China, Singapore, US and the SCS

October 16, 2016

Q: Why is the US and their allies so determined to contain Chinese expansionism in the South China Seas (SCS)

A: The US has always been the top dog in the Pacific. Many people say it goes right back to the time of Nixon. But it really goes further all the way back to the late 1800’s to the American Spanish war when the latter was defeated and the treaty of Paris ceded the Philippines to the US as a colony.

For the better part of 140 years the question of who has been the prime mover and shaker in the Pacific has been largely a no brainer – it’s always been the US. The only credible challenge to US primacy in the Pacific occurred in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Even then the strategic balance of power shifted back to the US after the Japanese combined fleet was hammered in Midway, a year after the attack. So US hegemony and primacy has never really ever diminished in the Pacific at all. A dominant US presence in the Pacific especially the Philippine archipelago right down to Guam has always been synonymous with idea of peace and security in Asia that is the foundation of Asian pacific economic growth.

But with China stepping aggressively into the SCS and militarizing the atolls – suddenly the set piece status quo ante is thrown out of sync. Suddenly China seems to be challenging US primacy along with Pax Americana. Suddenly the ideal conditions that makes possible asian economic growth is becoming less confident and certain.

That’s the gist in a nutshell.

Q: What does China hope to gain from militarizing the SCS. Some people have speculated the prime motivation is the vast natural resources embedded in the SCS that is needed to fuel economic growth in China.

A: Do vast quantities of oil and rich fisheries reserves exist between the area of the Spratly’s and Paracells. Yes…probably. Then again given the wide availability of less contentious options for China to meet it’s long term resource and food security needs – I don’t really see how it can possibly make sense just to move into that neighborhood for those two reasons alone. There are really more minuses than plus points.

However if you look at it from a military strategic standpoint – then it probably makes plenty of sense to occupy and militarize the SCS in perhaps the same way we might probably ask: why did the Japanese in 1941 do such a stupid thing like declare war on the US? After all their (Japanese) motivation was a purely resource conundrum brought about by US oil embargo that if you think about it should hardly require getting involved with the US. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland and rolled back the carpet all the way to Dunkirk – the US position was still, this is not our baby man…we are going to sit this one out. The Japanese could just as well invade British Malaya and Dutch indies and possibly project as far as the Indian continent to get as much oil, Bauxite, tin, rubber and wasabi they needed without having to antagonize the US.

Logically that it is how it seems – but if you look at the map of South East Asia then it becomes all to apparent, the problem will always be the Philippines because it’s right smack in the middle between Japan and the mineral rich south. To put it another way the Philippines archipelago which was an American colony at the time was like a knife at the throat of Imperial Japan.

So any talk of a war against Malaya and the Dutch Indies would automatically have to include declaring war with the US.

And this is exactly what the Chinese are doing by occupying and militarizing the SCS. They are threatening all the ASEAN countries who are allied to the US – obliquely telling them, ‘I am now the Tai Koh (Top dog) here! Part of their strategy is to illicit American military response – they are recreating the same hard points like how the Philippines once presented itself as a knife at Japan’s throat – only this time since it’s smack right in the middle of all the sea lanes it’s nothing short of a chopper pointed directly at US carrier doctrine along with their vast network of listening post and naval bases stretching all the way from the Philippines archipelago to Singapore, Guam and Japan.

All of these have to transverse the SCS.

Now what you need to understand is in war games the outcome is not simply a binary i.e one or zero. Yes or no. Lose or win. To go to war or stand down. There exist a multitude of other scenarios within the aegis of the Clausewitzan realm of possibilities expressed in terms of war is simply a continuation of politics by other means – where its even possible for an adversary to create a clear and present threat to force the other side to concede terms under the threat of war. Or luring him into protracted attrition thereby weakening him economically.

This is how balance of power is exacted in realpolitik. It leverages specifically on the threat of war. By denial of utility to secure concessions – in very much the same manner no sane landowner will ever dam the river upstream during the dry season to hold valuable water – only because I too have invested in a series of water locks on my land as well – if he does that. Then during the rainy season I will shut my locks tight as a drum and his lands will be inundated with water and he would need to go around in a U boat.

But consider this – what if I didn’t once enter into a sort of arms race to build water locks on the river on my side of the land. Then how can I possibly penalize him should he decide to trap water on his side during the dry season.

That I shall leave to you to juxtapose on what’s happening in the SCS.

By occupying and militarizing the SCS China is basically doing the same thing to the US. She doesn’t have carriers, so instead she creates a network of hardened shells to not only blunt that threat, but also to allow her to project. Or at least create the illusion of being able to project her sphere of influence to threaten US primacy.

The capacity to create illusion is what war is really all about. As it’s predicated on deception – for example, during the rainy season. I am a sitting duck. As all the millers know the roads to the mills to the East are treacherous and impassible during the rainy season – so they give me a lousy take it or leave price during this time of the year. To increase my bargaining power lorries covered with tarpaulin ply thru the East route. Of course everyone assumes they are full with fruit. Why would they think otherwise? Who in their right mind transports air? But in fact they’re all empty – then when the rumor spreads like wild fire and everyone believes it’s no longer impossible to transport fruit to the East during the wet season – only then do I enter into price negotiations with the millers. Of course it cannot be sustained, not mechanically or even economically or for that matter administratively simply because the supply lines are stressed and I may even have to suffer a short term loss to stage this mega wayang. But in cummulative nett terms because everyone is convinced without a shadow of doubt – fruit can be transported across the East route – my bargaining power increases and in the long term whatever loses I suffer is only a very small drop against bigger profits I stand reap.

