Some American and Australian strategic planners have been pushing for an imaginary line of defense to stop China’s creeping influence in the region.
It was sort of the French “Maginot line” in the 1930s to stop a German invasion. The line failed as Adolf Hitler’z bitzkrieg overran the Lowlands in the north — Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.
But China has been sending its People’s Liberation Army-Navy carrier and submarines east of the Philippines and closer to Guam to set up its own second imaginary island chain of defense.
It has built its first chain of islands defense in the South China Sea, erecting a “Great Wall” of sand in the Spratlys and trying to deny access to American, Australian, and even Japanese naval patrols in the area.
It has expanded its seven islands in the Spratlys, building three huge airfields and secured ports and installing anti-air and anti-ship missile batteries to defend the garrisons. These are the real French sea-based version of the “Maginot line”.
The Australian and American imaginary line of defense extends from South Korea and Japan in the north, running southwards through Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia. It could enclose the waters by going westward to Singapore and Malaysia.
The imaginary line is designed to counter China’s excessive nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea and in the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
An international tribunal has nullified the nine-dash-line because it runs counter to the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which Beijing signed but chose to ignore due to its insecurity.
China must learn a lesson from its northern neighbor Russia. Moscow was so insecure with the rapid expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Eastern Europe that it wanted buffer zones, insisting that Ukraine, Sweden, and Finland remained neutral and outside NATO.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which it has been calling a “special military operation,” has pushed Kyiv to the waiting arms of the West, including the United States.
The conflict exposed Moscow’s weaknesses. It has the largest army with sophisticated weapons and ballistic missiles but its advance to the Ukrainian capital was stalled by the determined resistance.
Moscow was expecting to march in Kyiv as a liberating hero but it did not happen. Russian military losses have been mounting, a huge embarrassment for Vladimir Putin who expected the operations to end in days. It is entering its fourth week as Western nations’ armaments continue to pour in to defend Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine serves as a great lesson to China’s Xi Jinping, although Western trade and corporate sanctions could not really work because the global economy is linked to Beijing. China is the world’s biggest factory.
But the United States and its allies, like Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan, have started moving its production base to other areas, like Southeast Asia. Thailand and Vietnam have been enjoying the transfer of American and Japanese investments from China to elsewhere. The Philippines is lagging behind as President Rodrigo Duterte tried to woo Chinese economic aid and investments. It was a fatal move.
The United States will shortly unveil an Indo-Pacific economic blueprint to rival the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an Asean economic initiative.
The Philippines needs to join the US-led Indo-Pacific economic bloc, one of the key components of the Indo-Pacific Strategy to counter China’ hegemony. It would hasten the Philippines’ post-pandemic recovery and shorten the time needed to return to its pre-pandemic economic growth of 6-7 percent.
The United States has been working with its allies and partners to check China’s not-so-peaceful rise in the Indo-Pacific region. It has acted as a bully to smaller states in the South China Sea and has been trying arms-twisting trade tactics on countries, like Australia.
Washington has a web of security alliances in the region — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia. It also has partnerships with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam to widen areas where it can train and exercise. These military activities allow Washington to move around its troops and equipment as well as preposition its forces when a contingency arises.
Washington has also institutionalized a more capable and powerful alliance of bigger powers in the region — Australia, India, Japan, and the United States — which is called the Quad.
There were rumors Taiwan would want to join the Quad mechanism, worried about China’s ambitions to unite the island with the mainland. China has full control over Tibet and Hong Kong. Taiwan would be the last piece of the puzzle, completing Beijing’s 100-year marathon to rise as the world’s number one in economy and defense by 2049.
From the late 19th century to the Second World War, China was humiliated by Western powers and Japan, carving out the Middle Kingdom’s coastal territories from Manchuria to southern China’s Hong Kong and Macau.
China has been trying to reclaim its old glory but a nervous United States and Western countries wanted to contain it.
Last year, the United States brought in the British in the region under an arrangement called AUKUS — Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States. Germany and France have also set their eyes on the South China Sea.
The new imaginary defense line, called Pacific Line, envisioned by the United States and Australia, could heighten tension in the region. Both Western nations and China will challenge each other’s imaginary line — the US’ Pacific Line and China’s first island chain.
However, the Pacific Line has a weaker link. The Philippines remains friendly with China and if the late dictator’s son and namesake, former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos wins in the May presidential elections, China could punch a hole in the middle of the Pacific Line.
The geopolitical dimension of the May 9 balloting has deeper implications for Washington’s security as well as its allies, like Australia, India, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan.
With Philippine elections drawing near, it is interesting how the big powers will try to influence the results of the balloting for their own national interests.