Pacific Rim/Asia/Pacific
Pacific Rim Politics - Asia/Pacific

Pacific Rim Politics

Posted by Aneela Shahzad on

Pacific Rim Politics

The Pacific Rim is another way of looking at the world, with Asia in the west and the America on the east, and with the oceanic plates of the Pacific in between, which keep sinking below the continental plates creating subduction zones that are dotted with earthquakes and volcanoes. 203,186 earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 or greater were recorded between 1898 and 2003.

The complex Pacific Rim politics is made relatively easier to overview when the Rim is seen as comprising of 4 sub-regions.  Japan, the Koreas, Russia and China being one; Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as the other; Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines (ASEAN) along with Taiwan and Hong Kong as the third subgroup of the Pacific Rim; and lastly the fourth group would comprise of Australia, New Zealand and the west coasts of the Americas.   

When considered as one big neighborhood, the US hegemony over this region is not hard to view. China, Russia and North Korea being the major political, economic and strategic rivals of the US in the Rim, seems to be isolated in this experience as many other states have US-tilted foreign policies. As it goes Japan and South Korea give major host-nation-support to US military and facilitate US naval presence in the Pacific - a support that has continued right since WW2.

As for Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, they have traditionally had adverse relations with the US since the Vietnam War (1955-75). After the War these states went into the communist camp and China invested much in Vietnam’s economy making it politically dominant over the other two. Only after Obama announced his Asia Pivot Policy has the US extended diplomacy and trade. In 2016 the US has lifted ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam, with US-made weapons steadily pouring in to Vietnam. This is in spite of huge uproar from human rights groups who say that Vietnamese government is using these weapons against its political opponents in the three states. In return Vietnam has allowed US naval ships to visit their ports.

The ASEAN states have generally maintain diplomacy and trade with the US. Philippines has been a strong US ally, US closed its bases here in 1998, after that the state has routinely given repair facilities, training ranges and logistics support to US Navy. Singapore allows American aircraft carriers to be accommodated at its ports and Thailand provides transit and refueling for them too. Since its independence from UK in 1984, Brunei's armed forces have engaged in joint exercises, training programs, and other military co-operation with the US and have a memorandum on defense co-operation since 1994.

Malaysia too enjoys strong security co-operation with the US, they both have a strong military-to-military relationship with numerous exchanges, training, joint exercises, and visits. In Oct. 2016, Indonesian president Joko Widodo paid his first visit to the US. They signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on maritime cooperation, as Jokowi tries to reassess Indonesia as a ‘global maritime fulcrum’ between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

ASEAN members Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have rival claims over the South China Sea opposed to China’s claim over most of the sea.  

According to Chinese books, Taiwan is a break-away province of China since Chiang Kai-shek formed a separate state there after WW2. Since then Western powers have backed Taiwan against Chinese intentions to regain it. In Dec. 2015, the Obama administration announced a deal of $1.83 billion worth of arms to Taiwan, earlier in 2014 there was also a sales deal of Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates to Taiwan. At that time China expressed its disapproval for the sales and issued the U.S. a "stern warning", saying it would hurt China–US relations.

The US stated policy over the on-going South China Sea Dispute is clean. It wants to be neutral on the sovereignty claimed by different states on the waters and islands of the Sea and wants peaceful resolution of the dispute. It wants freedom of navigation for all ships and aircrafts beyond the 12nm territorial sea belonging to each state in accordance with United Nations maritime conventions.

But the real-time scenario is not that simple, while sharing the sea lanes is everybody’s right, but to clog the sea with naval warships fitted with Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles capable of firing nuclear warheads, and by the deterrence thus acquired pit one nation against the other in terms of political and economic maneuverings – is not exactly ‘right’ for everybody.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is the embodiment of Obama’s Asia Pivot policy tell the story of how deterrence and trade deals have gone hand in hand. Currently Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States and Vietnam are signatories of the TTP but the US is trying to closet more Pacific nations into this deal. The deal makes macroeconomic venture between the member states and the US possible, while in return the US not only offers monetary promises but also security cooperation. Surely for China who practically lives in the neighborhood, any increased US trade means a lessening of current or potential trade with these states – not to mention the creation of a ring of pro-US alliance states around the China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea, which could in time of escalation become US naval bases, making China’s chances to win a war against the US meek.  

