Two Decades of Asian Cooperation and Alliance Building, Followed by Retreat

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 5, No. 4, April 2017

Flag by the Shaanxi Government Building – Xi’an, 2009. Source: Will Clayton via Flickr.

David Wolfe
Asian Security Specialist and Consultant

The recent controversy regarding the location of the Carl Vinson Strike Group is analogous to current US Policy in Asia, rather than just another confusing announcement by the Trump Administration. The dysfunctional appearance is emblematic of a newly adopted regional retreat in many ways by the Trump Administration, and ceding territory throughout the region to Chinese aggression and hegemonic dominance.  The time period between the announcements of the US-India Nuclear Agreement back in 2006, right up to the recent withdrawal of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), saw the United States’ Asian Policy focus towards consensus building, greater regional economic integration and an expansion of security partnerships.  However, given the recent withdrawal from TPP, the Trump Administration is reversing course from those alliances established to counter the hegemonic ambitions by the Chinese to one in stark contradiction of that policy overnight.  The United States’ proposed interests, strategic alliances and most importantly, a check to Chinese expansion throughout the region of South, Southeast and Northeast Asia, is now in jeopardy, and no one is more appreciative of this shift than China.  Unfortunately, given the short-term memory in today’s oversaturated news culture, most are either unaware or have forgotten the long-term strategic goals the US has sought to pursue, and how that is now setting up a dangerous scenario for regional allies.

Following the announcement of the US-India Agreement, you can trace from west to east the counter measures taken by the Chinese Military every step of the way, and vice versa with the United States. Of course, with each maneuver by the respective powers, the potential for flare-ups was always a possibility. Once the US-India deal was put into motion in 2007, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf announced the construction of the Gwadar Port in the Balochistan Region and the partnership with the Chinese Navy.  This provided China access to the Arabian Sea in addition to continued cooperation with the Chinese Navy utilizing the Karachi Port on the Indian Ocean.  This was not much of a surprise as Pakistan was falling out of favor with the United States due to the increasing War on Terror, and the US strengthening ties with Pakistan’s arch rival India.

What must be stressed about the Sino-Pakistan alliance is that this was not just a response to the expanding US-India relationship, but a check on India where China is also a participant in the Kashmir Dispute.  Pakistan has ceded territory in Kashmir to China, expanding China’s foothold in the Siachen Glacier region, This area of Kashmir is the real prize in the decades old conflict, as the glacier region provides  drinking water for more than a billion people in India, Pakistan and China.  As the news faded, positions became entrenched by all parties, and China headed east.

The conflict in the South China Sea, stems from continued Chinese infringement of the maritime rights of Southeast Asian nation states, violating long standing internationally recognized maritime borders, and adversely affecting fishing, mineral and natural gas rights of states such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and others.  The theft of territory continues to adversely affect those states’ ability to explore energy development meant to benefit their growing economies, as well as the loss of ancestral fishing rights.  These reports have continued for years now, however most reporting continues to focus exclusively on disruptions to shipping lanes, fishing rights and China’s claim to their ‘historical’ territory.  From the beginning, the lack of  acknowledgment that the United States and ASEAN Member States were embarking on the beginning stages of negotiations regarding TPP led to misperceptions of the details, and statements made during the initial stages became the basis of such criticism, rather than the details of the final product. Moreover,  security concerns grew more vocal at the annual ASEAN Conference about Chinese incursions on their territories.  Member states believed that a regional alliance, which would include the United States, was the only method in which ASEAN Members would have a viable defense against Chinese expansion of territory.  This was not colonial annexation; this was swiftly becoming theft of their legitimate territory, the livelihood of their citizenry and a potential blow to finally tapping their economic potential following decades of oppressive regimes and mismanagement.

Now, for many Americans, TPP was singularly a trade agreement that became an electoral boogeyman for the American worker, and great campaign sloganeering by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.  However, TPP grew into something far greater than a trade agreement.   The expansion of security alliances with former adversaries such as Vietnam,  would allow a smaller weaker nation to fight against the loss of their maritime rights in the South China Sea.  The security of having the worlds’ sole super power, the United States, as a key supporter to their claims gave those nations the ability to be more assertive without too much fear of reprisal.  More importantly, this saw the exploration of a US Military presence in Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand, particularly with regards to defense of maritime rights in and around the Spratly Islands, in addition to an already large presence in the Philippines and Japan (Okinawa).

Initial results of the new partnerships were realized quite swiftly.  Newly established Economic Processing Zones in Vietnam led to a boom of skilled labor jobs in software and processor production from China to Vietnam. The United States reestablished diplomatic channels with the military Junta in Myanmar, resulting in a loosening of regime control, and bringing with it considerable democratic reforms.  In the end, the US-ASEAN alliance was intended to provide an economic and security alliance throughout Asia not unlike NATO in the West, where the EU economic cooperation, coupled with the NATO Security Alliance, served as a check to aggressive expansion by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and more recently with Russia, and it’s annexation of Crimea, and opposition to NATO expansion into the Baltic States.  The path forward was bringing a renewed confidence to a region that was still recovering from the economic crisis of the late 1990’s, but that would soon begin to change following the US Presidential election.

Since the pullout of TPP by the Trump Administration, long standing economic and security partners such as Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia were left to pick up the pieces, and attempt to forge an alliance, but without the largest economy, the deal lacked the fanfare.  Additionally, China has accelerated it’s pace of island construction, as well as taking a more aggressive stance towards Japan, Vietnam and other regional states with regards to their fishing vessels, oil and gas exploration and the extraction mineral rights.  This short-sided policy shift made for temporary political gains rather than the long term view of a global marketplace, and maintaining recognized maritime rights of the smaller weaker nations.

Which brings us to the news of the day and North Korea.  The fact remains; it’s universally acknowledged that the hermit kingdom is years from developing a delivery system for their fissile material.  The recent failed missile tests may even push that estimate further out.  Additionally the mixed messages by the President and his Administration creates a confusion that jeopardizes the human security of some 20 million inhabitants of Seoul, as well as the 30,000 plus US Forces stationed on the border. This is not a concern posed by nuclear weapons, but conventional weapons in and around the DMZ.

The President tweeted that China was in partnership with the United States on North Korea, and viewed China turning back of coal shipments,, as well as placing 150,000 troops on the North Korean border as some form of partnership.  Rather, Russia in turn placed troops on their border with North Korea for the same purpose; to stave off a potential refugee crisis of North Koreans spilling over into China and Russia should the Trump Administration decide on a preemptive strike.

Without connecting the dots and realizing that the United States has put long-term strategies into place in order to combat Chinese aggression throughout Asia, would be a drastic mistake. Let us not forget that North Korea was a member of AQ Khan network that led to greater proliferation, and has the potential to sell it’s fissile material to terrorist regimes such as the Islamic State.  When both friend and foe have no idea where the US stands due to unpredictability from one day to the next , this creates a flashpoint that can spin out of control at a moments notice. China has conducted its expansion in either a bilateral or unilateral manner throughout the region.  Without the strengthening of regional alliances between all affected parties, the United States will end up losing prime access to a region ripe for trade, commerce, energy and human intellectual capital.

David Wolfe is a specialist on Asian security, and private consultant for foundations, development firms and corporations specializing in human security, supply chain management and intellectual capacity building in emerging markets in Southeast Asia.  He has written previously for the Denmark based Riskline and the Foreign Policy Journal.  Mr. Wolfe holds an MAIPS from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and is the former Government Relations Director for the Kashmiri American Council.

JPR Status: Opinion