Belmont Club

Enter the Dragons

For the best part of a year Assad was deemed “dead man walking”. But it is not unusual for the dead to keep living longer than the quick in this age of zombies. And so we learn that the White House now believes that Assad won’t go. That was no surprise. Walter Russell Mead writes:

The big winners are Russia, which with no cards in its weak hand has now re-inserted itself into Middle Eastern politics, and Iran. Secondary winners include Butcher Assad, Hezbollah, and the people around Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who tell him that Obama is too weak to protect Israel against Iran, and argue for a pre-emptive Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear program. There is one unwelcome conclusion that everyone in the Middle East and beyond is drawing: don’t worry about what this President says. He shoots off his mouth a lot, but he’s in retreat and he will always choose the path of inaction—even if it weakens him.

That vast carlessness should worry the Phiippines which the Washington Post describes as defying Chinese expansion against all odds. “China’s most daring adversary in Southeast Asia is, by many measurements, ill-suited for a fight. The Philippines has a military budget one-fortieth the size of Beijing’s, and its navy cruises through contested waters in 1970s hand-me-downs from the South Vietnamese. From that short-handed position, the Philippines has set off on a risky mission to do what no nation in the region has managed to do: thwart China in its drive to control the vast waters around it.”

One of the reasons for Filipino confidence is the ingrained, almost religious belief in the United States of America. The Philippines may be the only country in the world whose population believes in the United States more fervently than the Americans themselves. Conditioned by memories of FDR, Harry Truman (and in the case of the EDSA revolution) Ronald Reagan, Filipinos have an almost 1940s view of America. The Washington Post notes this fact.

Some Filipinos say their country is more suited than others in the region to play tough with China. The Philippines has deep ties to Washington, stemming from a U.S. colonial period that ended in 1946. China and the Philippines took opposite sides in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in the Cold War.

But as I point out my pamphlet, Storm Over the South China Sea, that was then. This is now. Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan are long gone. Barack Obama is new occupant of the White House. Just ask Assad what that means. I argue in my pamphlet that China is now so powerful that in a major conflict the USN would have to resort to blinding China’s surveillance systems or blockading it to ensure victory. And that would be too dangerous to risk lightly.

The consequences of a naval conflict in the South China Sea are so great that any Philippine request by the United States to honor the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty in the event of a Chinese attack on Philippine ships in the South China Sea will probably be answered in the negative. An article in the Wall Street Journal says the Philippines has been seeking ironclad assurances from Washington:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is so far holding to the line she laid down last July in Hanoi: The U.S. doesn’t take sides on the territorial disputes, but it wants to play a role in their peaceful resolution because of its interests in the region and support for freedom of navigation. As China ratchets up tension, it’s time for something stronger.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was in Washington last week seeking to clarify the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries. In case of an attack on the Philippines, that agreement only obligates Washington to “consult” and “act to meet the common dangers.” The Philippine media has been chasing its tail trying to figure out whether Mrs. Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas firmed up this U.S. commitment.

Naturally Washington has been coy about giving a definite answer. That is understandable given what the USN must do in order to gain superiority over China — shoot down its satellites, blind its radars, destroy its reconnaissance aircraft. Short of an attack on the Philippine mainland by China, the United States will probably elect to stay out of the fray. The fallout would simply be incalculable. A major disruption of world trade; the interruption of fuel supplies not only to China but Japan and South Korea — not to mention the risk of a nuclear war, would simply be too great a risk to take in order to back an ally in a naval skirmish in disputed waters.

In other words, Manila should think long and hard before assuming the Obama administration will back them. However, as I argue in my pamphlet,  Japan will not be so reluctant. They may take a far harder line than Washington against China out of sheer necessity. Japan cannot watch the Chinese seize control of the Luzon Straits.

The prediction that Japan would be bound to react was borne out by a recent article in the China Post. “Japan is likely to start considering acquiring the ability to launch pre-emptive military strikes in a planned update of its basic defense policies, the latest step away from the constraints of its pacifist constitution.”

The expected proposal, which could sound alarm bells in China, is part of a review of Japan’s defense policies undertaken by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, an interim report on which could come as early as Friday. The final conclusions of the review are due out by the end of the year….

“The acquisition of offensive capability would be a fundamental change in our defense policy, a kind of philosophical change,” said Marushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies.

Obtaining that capability, however, would take time, money and training, meaning any shift may be more rhetorical than real. “It’s easier said than done,” Michishita added.

The updated guidelines could also touch on Abe’s moves toward lifting a self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense, or helping an ally under attack, such as if North Korea launched an attack on the United States.

The defense review may also urge replacing with new guidelines a self-imposed ban on arms exports that has already been eased to let Japanese contractors take part in international projects.

In other words, Japan is removing the doctrinal constraints on its forces to permit offensive action. It is amending its laws to permit arming its allies in the region. It is already making overtures to Manila and has given it patrol boats. This can only incense the Chinese, who will respond in kind. There are still enough memories in the collective psyche of the region to realize where that can lead.

For years what was once one of the most volatile regions of the mid-20th century has lain quiet and bustled with prosperity. Now long dormant forces are threatening to rise again. The Obama administration has presided over the dismantling or at least the degradation of the Pax Americana and it will not be without cost. As I write in pamphlet, “in retrospect, the years of calm it enjoyed between 1945 and the present are an aberration, a consequence of the idyll of the Pax Americana. For good or ill, the tale of history has restarted in the South China Sea. The waters are troubled again.”

It always gets you thinking when the current ships are named “Haruna”, “Kongo”, “Sōryū”, “Unryū”, “Tone” and “Chikuma”. Maybe it’s time to start worrying when we see the JDS Yamato and JDS Shokaku.

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Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific

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