Despite the media’s constant barrage of news pertaining to the Middle East, another region that is strategically imperative to the US is East Asia. The Far East is comprised of economic powerhouses such as China and Japan as well as the vibrant and growing economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and others. East Asia will be the global economic center of gravity in the coming decades.
While the economic forecast looks promising, the diplomatic and military situation appears tenuous at best. One of the bigger concerns for the next president of the US will be how they approach the growing rift in East Asia between China and her neighbors.
Currently, there doesn’t appear to be any major challenger to US hegemony in the world but many commentators refer to China as the most viable contender. The Chinese economy has been growing consistently each year for the past thirty years. On par with the economic growth, the Chinese defense budget has been increasing as well.
At the moment, China does not appear to wield any sort of ideological bent that it desires to propagate to other nations instead it is focusing on economic development. As such, it does not appear that China will become an ideological rival to the US on the global stage like the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, as China grows it will want to reassert itself in its backyard without any foreign meddling. This aspiration poses a long-term strategic threat to US security imperatives in the region. Aside from not being able to fulfill mutual defense treaties with allies such as Japan and Taiwan, the US can be left out of a region with the largest economic growth projected in the near future.
Aside from the military tensions in the region, the next president needs to impress upon China the role and responsibility of a rising power with respect to its international duties. One of the major issues that the US and other nations have encountered recently is the currency devaluation practice China employs in order to help stimulate exports at the expense of international trade. Another contentious problem that will need to be addressed is the protection of intellectual property. The Chinese have become notorious for stealing and imitating an array of intellectual property and rebranding it as her own.
Additionally, the Chinese will need to be confronted on matters of cyber infiltration. With the ever growing digitalization of the developed world, the vulnerability of the US to a cyber-attack continues to grow. The US has already sustained cyber-attacks allegedly by Chinese hackers that were working for the People’s Liberation Army. These types of attacks resulted in losses of American military and corporate intelligence.
In the last couple of decades, the fashionable mantra in politics is to point out that the US is in decline while China is on the rise. Even though China may match American economic might in the coming decades, its military and technological gap is still wide. With the US on the path to becoming energy independent and a potential energy exporter, the supposed decline of America might be not so near. However in order to perpetuate the status quo, the next president has to work on maintaining a relationship with China that helps bring both nations closer together to resolve global issues while ensuring both nations are working on equitable terms.
South China Sea
Robert Kaplan, one of the foremost experts on the region, stated: “The South China Sea will be the 21 st Century’s defining battleground.” This large swathe of a sea is considered to be a great economic source of wealth as well as vital to geopolitical strategy.
With eight nations vying for control of the maritime features, tensions are starting to spill over into potential conflict. One of the most recent flashpoints has been the artificial island constructions by China, which were employed as airstrips. This allows China to create forward operating “islands” in the middle of nowhere and increase its Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ).
The significance of the South China Sea is its potential for wealth as well as the strategic advantage it will bequest upon whoever controls it. Unlike other seas, the South China Sea has three factors that make it one of the most important seas to observe and promises a major conflict in the next few decades.
The South China Sea has a wealth of resources such as fishery stocks that comprise the livelihood and diet of so many in the region. It is believed to be one of the most lucrative fishing areas in the world. Securing a stable food sources will be a critical aspect for most countries in the region as their population continues to grow.
The discovery of large sources of oil and gas reserves under the seabed has only further enticed the surrounding littoral nations to intensify their claims for control of the sea. Chinese officials have estimated the oil reserves at one trillion US dollars. The potential for gas is even larger. If any nations manage to wrest control of the region, energy independence as well as a large revenue stream is guaranteed.
The control of the South China Sea is vital in projecting power to the Eurasian rimlands and eventually to the vast interiors. The sea also serves as a natural link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans only furthering its appeal. This natural passageway between the two oceans creates what is known as the Malacca Dilemma for Chinese strategists. The Malacca Dilemma refers to the dependence of China on the Strait of Malacca both economically and geopolitically. The Strait of Malacca is analogous in importance to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. One-third of all global trade transits through the strait as well as more than the overwhelming majority of raw materials and energy needs for the Chinese economy. Due to the increased traffic over the years, it has become a critical chokepoint.
China appears to be both the most economic and militarily preponderant force in the region. As China continues to grow, it will assert itself much more forcefully in the South China Sea in order to expel the US military from the region. If successful, the Chinese can disturb the freedom of navigation in the major sea lanes. This will threaten US economic interests. The next president will need to watch the sea carefully and continue to use the US navy as a buffer to Chinese ambitions in order to ensure freedom of navigation.
