. However, the U.S. formulated a policy called “strategic ambiguity” that is designed to dissuade Taiwan from a unilateral declaration of independence, and to dissuade China from unilaterally unifying Taiwan with China.

Then on December 2, 2016, that diplomatic protocol was shattered! The Taiwanese government arranged a call and Trump picked up the call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. It was a congratulatory call. Nothing spectacular was discussed. And Trump did not express or utter inflammatory words that could have rattled Beijing. But nevertheless he was criticized simply for taking the call. He responded on Twitter, saying: “It was “interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” Good point.

“Two China” policy

Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump

Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump

The “call” symbolizes the breaking of an unwritten rule that had kept the peace across the Taiwan Strait and maintains cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan. This was what kept peace between the two Chinas for three decades.

With one phone call, the “One China” policy was shattered. However, it didn’t do away with the “One China” policy nor did it bring to the table the notion of a “Two China” policy, which China would most likely declare as a “red line.” Does it mean then that China would go to war over Taiwan? At this moment, there is a Sword of Damocles hanging over Taiwan that would unleash one thousand missiles on the island if war breaks out. The question is: Would Trump go to war over Taiwan?

Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon M. Huntsman, who is considered one of the top China experts, opined: “Taiwan is about to become a more prominent feature of the overall U.S.-China relationship. As a businessman, Donald Trump is used to looking for leverage in any relationship. A President Trump is likely to see Taiwan as a useful leverage point.”

Trump Doctrine

peace-through-strengthIndeed, Trump has rattled the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific region from Japan down to Australia and from India all the way to Hawaii. It is said that whoever controls the region controls the world. All China has to do is to break out of the First Island Chain – which is formed from Japan, through Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, and Vietnam – and establish her presence and eventually control the Western Pacific… and beyond.

Right now, the First Island Chain is impenetrable. However, if China goes to war over Taiwan and regains her, that would break the island chain; thus, establishing a strategic base to penetrate the Western Pacific and challenge American primacy in the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific.

During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to increase the size of the army from 475,000 to 540,000 troops, build more aircraft, and more warships.

Clearly, Trump has no plans to follow Obama’s disarmament plan. On the contrary, he is going for a defense spending that comes close to Ronald Reagan’s defense plans including Star Wars. As one think tank analyst said, Trump’s doctrine is summed up as: “Peace through strength.” Which makes one wonder: is Trump treading in uncharted waters? But as someone said, “No guts, no glory.”

(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)


Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *