28.12.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Christmas Eve events in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) do not inspire optimism

435345345345One of the main themes of the NEO publications in the past year was concerned with monitoring and evaluating processes in the Asia-Pacific region, where the center of gravity of the emerging new global game has been shifting to. A swath of sea that stretches north from the South China Sea (SCS) up to the Korean Peninsula plays the role of the modern “Balkans” in the giant APR space (which often includes the Indian Ocean region).

The specific actions in the last weeks of 2015 of the two leading players (the US and China) have not shown a trend of any decline in reciprocal heart-pounding rhetoric in connection with the situation around Сhina’s several artificial islands in the South China Sea (SCS).

On the contrary, it appears that the US Air Force is joining in the operations of the US Navy ships in the SCS waters. In early December, information appeared about the deployment of maritime surveillance aircraft P-8 Poseidon in Singapore, and their main area of activity will be the SCS airspace.

On December 18, leading US publications reported (citing an “official source” in the Pentagon) that the strategic bomber B-52, making a “routine flight” in the same airspace, “accidentally” went 3 kilometers over one of the artificial islands. And this is not the first action of that type on the part of the US Air Force.

The response by China’s semiofficial Global Times to this latest episode on December 21 this year in an article entitled “US actions will accelerate the militarization of the islands” seems quite remarkable.

The article, in particular, says that because of their remoteness from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and, taking into account the fact that the country’s navy has only one aircraft carrier, China has no other choice of response to the “American provocation”, but to station its own interceptors on those Islands.

The forthcoming exercises of the Chinese Navy in the “Western Pacific”, that were officially announced on December 13 this year, will also be of a reactive nature in response to the US military activity in the SCS.

As for the prospects of the US Navy’s continuing actions in the SCS in the style of the one in late November by the destroyer Lassen, then it is quite possible to expect it at the beginning of next year.

The main intrigue around the situation in Taiwan (which is adjacent to the SCS waters in the North) remained the question of confirmation (or refutation) of the prevalent data published in Bloomberg View late November edition from some “official source” about plans to resume selling a new batch of US arms worth $ 1 billion to the island.

It should be recalled that the last two major US-Taiwan arms deals totaling $ 12 billion were made in 2010 and 2011. According to Bloomberg View, an announcement of plans to resume shipments of US arms is expected in mid-December this year.

This “leaked” (no doubt inspired) information was mainly confirmed on December 16, when the US administration officially announced plans for the sale of US arms to Taiwan, but in excess of $ 1.8 billion.

This is serious and goes beyond the alleged symbolism (as some commentators assumed in late November) of the expected anti-Chinese gesture by Washington. Whereas the main and constant goal of the US policy on the Taiwanese problem is the demonstration of rejection of any hints from Beijing on the possibility of its military solution.

The main component of the new batch of US arms sales intended for Taiwan (along with portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles) will be landing craft and two Class Perry missile frigates. The latter are now being phased out of the US Navy, but are still able to serve in Taiwan.

Apparently, the new batch of US weapons to Taiwan is to increase the Navy’s capacity (in case of emergency) during land operations on its own islands – Quemoy and Matsu, located in the Taiwan Strait in the vicinity of the coast of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Armed incidents around these islands in the 50s and in the mid-90s of the last century were referred to in political science literature as “the Taiwan crises”, each time edging US-China relations to the brink of war.

Plans for the sale of yet another batch of US weapons to Taiwan must be approved by the Congress. However, there can hardly be any problems, taking into account the consistently strong position of the pro-Taiwanese lobby in the American Congress.

Quite the expected negative reaction from the Chinese Foreign Ministry followed another anti-China move by the United States. In comments to the statement by the country’s Foreign Ministry, it was noted that the consequences of this decision will be largely political, rather than military, since “the potential of the mainland and Taiwan remains disparate“.

This decision will contribute to the worsening of the already difficult relations between the two major world powers, as well as the deterioration of the situation in the Taiwan Strait. The latter seems likely because at the Taiwan’s presidential election at the beginning of next year (January 16) there is a high-probability that victory will go to Cai Inven, who is very warily regarded in Beijing.

In this context, it seems remarkable that the newspaper Global Times interviewed the American Sinologist, Shelley Rigger, an employee of several universities, and published it under the headline “Ma is an example for relations across the Taiwan Strait“. The main topic of the interview was the assessment of the heritage left by the current Taiwanese President, Ma Ying-jeou.

There is no doubt that, through the mouthpiece of an American expert, the Chinese leadership is sending a message to the future President of Taiwan. However, it remains unclear how the position expressed in an interview with Professor S. Rigger coincides with the actual objectives of the Chinese administration’s policy towards the United States. This pertains not only to the present one, but especially the one that will appear only a year from now.

In evaluating the development of the situation in the present day “Balkans” region, the results of the last two summits in December were most informative. The first one, which took place during Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe’s visit to India, has already been discussed in the NEO.

In political terms, its main result was the confirmation of the trend to strengthen the Japanese-Indian partnership (perhaps most important) that has emerged since the middle of the last decade, out of the formation of the quadripartite (quasi) coalition of Japan, India, Australia, and the United States. The possible finalization of this coalition could have the most dramatic impact on the world processes.

It should be emphasized that the motivation of its design is not confined to the notorious “American machinations” (which, however, are taking place). The main “motivator” is China, whose transformation into a global power with interests far beyond its national borders, is looked upon warily by almost all of its neighbors.

The main outcome of the December 18-19 visit to Japan by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (only in September this year, succeeding Tony Abbott) was to strengthen the other side of the Japanese-Australian quadrilateral indicated above. It was confirmed in the “Joint Statement” adopted at the conclusion of the visit.

This document expresses the intention to expand the scope of “joint operations and exercises” of the armed forces of both countries, as well as to intensify the dialogue in the field of defense in the formats “Japan-Australia-United States” and “Japan-Australia-India.”

At the final press conference, M. Turnbull said that Japan, along with Germany and France, is involved in the bid for the contract on the organization of the licensed construction of a series of new submarines in Australia, which was previously reported in NEO. The decision on the winner of the bid will be made “in the first half of 2016″.

In a more rigid and certain form than in the Japanese-Indian statement issued the previous month, a similar Japanese-Australian document refers to the rejection of “any violent or unilateral actions that lead to a breach of the status quo in the South China Sea.” No mention, however, of China as the main source of Japanese-Australian concern over the situation in the SCS.

The military-political sphere in general comes to the forefront in relations between Japan and Australia. Evidence of this was the meeting in the format of the “2 + 2″ (with the participation of ministers of foreign affairs and defense), held in Sydney on November 20-23, that is, a month before the summit of prime ministers of the two countries.

It should be noted that the mere fact of arranging and implementing regular work sessions in the format “2 + 2″ between a pair of countries today is almost a necessary (but not sufficient) condition of a sign of mutual trust between them. In particular, in Japan, this is set up with the United States, India and Australia.

Such a format also exists in Russian-Japanese relations, but its existence has proved insufficient (for a number of well-known reasons), because an equally rapid development of bilateral relations exists in Japan with its closest allies.

Finally, we have to state with regret that the chain of events culminating in the last weeks of 2015, only partially reflected in this article, so far, does not inspire the author’s optimism in the estimates of the vector of development of political processes in the Asia-Pacific region. Hopefully, this will change next year.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”


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