Opinion - "Tense Times in Asia-Pacific: Will the region's problems further draw in Guam?"
Richard Smart, Guam Daily Post
The Asia-Pacific region is as tense as it has been in decades. In many ways – some positive and some negative - the placid island of Guam seems ever likely to become further engaged in the conflicts escalating nearby.
The rise of China, a belligerent North Korea, a new president in the Philippines and joint military exercises by Russia and China on one side, and the U.S. and its many allies in the region on the other, have created an atmosphere in which the risk of an incident triggering a domino effect feels real.
Guam, which has been referred to as “the tip of the spear” by the Pentagon, finds itself in a unique position in such circumstances. As a U.S. territory, it is afforded protection. But closer to Asia than the U.S. mainland, and within reaching distance of North Korean and Chinese missiles, tensions could actualize into direct conflict here first.
Recent war games, jointly practiced by China and Russia in the South China Sea while the United States conducted “Valiant Shield 2016” military exercises in and around the Northern Mariana islands these past two weeks, are the latest example of dangerous posturing that could one day take Asia to the brink.
"There are other places those exercises could have been conducted,” U.S. Adm. Scott Swift said. He pointed out the games were not helping calm nerves in the region.
Meanwhile, the U.S. was clear in its statement that the VS16 exercises were a display of current capabilities.
“The lessons learned from exercises like VS16 will assist U.S. forces in continuing to develop regional and global power projection capabilities that provide a full range of options to succeed in defense of its interests and those of its allies and partners around the world,” the Navy said in a statement.
Panic is not necessary for now though, analysts say, as diplomatic channels are strong enough to avert all-out conflict. The issues that permeate all tensions in the region, however, are not going away anytime soon.
A dragon awakens
Long before World War II erupted, Western media often looked to East Asia with trepidation, fearing the region’s populations and improving technological capabilities as potential risks to the global order. After the war, however, allies divided on lines of communist vs. capitalist, with ideology playing a larger role in alliances than geography. Since the end of the Cold War, the situation has improved dramatically for much of Asia.
Today, the region’s robust GDP and the strength of a number of economies have led to talk of an Asian Century, when power will tilt away from the West, and the U.S. in particular, and toward Asia. Some view this century as a chance to bring prosperity to a huge portion of the global population that currently suffers under poverty; others see the risk of an all out conflict. With the growing concentration of wealth in the region, “One … consequence is a dangerous rise in diplomatic and military tensions within Asia itself,” author Gideon Rachman wrote in his recent book,Easternization.
China, for example, has territorial claims on waters with almost all of its neighbors. Two disputes in particular, one with Japan in the East China Sea and the other with the Philippines in the South China Sea, have attracted significant international attention. China’s disputes with Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar don’t help to ease the regional tensions.
“All of East Asia is clearly caught in the middle of the power shift between China and the United States,” Zack Cooper, a fellow and the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, based in Washington, told the Sunday Post. “As China has become more powerful, it is no surprise that Beijing has appeared determined to alter elements of the status quo.”
Shipping lanes are one such issue being challenged by China, and in ways that could have grim consequences. August saw repeated Chinese incursions into strategic waters belonging to Japan in the East China Sea. The waters offer a way for China to reach the Pacific waters and access trade routes for South America. Tokyo protested the incursions.
“We absolutely do not accept these unilateral infringements on our territory and see them as fanning tensions between our two countries,” Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told Chinese diplomats at the time.
A month earlier, an international tribunal ruled that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which have put Beijing at loggerheads with the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, were invalid. Chinese media was quick to snub the ruling, with President Xi Jinping saying that “territorial sovereignty and marine rights” would not be affected by an arbitration panel government mouthpieces in the media, painted as biased toward rivals such as Japan.
Reaction has thus far, however, been relatively muted. But it’s unclear whether it will stay that way.
“What has been surprising, in my view, is the recent increase in the tolerance for risk on the part of China,” Cooper said. “I think the risk of conflict between China and its neighbors, or even the United States, is relatively small at the moment. But the risk of conflict appears to be growing, particularly as China engages in coercive activities in the East and South China Seas.”
He argues that in such circumstances, Guam is likely to become more of a focus of attention for the United States. Washington may express a desire to increase its military presence on the island, Cooper said, to shore up regional security and send a message to Beijing that its actions in the seas will only be tolerated to a degree.
“This could lead to increased investment on the island, which could be beneficial if the U.S. government can continue to work closely with the government on Guam to help build infrastructure in a cooperative and mutually beneficial manner,” he added.
On the other hand, Guam’s naval and air force bases are likely to be first responders in the event that direct American military intervention is deemed necessary.
But looking only at China paints too rosy a picture of the outlook for the region,. Across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), hardline governments have taken power as democratization of the region has stalled. These governments have brought with them an unpredictable set of economic and political circumstances. Further north, the inability of Japan and South Korea to improve ties and shore up their security relationship provides a headache for an overstretched U.S. military at a time when North Korea is flexing its muscles on the world stage through nuclear tests and missile development.