North Korea or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) poses one of the most precarious predicaments in politics due to its nuclear arsenal, fickle dictator, unstable economy, and repressed population. The volatile situation makes all the regional states apprehensive and afraid of the ruinous potential that exists in being dragged into a conflict. The Chinese are reticent to defend the North Koreans yet more fearful of a united Korea with an American base on its border. Across the demilitarized zone, the US is weary of defending the South Koreans yet it cannot be perceived that it won’t fulfill its commitment to an ally. The best way out is a compromise between the two Koreas but there isn’t any desire on either side of the border to do so.
China is the main lever that can control North Korea’s actions to an extent. The next president will need to work and goad China to rein in the instability caused by Pyongyang. With an insecure dictator that possesses a nuclear arsenal, North Korea will be a country that keeps the next president awake at night.
Taiwan or the Republic of China continues to be a thorn in the Sino-American relationship. When Taipei announced its government, the US was not diplomatically apt to recognize the country. It was not until the Korean War that the US started a policy of containment in the Pacific Rim region with the protection of Taiwan as a priority.
As China grows economically and militarily, the Taiwan question will come more into play. Of all the perils associated with the South China Sea to security and peace, the disorder affecting the Taiwan Straits is by far the most threatening. The prospect of war is nowhere more promising than in this dispute. The US mutual defense agreement with Taiwan has helped secure it from a Chinese invasion for now. As the Chinese military continues to strengthen its capabilities, especially its anti-access/area denial capabilities, it will become more brazen in its actions towards Taiwan. The next US president will need to watch the precarious situation develop while maintaining its commitment to Taiwan. The US will not only need to play the role of a security guarantor to Taiwan but also a tension mollifier between the two rivals in order to maintain the peace.
Once an enemy of the US, Vietnam today represents one of the most pro-American countries in the region. With the rise of China, Vietnam’s status in the Pacific tug of war between the US and China has enhanced. Naturally, Vietnam is inclined towards the US because of its long and quarrelsome history with Beijing as well as China’s regional hegemonic aspiration. Although the US and Vietnam have not cozied up to the level of other regional states, the common interest of containing China’s regional goals is motivation enough for both countries to further develop their burgeoning relationship.
China and Vietnam are currently engaged in disputes in and around the South China Sea mainly the Paracel Islands. While Vietnam claims the islands, China fully controls them. The islands have been the site of many clashes. When China placed an oil rig within Vietnam’s EEZ and justified it by arguing that the area was within the Chinese EEZ due to its “sovereignty” over the Paracel Islands, a face-off ensued. After a few clashes, the Chinese withdrew citing completion of their test but warned they reserved the right to return. While the US called the Chinese move rabble-rousing it did not impose any punitive measures. At the same time, the US continues to not sell any lethal weapons to Vietnam. With the US uninvolved and China’s growing naval strength, Vietnam is becoming somewhat intimidated and may eventually bend to the Chinese whim.
As the US begins to pivot more to Asia, the next US president needs to consider taking the relationship with Vietnam to the next level. With a deep water port and growing industrial manufacturing capabilities, Vietnam can play a great military and economic role in the US East Asia strategy.
Burma has the potential to play the pivotal trump card in the US-China tango for East Asia. Due to the lack of media coverage, Burma’s importance to the US strategic imperative for the region is not stressed enough.
China has a long and comfortable relationship with the country since its independence in the middle of the 20th century. China is a vital military supplier and has many strategic military cooperation initiatives. In exchange, China is granted access to Burma’s naval ports, which grants it an entrance to the Indian Ocean bypassing the Malacca Strait. China hopes to use the nation as a corridor to the Indian Ocean and reduce its reliance on the South China Sea. The country also serves as a pivot point for China to observe Indian military movements in the region. However, this friendly relationship between the two nations has hit a few bumps in the last couple of years. Burma has beckoned a change in its foreign policy by engaging other regional players and reducing its dependence on China.
In recent years, the relations between the US and Burma has warmed up with the exchange of ambassadors as well as the easing of sanctions against the country. Despite human rights abuses by the Burmese government against the Rohingya minority, economic exchanges with the US are still going forward. The US is supporting the democratic transition in Burma. As Burma’s neighbor to the north becomes stronger and richer, a counterweight is needed to help ensure Burma’s interest and regional stability is maintained. The next president of the US will have many countries to look at in this part of the world but Burma will play a fundamental role in determining if Chinese ambitions are checked for the region. A balance is needed between encouraging the transition to democracy and condemning their actions towards the minority population. It will be a fine line for the next president to tread on.