So this is an illustration of how all warfare is based essentially on deception. Both sides are engaged in this game of brinkmanship where some threats are real while others are just decoys.

This is a digression. But you know even Yamamoto didn’t strike Pearl Harbor to get embroiled in a war of attrition. He was perhaps one of the few IJN senior officers who spent time at Harvard and he used to travel around the Midwest. But most importantly he understood the science behind waging war that involves macro level calculations of how many tons of steel can a nation convert under a given set of conditions – so even he had absolutely no illusions Japan would eventually lose a long and protracted war with the US. Had carriers been there in Pearl Harbor that fateful Sunday when torpedo planes broke thru the morning clouds – the Americans would have probably sued for peace or an armistices and if not that may settle for detente and revoked the oil embargo. So this is an illustration of the stratagem how China is attempting to challenge US primacy.

This is a game of high stakes poker with a cerebral dimension. So forget all this nonsense of asking will China and the US go to war etc. All that is just enlisted men canteen talk.

It’s telling America very plainly I want to be treated not just as an equal but as a first amongst equals – it’s a very bold strategy. Deliberately confrontational and designed to elicit a response from the adversary – only because one cannot speak the language of Primus inter pares without the inclusion of imperialism along with power – bear in mind, this is the language of Caesar.

From my understanding there are only four possible outcomes with the last being hybrid comprising of elements of the second and third. But I shall come to that latter.

Q: Why aren’t the Chinese responding in equal zeal to build more aircraft carriers to counter balance the US navy?

A: The skill of arms needed for carrier based operations are really very high and specialized – hard to replicate not only for the Chinese. Even the Indians and many Militaries find it difficult and expensive to maintain decent rates of operations in blue waters for their carriers. They’re always sitting in their dry docks. As since none of the previous Soviet bloc countries not even Russia really placed emphasis on carrier doctrine in their strategic planning. That means China doesn’t really have anyone to teach them the ropes – it’s doubtful she will be able to gain the requisite skill of arms in carrier operations. Having said that. There is a a lot of mythology that are attached to aircraft carriers. That they are space age high tech platforms, invincible and can sail virtually everywhere to bring pressure to bear at will. Just like perhaps capital battleships before them. I can well understand the faith that military planners ascribe to carriers – I really can. But predicating so much on carrier doctrine also means one is putting all the chips on only one number or all the eggs in one basket – you know in 1941, the IJN had probably the best carrier fleet and well trained air crew in the world. It’s doubtful that without these wonder weapons in their inventory the Japanese would even consider war. And you could even argue one of the worst things the IJN ever did to seal their demise was when they successful launched the Pearl Harbor raid. After that they became so big headed that they even went out looking for a rumble with the US with four of their best carriers. All four got wiped out at midway. After that it was downhill for them. I think it’s theoretically conceivable carriers may already be obsolete as far back as ten or fifteen years ago. You may have to spend time trawling Jane’s to find out what’s out there to deal a death blow to carriers.

Q: What does the word ‘containment’ really mean – and how does the US and their allies accomplish this?

A: The goal of US policy is to use military power to preserve the old order based on US primacy i.e Pax Americana, even if that leads to escalating strategic rivalry with China which undermines regional peace and stability. And that is why I think US military strategic planning in the SCS can be accurately termed as – containment.

But where it because less clear and fuzzy is when we consider the economic front – this is where we go back to what I said earlier – war is simply the continuation of politics by other means and used in this specific context – business is war.

Many people theorize economic integration will make conflict less likely as China will become more integrated with the global political economy. But what they don’t tell you is if you play this scenario to it’s logical end, a tipping point will come where Chinese views become the controlling interest. Beyond that point, the degree of China’s influence increases and moves to dominate former reliable U.S. partners. The US by that point becomes irrelevant.

And this is not what will happen in five or ten years. That tipping point in my opinion has already been breached as far back as maybe three years ago. If you look around many countries in ASEAN seem to be two minded when it comes to seeing China as a threat. It is really quite an interesting contradiction where on one hand China is perdition but also salvation – sure they’re all still on the TPP bandwagon or at least most of them are doing a good job at pretending to buy tickets. But many ASEAN countries are at the same time buying into China’s counter response of the TPP as well by tacitly agreeing to sign the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) and even more countries are endorsing the counter balance to the US proxy bank, the IMF – China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The US naturally opposes both FTAAP, as well as AIIB, but notice if you will APEC, says more the merrier. Even US allies like Australia and South Korea have already signed major free trade deals with China, their largest trading partner. As for Malaysia, China recently bailed out 1MDB and she is the main buyer for oil palm. Even the Philippines now has shifted to China. Indonesia is also very much in the China club although from time to time she also likes to shoot on Chinese fishing trawlers. Even skittish Vietnam is warming up to China because the latter has a dam to regulate water to the Mekong.

So what you have now is a very perculiar form of schizoperhnia where the military strategic planning and the economic policies of many countries at the periphery of the SCS seems to be divergent from one track mind US foreign policy towards China.

That’s why I say many countries are two minded about China. As there is no harmonization of economic policies.

This is where the TPP comes in as the proverbial missing piece that completes the jigsaw puzzle. As what it attempts to do is dovetail all these divergent or schizoperhnic interest by further integrating the U.S. and Asian economies thereby blunting China’s economic sphere of influence. In this respect, as far as the economic front is concerned, containment is not the right word to use. A better term is restoring balance of power.

This will be especially jugular for Singapore. As she stands to be the primary beneficiary of the TPP. To put it another way it pays out naught for the status quo ante to change in China’s favor.

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