Most recently, Rodrigo Duterte’s ascendency to the presidency of the Philippines has brought with it a domestic crackdown on crime with death squads on the streets. This has harmed relations with the U.S., traditionally a staunch ally.
U.S. President Barack Obama had warned Duterte that Washington did not take a favorable view of extrajudicial killings in thePhilippines. Duterte appeared to respond by calling the U.S. president “the son of a whore.” In the spat that followed, Obama canceled a meeting scheduled with Duterte at the G20 Hangzhou Summit in China.
While Obama said he believed the summit would be unproductive, presumably because of Duterte’s language, the Philippine leader responded by stating he wants U.S. Special Forces out of the country. He argued they were at risk of kidnapping in the south, where insurgents are battling the Philippine army.
"I do not want a rift with America,” he said. “But they [the Special Forces] have to go."
“The Philippines will be more volatile internally, and its relationships with the U.S. and the European Union will suffer,” said Bob Herrera-Lim, managing director for Southeast Asia at Teneo Intelligence. “Duterte is very focused on his violent anti-crime campaign, which he believes to be at the core of public support for his government, and will be unwilling to back down on the highly controversial methods that he utilizes. This will in turn continue to generate discomfort with the country’s traditional allies and the criticism could lead to further alienation on both sides.”
Across ASEAN, a similar scene is playing out. Thailand’s government was ousted in a 2014 coup and has since been de facto controlled by the military. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo has cracked down on crime and executions are on the rise. With European-style values declining, ASEAN’s political cogency seems to be weakening in tandem.
“The region is divided over issues such as the South China Sea and several leaders are focused on domestic politics, making them ineffective at the regional level,” Lim said. These factors only increase uncertainty for Guam.
A belligerent North
Meanwhile, Japan, South and North Korea, the U.S. and China are involved in a complicated standoff in which each side in some way weakens at least one other party.
A district court in Japan ruled on Sept. 16 that the governor of Okinawa, a southern prefecture in Japan housing 60 percent of Japan-based U.S. servicemen, was not within his legal rights to withdraw permission for work to begin on a new base for U.S. troops. That new base, in the remote area of Henoko, was set to replace one in the heavily populated city of Futenma.
Okinawa is now set to challenge the ruling in the courts. Work is yet to start on the new base, meaning the future of U.S. troops in the prefecture remains up in the air. There are currently over 25,000 American personnel deployed at 32 American military bases across Okinawa, which occupy approximately 20 percent of the island’s total landmass.
Previous plans on troop relocation outside of the southern Japanese prefecture have cited a move to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, and the idea that such a plan would again be considered is not out of the question. Indeed, residents of Guam have long grappled about the pros and cons of hosting thousands more troops.
The limbo in Okinawa is exacerbated by the standoff between Japan and South Korea. Both Seoul and Tokyo claim a small group of islets to the north called Dokdo, which are internationally recognized as South Korean territory. A further dispute between the two nations on war responsibility and the issue of Japan’s use of Korean women as sex slaves during World War II has weakened trilateral cooperation between the two nations and the U.S., which are united in trying to contain North Korea – an ostensible ally of China.
Guam should be concerned. Pyongyang is progressing in the development of the Musudan, a mid-range missile that can be fitted with a nuclear warhead. “The Musudan is a single-stage missile and may have a range of up to 4,000 km with a 500 kg payload,” U.S. diplomats wrote in 2009, according to Wikileaks cables. That means the missile could reach Guam.
“I believe that if we’re to meet the challenges of this century, we are all going to have to do more to build up international capacity,” Obama said in a recent speech at the United Nations. “We cannot escape the prospect of nuclear war unless we all commit to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and pursuing a world without them.” He cited North Korea as a specific example of a country increasing the risk of nuclear war.
Earlier this year, John Earnest, the White House press secretary, said that Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery had been deployed in Guam "mindful of the risk that’s emanating from North Korea.”
Cooper, of the CSIS, sees risks in the U.S. presidential election, which could usher in the era of Donald Trump, a skeptic on the need for the U.S. to maintain security for Asian nations. Trump has said, however, that Guam and other Pacific islands are essential to U.S. defense. “Geographically, the territories and commonwealths, especially those in the Pacific, are vitally important to our national security as the outer most line of defense against potential encroachment by foreign powers,” the Republican presidential hopeful wrote in a March editorial.
Cooper added that he views the U.S.’s ability to continue playing a prominent role in Asia-Pacifc as essential to the future stability of Guam and its Asian allies.
“Guam’s security is directly dependent on the U.S.’s ability to maintain a regional military balance,” he said. “I don’t have great hopes for diplomatic efforts to manage the structural challenge posed by China’s rise. In my view, ASEAN has been largely ineffective at preventing maritime disputes in recent years, in large part because it is the balance of power and interests that generally determine the outcome of regional disputes, rather than diplomatic appeals. For that reason, I think fully implementing the rebalance will be key to the region’s security.”
If diplomatic efforts in the region do fail, Guam can expect the Pentagon to use it to remind the region of its military presence. Or, for the residents and troops on Guam to be reminded by foreign powers that it’s a convenient military target.