Shoring up the Pacific

By Eric Watkins

LOS ANGELES, April 19 – US Marines may turn in their graves to learn that Japanese military forces will be returning to Tinian Island – scene of a major battle in World War Two. But they may rest a little easier to know that the Japanese are now defending US interests, not opposing them.

It’s all about China’s determination to create a so-called push-back zone, extending in an arc from north of Japan to Indonesia and reaching some 1,500 nautical miles into the Pacific Ocean. That would put Chinese influence right on the doorstep of Guam – a stone’s throw from Tinian.

“If this occurs, the United States will find itself effectively locked out of a region that has been declared a vital security interest by every administration for the past 60 years,” said Jan van Tol and other analysts at the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

VULNERABLE TO AGGRESSION

Such Chinese projection, according to the CSBA analysts, “will also leave longstanding US allies and partners vulnerable to aggression or, more likely, subtle forms of coercion.” Those remarks, written in 2010, now seem to be coming to pass, with Chinese pressure especially falling all around the Philippines (WWE, April 17, 2012, and April 11, 2012).

That pressure has not gone unnoticed by CSBA, which issued a note this week titled The Geostrategic Return of the Philippines. Written by Jim Thomas and Harry Foster, the new CSBA report underlines the importance of the Philippines to US strategy in the region – especially regarding oil and gas.

“The Philippines lie at a vital maritime crossroads through which passes more than half of the world’s shipping tonnage and 80% of crude oil shipments headed to Japan and South Korea,” the CSBA analysts say. They also note that due to a “series of diplomatic missteps” the US withdrew its forces from the Philippines to “the misfortune of both countries.”

SECURITY VACUUM

Thomas and Foster argue that the US withdrawal created a security vacuum, which the Filipinos now see China trying to fill. “Of particular concern to Manila are Beijing’s aggressive actions in the resource-rich South China Sea, which lies immediately to the west of the Philippines,” they say.

“Recently, Chinese Major General Luo Yan warned the Philippine government that it faced a ‘last chance’ to resolve disputes over economic claims in the South China Sea,” Thomas and Foster note. “For the Philippines,” they say, “General Yan’s remarks were a stark reminder of just how difficult it is for a small country to live in the shadow of a rising power.”

Similar feelings are growing in Japan. According to a recent report by the Nikkei business daily, Chinese forays into territorial waters and the continuing tensions on the Korean Peninsula have spotlighted the need for Japan to shore up its defense of a string of islands that stretch southwest from Kyushu. The joint training of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces alongside US forces is seen helping to strengthen these defenses.

REGIONAL SPHERE OF INFLUENCE

The Nikkei report said that the Tinian outpost would lay the groundwork for joint military exercises and training with the US, Australia and other allies. Japan would lease a portion of an American base on Tinian, rotating in personnel drawn from all three SDF branches: ground, maritime and air.

“Beijing appears intent on establishing a regional sphere of influence, supplanting the US military in the region, and “Finlandizing” its weaker neighbors like the Philippines,” Thomas and Foster argue, adding that “Neutralizing the Philippines appears to be a critical element of China’s strategic design.”

In the quiet new war emerging in the Pacific, the name of the game is to control the dots and keep them connected. It’s all about islands, and sea lanes. It’s about a defensive network aimed at keeping the sea lanes open and the islands free. Tinian is as much a part of the new defensive system as Luzon, Honshu as much as Corregidor.

The US and its allies are shoring up the Pacific defenses. The Marines will understand.

© Glamma Productions 2012

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About Eric Watkins

Eric Watkins is a consultant specializing in oil diplomacy. A former journalist, Mr. Watkins's work has appeared in numerous leading publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Financial Times, and specialist media such as Oil & Gas Journal, Middle East Economic Survey (MEES), and Lloyd's List.
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