A report in the New York Times says that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” Of course that qualifier, “in all scenarios short of war,” covers a lot of ground but it implies de facto political and military control over a region that is a mix of established, in international, law, territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and international waters. This is heady, and dangerous, stuff for China.
Robert Kaplan, writing in Foreign Policy several years ago, explained that, in geo-strategic terms, “Europe is a landscape; East Asia a seascape. Therein lies a crucial difference between the 20th and 21st centuries. The most contested areas of the globe in the last century lay on dry land in Europe, particularly in the flat expanse that rendered the eastern and western borders of Germany artificial and exposed to the inexorable march of armies. But over the span of the decades, the demographic and economic axis of the Earth has shifted measurably to the opposite end of Eurasia, where the spaces between major population centers are overwhelmingly maritime.” Mr Kaplan goes on to explain that “Because of the way geography illuminates and sets priorities, these physical contours of East Asia augur a naval century — naval being defined here in the broad sense to include both sea and air battle formations now that they have become increasingly inextricable. Why? China, which, especially now that its land borders are more secure than at any time since the height of the Qing dynasty at the end of the 18th century, is engaged in an undeniable naval expansion. It is through sea power that China will psychologically erase two centuries of foreign transgressions on its territory — forcing every country around it to react.” China is building its sea power but it is not yet, and will not be in my lifetime, a great maritime power.
Now, I have explained before that America is the world’s greatest, really only global sea power, like a giant shark ~ supreme in its domain, while China is, like India, a great land power ~ like a elephant. Each is supreme in its own domain but the shark cannot fight and win on land and the elephant cannot fight and win at sea. I have no doubt that America can push China out of the South China Seas, right off its built up, heavily armed rock and shoals, but only at some cost which might involve direct combat and losses that might be politically unsustainable … but what America cannot do, and I’m sure Defence Secretary Mattis and National Security Advisor John Bolton both know this, is win a land war in Asia, especially not against China. But, as Robert Kaplan said, “The South China Sea joins the Southeast Asian states with the Western Pacific, functioning as the throat of global sea routes. Here is the center of maritime Eurasia, punctuated by the straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar. More than half the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic. The oil transported through the Strait of Malacca from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is more than six times the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 17 times the amount that transits the Panama Canal. Roughly two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and about 80 percent of China’s crude-oil imports come through the South China Sea. What’s more, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a potentially huge bounty …” it strategic importance to China is HUGE. China will not be pushed out without considerable force and the Chinese are not likely to be afraid to sink a US aircraft carrier and kill thousands of American sailors.
Back in 2011 Robert Kaplan said that “What the United States provides to the countries of the South China Sea region is less the fact of its democratic virtue than the fact of its raw muscle. It is the very balance of power between the United States and China that ultimately keeps Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia free, able to play one great power off against the other. And within that space of freedom, regionalism can emerge as a power in its own right, in the form of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Yet, such freedom cannot be taken for granted. For the tense, ongoing standoff between the United States and China — which extends to a complex array of topics from trade to currency reform to cybersecurity to intelligence surveillance — threatens eventually to shift in China’s favor in East Asia, largely due to China’s geographical centrality to the region.” Now some analysts, like Hannah Beech in the New York Times, say that the balance of power has shifted to China.
In an article in Foreign Affairs, Alexander Gabuev, who is a senior fellow and the chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center, says that “the Western conventional wisdom … holds that mistrust between Russia and China is too deep to form meaningful strategic bonds … [but, he says] … this view is dangerously wrong. The deepening of military ties between these two former rivals is real, and a stronger strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow could, given time, upend a half century of U.S. military planning and strategy.” I do not believe that Russia and China can become firm friends and allies as are, say, Australia, Britain and Canada, but I agree with Mr Gabuev when he says that “At present, both countries see their major security challenges elsewhere, and their shared desire to avoid creating yet another adverse relationship has been a stabilizing factor for relations. The Kremlin has its hands full with the wars in Syria and Ukraine, the impact of a growing NATO presence along its western border, and the ongoing U.S. defense buildup. For its part, China’s leadership faces growing tensions with Washington over security and trade issues, and various territorial disputes are straining relations with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other neighbors. Meanwhile, Beijing continues to pursue its long-standing goal of regaining control over Taiwan … [and] … A second factor driving Russia and China closer is their economic interdependence. Russia is primarily an exporter of raw materials and tends to lack access to both advanced industrial technologies and capital. China, on the other hand, is a vast consumer of commodities, particularly oil and gas, and at the same time has catapulted itself into the ranks of technologically advanced nations with an abundance of capital to invest abroad. On paper, China looks like the perfect trading partner for Russia. Although Moscow was slow to tap into opportunities provided by the Chinese market, the global financial crisis of 2008 accelerated outreach. As a result, China has been at the top of the list of Russia’s trading partners since 2010 … [and, further they have ] … shared political goals. Both regimes value stability, predictability, and the preservation of their hold on power above all else. And both countries, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, share a desire to shape the international order in a way that places sovereignty and limits on foreign interference in domestic affairs at its heart. This is visible in debates on various areas of global governance such as norms in cyberspace and control over the Internet, where Beijing and Moscow regularly support each other.”
My fear is that the growing Sino-American split, driven entirely, in my opinion, by US President Trump’s aggressive trade war, will make a China-Russia axis stronger and longer lasting than it really should be. America’s foreign and trade policies, in other words, are strengthening its enemies, not weakening them. I believe that President Trump has a China strategy, I suspect that he actually thinks, against all the evidence that history provides, that a trade war is a good thing. I think President Trump’s trade actions can inflict real, measurable harm on China, but I also think that they will provoke reactions and actions that will not be in America’s (or the West‘s) better interests.
My guess remains that:
- China has a long term grand strategy that is, inter alia, inimical to Western, especially American, and Russian interests;
- Both America and Russia are, for the time being, led by opportunistic adventurers or adventurous opportunists, take you pick, who have only very short term goals;
- The West should, probably must, accommodate China’s rise and in so doing they should try to tie China more and more tightly into the web of global institutions that have made the world safer and saner for the past 70ish years;
- The West should, equally, try to help India to rise, also; and
- The West should do what it can to prevent Russia from gaining any more ground.
For Canada, specifically, I believe that we should:
- Do whatever we can to encourage America to return to a responsible, leading role in world affairs ~ recognizing that we have essentially no influence in the Trump White House because both Prime Minister Trudeau and Global Affairs Minister Freeland have been less than diplomatic in dealing with the USA;
- Try to strengthen relations with China and India, especially ~ which means undoing the damage done by Prime Minister Trudeau on his recent trips to both countries;
- Try to strengthen relations with other key players in Asia ~ especially Australia, the Philippines and Singapore, two out of three of which are angry with Prime Minister Trudeau; and
- Rearm ~ so that Canada can do a bigger, better, fair share of defending global peace and security in an increasingly dangerous world.
Pretty clearly, I believe that we need a new government in which Justin Trudeau has no role.