Another way of looking at the TTP is its old capitalist schemes that would bring immediate benefits but have adverse long-time effects on the people of these states. Many local organizations are protesting against this deal, Joseph Stiglitz in his Guardian article elaborates on the vices of this deal:  

“…but with the “investment” chapter, which severely constrains environmental, health, and safety regulation, and even financial regulations with significant macroeconomic impacts… the chapter gives foreign investors the right to sue governments in private international tribunals when they believe government regulations contravene the TPP’s terms (inscribed on more than 6,000 pages)… inviting costly lawsuits pitting powerful corporations against poorly financed governments – even regulations protecting the planet from greenhouse gas emissions are vulnerable.”

In Jan 2016, John Kerry visited Cambodia and Laos – both of these countries have close ties with China, who sees US’ expanding trade as a way to disrupt the pro-China bloc in Southeast Asia. US has a deal of sales of submarines, warships and anti-submarine aircraft to Taiwan, in 2001 Pres. Bush pledged to help Taiwan should China invade. In 2010, US approved sale of air defense missiles to Taiwan under a proposed $6.7bn arms package. In return China suspended military contacts with the US and imposed sanctions on US firms involved. China has increasingly had confrontations in the South China Sea, like with US reconnaissance aircrafts, with Philippines naval vessels and in 2011, when China cut ship cables of a Vietnamese oil and gas survey ship. All this provocation does not seem justified only for securing one Malacca Strait when other routes via Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits are also available, and also when China is actively pursuing new trade routes via Gawadar in Pakistan and a port in Burma.

Perhaps there is more to the South China Sea than just sea routes, the South China Sea also has proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels, and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – if so the South China Sea could become the nest Persian Gulf and the major energy supplier of the world, in the coming decades. On the other hand US may be tying up with Pacific states contending for the same oil and gas, so as to secure its own oil needs for the next century.

China’s global presence as a world’s biggest economic center and a contractor of macro-projects all around the world, especially in Africa and South America, which were under complete Western hegemony up till now, makes China an enemy that is present everywhere but that can be curbed only via the South China Sea. For this reason it is vital for both China and the US to play aptly on the Pacific chessboard. China cannot afford to lose North Korea at such delicate times, which can serve not only as a buffer zone at war time but also as a springboard for attacks. And for the same reasons the US will keep strengthening its forces in South Korea.

This new Great Game between China and US has definitely put the Pacific states in a difficult tug-of-war. Each state is weighing its pros and cons in siding with or breaking off with any of the two powers. After the recent July 2016 Hague ruling that favored Philippines claims in the South China Sea, foreign ministers of the ASEAN states met in Cambodia. Though Philippines and Vietnam both wanted a communiqué issued by ASEAN foreign ministers, referring to Hague’s ruling and the need to respect international law, Cambodia blocked any mention to an international court ruling against Beijing – this was a setback to Obama’s Asia Pivot and a show of indecisiveness against China.

Russia is by no means a passive Pacific Rim state; in fact it has the longest coast on the Pacific than any other Pacific state. And indeed Russia’s interest in curbing US influence in the Pacific Rim coincides with that of China’s, although the attitudes of both may differ. While the way forward for China’s foreign policy has been mainly economic, wherein China has engaged in trade, industry and infrastructure projects with its economic partners around the world, China’s military coordination with them has not been on the forefront. On the other hand Russia’s relations with its global trade partners and allies have been as much strategic as economic.

Lately, Russia’s growing relations with South American states is being viewed with contention in US quarters. South American states have strived against bitter US military interventions, regime changes and proxy wars in the region in the 1960s to 80s, when the Cold War was on. Naturally South American states were turned towards the Russian socialist alternative that would help remove the scourge of centuries’ old imperial hegemony on their lands. The period between 1998 and 2009 is marked with anti-Americanism and left-wing politics in Latin America, this era called the ‘pink tide’ saw the rise of pro-Russian leftist governments.

When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua voted against the UN resolution outlawing the Crimea referendum – and Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Ecuador abstained from voting. Today Russia and China have reached out to Pacific Rim states on the other side of the ocean, with trade, weapons deals, intelligence, financial and technological assistance. Some of these states have already given Russia access to their naval ports and airbases.

Indeed the Pacific Rim is not only jotted with earthquakes and volcanoes but also gridlocked in political turbulence that is set in delicate balances by stabilizers operating from long-distance stations.