The next flashpoint: South Pacific

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PerryScope

By Perry Diaz

Since the end of World War II, the preeminent naval power in the Indo-Pacific region is the United States. However, in the past decade, China has been trying hard to catch up in numbers as well as in technology in the development of her naval forces. While she is still far behind the U.S.’s naval superiority, China is rapidly bringing her navy to within 10 to 15 years of reaching parity with the U.S.

But China’s naval build-up is not limited to building more warships, submarines, and aircraft carriers. She needs logistical supply centers spread around the world to make sure that her naval vessels can be replenished and re-armed without going back to China.

Since 2012 and under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has embarked on projecting power beyond her shallow offshore waters into the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, in 2017 China opened her first overseas military base in Djibouti. She calls it “logistical supply center.” With the capability to sustain 10,000 troops and warships in Djibouti next to the U.S. strategic base at Camp Lemonnier, China has established a strategic presence more than 9,000 miles from home.

And closer to home, China has reclaimed seven reefs and islets in the Spratly archipelago and built artificial islands over them. Three were militarized to accommodate aircraft, warships, missiles, and troops. These bases are just a hundred miles away from the Philippines, which has territorial jurisdiction over the Spratly Islands that are within her 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Debt-trap diplomacy
China is using the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative to gain economic foothold in various seaports in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea such as the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and the Gwadar Port in Pakistan. Recently, China took a 99-year lease on Hambantota due to Sri Lanka’s inability to repay her huge loan from China’s debt trap. Pakistan has also fallen into China’s debt-trap diplomacy and pretty soon would take a 99-year possession of Gwadar.

Another project that would soon follow the fate of Sri Lanka is Kenya. If Kenya fails to begin repayment of a $2.3 billion loan for Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC), China would seize the Kilindini Harbor, the biggest port in East Africa, which was the collateral for the Chinese loan.

A recent report said that at least 16 countries are vulnerable to China’s debt-trap diplomacy, including Kenya, Pakistan, Zambia, Djibouti, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Tonga, Micronesia, Vanuatu, and the Philippines.

South Pacific
Vanuatu, an idyllic country consisting of a group of small islands in the South Pacific with a population of 270,000 people has also fallen into China’s debt-trap diplomacy. The two countries are now negotiating the establishment of a Djibouti-like “logistical supply center.” In China’s playbook, this logistical supply center would eventually be expanded to accommodate troops, aircraft, warships, and missiles that can reach Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

This has caused alarm in Australia because it would only be less than 2,000 kilometers or four hours by air from the Australian coast thus allowing China to project power into the South Pacific and into the Pacific Ocean, America’s backyard.

The notion of a Chinese military base so close to Australia has been the subject of discussion at the highest levels in Washington and Canberra.

Beijing’s military intrusion into South Pacific would upend the long-standing strategic balance in the region. And with the militarized artificial islands the Chinese built in the South China Sea, China could isolate Australia and New Zealand in the South Pacific.

Many believe that China’s military ambitions in Vanuatu would come about just like in Djibouti – step by step, until ultimately it would become a fully armed air, naval, and missile base with the ability to provide logistical support as well.

Another country that China is eyeing is Papua New Guinea (PNG), which is just north of Australia. The two countries are currently negotiating the possibility of a military base in PNG. It’s interesting to note that during the early years of the Obama administration, PNG offered to host U.S. naval and air bases for free! The U.S. declined the offer.

China’s attempt to project power in the South Pacific is making Australia, United Kingdom, and France nervous. But the U.S. seems unperturbed. The U.K. and France still have some possessions in the South Pacific. And now China is attempting to pitch tent in the neighborhood.

concerned about China’s interest in the South Pacific. France considers herself an Asia-Pacific nation because of her vital interests in the region. Her territories include French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Wallis and Futuna Islands. Combine this to her territories in the Indian Ocean (La Reunion, Mayotte, Kerguelen, etc.) that makes France an Indo-Pacific nation as well. France has deployed a number of warships in South Pacific to protect her territories.

South China Sea
Last year, UK, France, and Australia joined the US in conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea to the consternation of China. Recently, the U.K. announced the deployment of her newly commissioned aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, in the South China Sea, which can carry two squadrons of the U.S.-built stealth F-35B supersonic jets. What is interesting is that the deployment to the South China Sea is officially a joint US/UK mission. The interoperability of the US and UK naval forces in the South China Sea demonstrates the longstanding military relationship between the two countries.

Another important multi-lateral naval exercise is the Malabar naval exercise involving US, India, and Japan’s warships, submarines, and aircraft that kicked off in the Bay of Bengal. Australia wanted to participate as an observer but was not included due to China’s objection. The first Malabar exercise took place in 1994 as a bilateral exercise between the US and Indian navies. A few years ago Japan joined Malabar exercises as a permanent member.

But that’s not the end of Australia’s effort to join her allies in joint naval exercises. The last biennial Talisman Saber joint military exercise between the US and Australia began in June 2017. It was aimed at sending a message to both allies and potential foes, particularly China. The exercise involved 33,000 US and Australian troops.

In another joint exercise, the US Marine Corps and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JSDF) held their 13th annual Iron Fist Exercise last January 2018. The extensive five-week long exercise held in Southern California.

In a multilateral military exercise following the Iron Fist Exercise, Australia and Japan joined the Philippines and the US in the 34th annual Balikatan exercises in Luzon, Philippines.

There are several more joint exercises, in which the US is involved, to wit: South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Interestingly, the US has mutual defense treaties with five of them, namely, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and Thailand. In addition, the US has treaty obligation to defend Taiwan from external attacks.

With all the joint exercises that the US is involved in, she is basically on virtual “war footing” all year round, ready to go to war in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea on short notice. However, the U.S. doesn’t have presence in the South Pacific, a region where America’s naval forces battled and defeated the superior Japanese naval forces in World War II. It was the turning point in the war. It’s sad that the South Pacific, rich in history, could fall prey to the imperialistic expansion of China.

With China’s aggressive effort to project power in the South Pacific, it won’t be long before she establishes bases in Vanuatu, Tonga, PNG, and other islands in the region. The U.S. and her allies might wake up one day and find themselves face to face with the enemy in the next flashpoint: South Pacific.
(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)

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