Great Power Rivalry Threatens Smaller States in Western Pacific

Jun 25

This content was originally published by teleSUR

Tensions in the Asia Pacific are escalating. The latest chapter in the superpower collision is Washington’s strategy of holding low altitude aircraft passes on spots in the South China Sea where China is building military structures over reclaimed land. With the central element of its Grand Strategy being the prevention of the rise of a regional power in the Eurasian landmass that would threaten its global superiority, the US under the Obama administration has put into motion the containment of China via military and economic means. The so-called “Pivot to Asia” has involved the refocusing of Washington’s strategic assets, especially its naval power, on the region, while the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” aims to constrain the rise of China’s economic might.

Meanwhile, although China does not aim for global hegemony, it does aim for primacy at a regional level, and the US military assets and its allies on the East Asian littoral and island-chain pose a major obstacle to this ambition. Beijing’s clumsy moves to assert its regional primacy have given the United States the opportunity to reassert itself aggressively in the region, painting itself as an “indispensable” actor to “balance” China’s ambitions.

Some smaller states in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, caught in the middle of this great power rivalry, seek to maximize their political and economic independence by playing off one against the other, though with a weak hand that, as in the case of the Philippines, leads to subordination to the goals of the power it chooses to ally with. Another middling state, North Korea, has chosen to ensure national survival not so much by taking sides but by developing its own nuclear arsenal and adopting a posture of deliberate unpredictability. Vietnam, in line with its traditional posture of self-reliance, has single-handedly challenged Beijing’s incursions into what it considers its maritime territory or exclusive economic zone, engaging in 2014 in a much publicized water cannon battle with Chinese vessels guarding an oil rig that the Chinese had installed in disputed waters.

Then there is Japan, an economic power but military protectorate viewed with great suspicion by its neighbors owing to its bloody imperial past that is using the Chinese threat as an excuse to rearm and eventually throw off both its strategic subservience to the United States and military inferiority to China.

Pawn in the Great Game

The Philippines is in the front line of this Great Power Game in Western Pacific. In response to China’s moves to claim some 80 per cent of the South China Sea as Chinese territory, the Aquino administration has allowed the US to draw it into a military agreement, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), that essentially allows Washington to convert the whole country into a springboard to contain China.

The government of President Aquino has also supported the remilitarization of Japan, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to extend Japanese military operations beyond the Japanese archipelago in so-called “collective defense” operations. Abe’s strategy would violate Article 9 of the Japanese constitution that enjoins Japan from engaging in offensive military operations. Aquino’s recent visit to Japan set the stage for “war games” that Washington, Tokyo, and Manila now plan to hold near the disputed islands in the South China Sea, also known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea.

The centerpiece of the Philippine strategy is EDCA. Even a cursory examination would show that on balance, the deal is very disadvantageous to Manila. Under the agreement, the US will provide the Philippines with what Washington calls “Excess Defense Articles” like obsolete, retired Coast Guard cutters. But these benefits are more than offset by several facts. First, of all, EDCA does not commit the US to defend the islands or reefs claimed by the Philippines; indeed, the US has explicitly said it will not interfere in sovereignty issues.

Secondly, EDCA has brought the Philippines farther away from a resolution of its territorial disputes with China, which will be marginalized by the dynamics of a superpower conflict.

Third, it will turn the Philippines into another of Washington’s “frontline states” like Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all the detrimental and destabilizing effects of such a status—including the subordination of the country’s economic, social, and cultural dynamics to Washington’s security needs. With EDCA the Philippines is right back to its position during the Cold War, when it played the role of handmaiden to the U.S. containment strategy by hosting two huge military bases. The small window of opportunity to forge an independent foreign policy that the Philippine Human Rightss gained with the expulsion of the U.S. bases in 1992 has been rudely closed.

Fourth, EDCA will move the region farther away from the negotiation of a collective security agreement, which is a far better alternative to the volatile balance-of-power politics now being promoted by the US and Japan.

From Balance of Power to Collective Security

The Philippines’ territorial conflicts with China are real, but, in the view of many analysts, embracing a military alliance with the United States is the wrong way to go. In their view, the way to resolve them is to rely on international law and diplomacy, a terrain in which the Philippines has a big advantage over Beijing. The Philippines’ submission of a 1,000-page “memorial” delineating the country’s entitlements in the West Philippine Sea to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal at the end of March last year was a giant step in this direction. Beijing knows it does not have a leg to stand on in international law, which is why it has been pushing the Philippines to drop the case on pain of “damaging bilateral relations.”

The Philippines must also maximize its diplomatic option, where it also has an advantage over Beijing. It must press its ASEAN partners to remind Beijing to live up to the commitment to negotiate a binding code of conduct on maritime behavior in the West Philippine Sea that it made at the foreign ministers’ meeting in Brunei in June 2013. It was pressure from ASEAN that forced Beijing to make this commitment, and it will be consistent pressure that will force it to follow through on it.

The Philippines should also prepare the ground at the United Nations General Assembly for the eventual introduction of a resolution condemning Beijing’s unilateral annexation of some 80 per cent of the South China Sea, brusquely disregarding other littoral states’ rights to their continental shelves and 200-mile EEZs. There is very good recent precedent: Beijing’s worrisome annexationist has similarities to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which the General Assembly condemned in 2014.

The strategic aim of these diplomatic efforts must be to eventually bring about a collective security agreement for the region that would include ASEAN, Japan, the two Koreas, and China. The ASEAN Regional Forum was headed in this direction in the 1990s, despite the opposition of the United States, which arrogated unto itself the role of enforcer of stability in the region. Its momentum was unfortunately derailed by the Asian financial crisis in 1997, which swept the rug from under the credibility of ASEAN’s major states.

Though the process will be difficult, it is time to revive this project of collective security, since the unstable and volatile balance-of-power politics favored by Washington is not a viable mechanism for regional peace and security. Increasingly, Washington’s presence in Asia, a legacy of World War II and the Cold War, is seen by many in East Asia as the biggest obstacle to the countries in the region achieving a mature, post-colonial relationship with one another. A collective security agreement that would ban war and other aggressive actions, expand the scope of the existing Southeast East Asian Nuclear Free Zone Agreement, shut down foreign military bases, and push significant demilitarization would be a giant step in this direction.

Balance of Power and Instability

Washington’s imperial “pivot,” China’s provocative moves, and Japan’s opportunistic initiatives add up to a volatile brew. Many observers note that the Asia Pacific military-political situation is becoming like that of Europe at the end of the 19th century, with the emergence of a similar configuration of balance of power politics. It is a useful reminder that while that fragile balancing might have worked for a time, it eventually ended up in the conflagration that was the First World War. None of the key players in East Asia today may want war. But neither did any of the Great Powers on the eve of the First World War. The problem is that in a situation of fierce rivalry among powers that hate one another, an incident like a ship collision—intended or unintended–may trigger an uncontrollable chain of events that may result in a regional war, or worse.

There must be a better way than reproducing a way to peace that has not worked in the past.

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