China’s rise as a global economic and military power was not an accident.
Its coercive and aggressive actions in the South China Sea and in Taiwan are clear indications of China’s desire to consolidate power in the region and expand around the world.
By 2049, Beijing hopes to dominate the world as the number economic and military power, surpassing the United States, which some political analysts say could plunge into a possible civil war due to widening polarization after the November 2020 presidential elections.
The domestic political issues and a cooling economy have been disrupting America’s efforts to intervene in some distant lands to keep global stability and security.
For instance, the United States retreated from the world stage during Donald Trump’s presidency, withdrawing from Afghanistan and putting doubt on its capability to face conflicts on two fronts.
The last time Washington fought wars in two separate theaters was in the Second World War – helping the British and the Russians in defeating Nazi Germany and its Italian ally in the European theater and bringing down the Japanese to liberate China and most Southeast Asian countries in the Pacific theater.
In the later part of the 20th century, there were pockets of conflicts in the Balkan peninsula and the Middle East. It fought wars against drug cartels in Latin America and intervened in ethnic conflicts in Africa.
Washington abandoned Southeast Asia, pulling out from its two large overseas military bases in Clark and Subic.
It focused on the Middle East and other minor threats, like drug trafficking, Islamist militancy and preventing Russia from regaining its strength after the disintegration of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its satellite states in Eastern and Central Europe.
For instance, in the Philippines, the United States, if it really wants to stay in its bases, could do some arm-twisting and pressure tactics. What could 12 senators actually do to a country that overwhelmingly loves the Americans?
But, at that time, the Americans were confident they could leave the region because there were no outside powers that would step into their shoes and the American economy was falling.
The US was wrong. It was a catastrophic and strategic blunder.
China took advantage of the situation and deceived the United States and its allies that its intentions are peaceful.
Beijing has mastered the deception that it was able to acquire modern military technology from the Americans to build up its own armed forces, telling Washington that China could be a friend against the Russians.
China pitted the Americans against the Russians while harvesting crucial and strategic technology to build ships, planes, tanks, and missiles. It was also stealing and doing reverse technology to learn how sophisticated weapons systems were made.
China flooded American universities with researchers and bought some obscure US companies with tie ups with defense manufacturing industries, like Singer sewing machines. A unit of Singer was producing important parts for sophisticated weapons systems.
Washington did not pay attention to Chinese threats until 1995 when it occupied a half-submerged shoal in the South China Sea. The Philippines discovered that China has built a makeshift fishermen’s shelter on Mischief Reef after a Filipino fighter pilot flew reconnaissance flights in the disputed waters.
The Philippine Navy was not able to send patrols in the area during the harsh monsoon season because it lacked ocean-going vessels.
Most of its platforms are World War II destroyer escorts and minesweepers. They cannot endure two to three weeks sea duties in the vast exclusive economic zones.
The United States treated China as a key ally against Russia as well as with Islamist militants in the Middle East because China has its own problems in Xinjiang with Muslim Uyghurs.
It was too late for the Americans to discover that the Chinese had deceived them. When Barack Obama unveiled his “pivot to Asia” policy, the US did try to contain Beijing because its own economy depended on Chinese factories.
For instance, Washington just stood by and allowed Beijing to renege on an agreement to pull out from Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after a three-month standoff with Manila.
America is now singing a different tune. It now considers China as a direct competitor, a global power rival, and a security threat. It took decades to realize China’s deception.
America should have not left the region in the early 1990s. It was the US’s second mistake. Right after the Second World War, when Washington drew its defense lines against the growing Communist menace, it forgot to include the Korean peninsula.
As a result, the Communist North tried to take over the democratic South, precipitating a war in the 1950s. North and South technically remain at war because only an armistice is in place.
The situation remained volatile as Pyongyang fired missiles to test its nuclear delivery system while the US and South Korea held drills constantly to deter the North’s aggression.
When the US abandoned the Philippines in 1992, it shifted focus on the Korean peninsula and the defense of Japan, which has a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea.
The US has started to take a second look at the often neglected Philippines. Tensions around Taiwan have made the Philippines a strategic launching pad for any military operation to defend the self-ruled island.
The US is back. In the first place, it should never have left the country and left a gaping hole in regional security and stability. The US should restore the balance of power in the region and not allow China to control the strategic sea lanes of communication in the region.
Washington should learn its lesson – not to allow a power vacuum in the region.