Although the Cold War with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ended when it collapsed in 1991, there is a Cold War-like situation that exists between the US and China. All because of Taiwan, a former province of China that gained independence in 1949 when the forces of communist Mao Zedong drove the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai Shek out of mainland China to the island of Taiwan. However, in spite of Taiwan’s independence, China continues to claim her as an integral part of China. China has been threatening to invade Taiwan since. But the US passed a law in 1979 that obligates the US to “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character,” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.” That in effect is what binds the US to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack.
Taiwan has thus become the linchpin of the US defense perimeter against China known as the First Island Chain (FIC). It is an imaginary line through Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, Northern Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, and Vietnam. If Taiwan falls, the FIC would be broken, which would then allow unimpeded Chinese access to the Western Pacific and right into America’s doorsteps, Guam. The FIC, therefore, is geographically and strategically important to America’s force projection in the Eastern part of Asia.
The second line of defense is the Second Island Chain (SIC), which runs from Japan through the Bonins, Marianas, the Carolinas, Palau, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. But it is not as important as the FIC, which prevents China from breaking out into the Western Pacific at the Miyako Strait near Okinawa and at the Bashi Channel at the Luzon Strait. The US and her allies can easily defend both entry points.
Last March 12, the first-ever virtual summit of the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – known as “The Quad” (i.e., US, Japan, India, and Australia) – was held in an effort to deal with China’s growing economic influence and military threat. But while the Quad leaders emphasized that the Quad’s agenda is not anti-Beijing, it is exactly the kind of multilateral cooperation that Beijing fears. In their joint statement, the four leaders reaffirmed their commitment to cooperating on Covid-19, security challenges, and climate change.
South Korea also wanted to join the Quad, which would make it a “Quad Plus” member. Could this be the beginning of a formal alliance that could eventually include Australia and New Zealand with the intent of containing Chinese aggression and preserving the interests of America and her allies?
If formalized, this alliance could stop China from pursuing military inroads in the South Pacific region like building naval bases in Daru, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Although both countries have resisted pressure from China in the form of soft power aid and military deployment, negotiation is ongoing. Daru is only 124 miles from Australia and it’s making Australia and the US nervous. Daru could be transformed into a naval base and logistical supply center like what happened to Djibouti in East Africa.
Expanding the Quad’s membership to include other regional allies would bolster US interests and stabilizes the Indo-Pacific by increasing deterrence capability. And as China flexes her muscles, she’s still vulnerable when it comes to waging war with the US. China doesn’t have the worldwide logistical supply centers to maintain her military presence around the world. So far she has only Djibouti as a foreign naval base but she’s making progress in negotiating with at least six South Pacific Island governments who have huge debts to China as a result of China’s debt-trap diplomacy where choice properties – usually seaside properties — are used as collaterals to secure loans from China. After being over-extended in loans – which happens all the time – China would then foreclose the collaterals, which oftentimes are existing ports like the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, Gwadar Naval Base in Pakistan, and several others in what is known as the “String of Pearls” that stretches from China all the way to East Africa. Indeed, China is increasing her territorial power through diplomacy, economic investment, and military through coercion and intimidation to exert power over their governments. It’s a sad situation for the helpless South Pacific countries that had fallen prey to China’s debt-trap diplomacy.
Pacific Deterrence Initiative
To confront China’s aggressive actions in the South Pacific islands, the US passed legislation to allocate $27.4 billion to the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) to bolster her conventional deterrence against China over the next six years. PDI calls for the “fielding of an Integrated Joint Force with precision-strike networks west of the International Date Line along the First Island Chain, integrated air missile defense in the Second Island Chain, and a distributed force posture that provides the ability to preserve stability, and if needed, dispense and sustain combat operations for extended periods.”
During a public forum in October 2020, the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, said: “I believe China is the strategic threat of the century to the US, but really certainly to the entire free world. The Indo-Pacific Command covers 34 countries encompassing 60% of the world’s population. As a part of the “pivot to Asia” announced under the Obama administration — and continued under Trump and now Biden — a major shift is underway. The aim is to base over 70% of U.S. overseas military forces in the Indo-Pacific region, clearly aimed at the People’s Republic of China.
China’s timetable, developed by the late Admiral Liu Huaqing, known as the “father of the modern Chinese navy,” called for three steps to achieve global naval power. First step is the breaking out of the FIC by 2010. The second step to break out of the SIC by 2020. The third step is to achieve global naval supremacy by 2050. Obviously, China missed her timetable deadlines to break out of the FIC and SIC although she is prepared anytime to breakout of the FIC.
However, it would be futile for China to break out into the Western Pacific because China needs logistical supply centers in the Western Pacific and South Pacific to service her warships and troops. It’s too far away from home. That’s why China is trying hard to get Papua-New Guinea, Vanuatu, Tonga, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands to host Chinese naval bases and logistical supply centers.
Right now, China is doubling her effort to break out of the FIC, which is why China is determined to win over the South Pacific countries soon. And it could happen within the next five years… if America doesn’t resist. And debt-trap diplomacy seems to be China’s potent weapon to gain power in the South Pacific region. That’s why the PDI is very important, as it would play defensive as well as offensive roles in defending American interests in the Indo-Pacific region, a swath of 11,000 miles from Madagascar to the Hawaiian Islands spread over 11 million square miles of oceans. And in the midst of all these are the South Pacific Islands that would be vital to China’s ambitions to rule over the Indo-Pacific region. And America’s first line of defense is the First Island Chain.