Trump’s tweets about China suggest to some that the U.S. military posture with respect to the Nine Dotted Line is about to become more aggressive. Most noted is Trump’s phone conversation with the president of Taiwan, in violation of the “one China policy” of both the mainland and Taiwan, which, according Congressional Research Service (pdf), has never been explicitly agreed to by the U.S.
Note: If you’re new to this blog, you may wish to read some prior posts indexed by South China Sea Tense, and Pivot to Asia; Duterte Declares End of Philippines-U.S. War Games.
For the U.S. to exert a dominant influence on the international status of the area behind the Nine Dotted Line, there are several prerequisite conditions:
- The geopolitics must permit massive projection of power, at affordable cost, over a long period of time. This means that at least one side of the closed area, which is bounded on the west by China, must be sufficiently sympathetic to the idea of the U.S. as a policeman to commit to the cause, which would be costly.
- The “political” part of “geopolitics requires soft power. In other words, the commercial center of the region must be elsewhere than China. Perhaps, stretching credulity to the utmost, “center” could be replaced by “alternate framework”, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership was intended to be.
Since none of the countries in the region are currently afflicted with massive disasters of government or human rights, their decisions of alignment are overwhelmingly based on economics. There are a few exceptions:
- Japan has the will, if not the means, to counter China. But Shinzo Abe has stated that the TPP would be meaningless without the U.S. Since so much manufacturing by Japanese companies is in China, it is unlikely that that Japan’s will would endure the years of a China commercial freeze.
- Taiwan, already a commercial appendage of China, would suffer terrible privations. But unlike any other country, the U.S. has something to trade, defense of the island. This would be costly. It could end up looking like the Berlin Airlift.
- Vietnam, the third ranking military power of the region, has recently become a massive purchaser of U.S. weapons systems. Still, cultural resistance to entangling alliances, and the recent history of the Vietnam War make it likely to continue the Dance of the Non-Aligned. Vietnam will defend itself. But although Vietnam was locally expansionist in the 19th century, projection of power into the international realm has no precedent in the ancestral communal wisdom.
- Malaysia’s coast is hugged by the longest part of the Nine Dotted Line. But it is in the midst of the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund scandal, in which the principle accused, Najib Razak (WSJ), happens to be the premier of the country, playing the Muslim card for adoption of strict Sharia, for his political life in the next election against the ethnic Chinese political bloc. Supposing that Trump prevails on the D.O.J. to drop charges, China has already bailed out 1MDB.
- Australia is too far away to join the joust by themselves.
But aside from the death of the TPP, the other massive obstacle to power projection is the Philippines. Duterte can at least be credited with the most clear enunciation of why he has withdrawn from the Mutual Defense Treaty in all but name. Taken by themselves, any of his statements could be taken as gamesmanship. But a Wall Street Journal article reveals a man with a deep, personal hatred of the U.S. In case you are caught by the paywall,
Mr. Duterte’s nationalism, displayed in his angry reaction to Mr. Obama’s admonishments, echoes sentiments common among left-leaning Filipinos that America never atoned for invading the archipelago in 1898 and violently subduing the former Spanish colony. With independence in 1946, the Philippines passed into the hands of what many left-leaning politicians such as Mr. Duterte regarded as a corrupt Manila elite installed by Washington.
So, much to the shock of Washington, the Philippines has become like the butler who discloses that he’s always hated you.
A quick study of a map reveals:
- The large, central portion of the Nine Dotted Line closely skirts the Philippines.
- With the Philippines in the U.S. court, and with no other regional nation caring a whit, the U.S. could project substantial power into the area. An island is the only unsinkable ship. Unfortunately, we lost Subic Bay Naval Base in 1992, for the very reasons of Duterte’s heartfelt hate.
Absent the Philippines, the idea of an international South China Sea is dead. The concept of power projection, or intervention, is stillborn. Could Trump, with his acquiescence to governments that behave far beneath the western standard, re-enroll the Philippines and Malaysia? If it were simply a matter of personalities, perhaps. But the TPP, which Trump seems emphatically determined to kill, has always had a pale, sickly complexion. It’s like a “colonize Mars” thingy, or a congressional bill that never received an appropriation.
The prerequisites are at odds with what Steve Bannon calls economic nationalism. So what are we to make of this? Are Trump’s advisors so naive as to think a modern fleet of Sand Pebbles gunboats can take on modern China? It’s a ludicrous thought, but consider: In 1994, what was to become the Zumwalt class of destroyers was actually conceived as a weapon system to “manage China.”
How quickly do perceptions change. Wish for a simpler time. Look for an alternate meaning, such as credibility for future bargaining on trade.