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Flexing your Intellectual Muscles: Indo-Pacific Conflict Scenarios, in Fact and Fiction!

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD*

 

Attended a very interesting lecture the other day with a deceptively simple title: “The Dynamics of the Indo-Pacific Region: The Challenges and Opportunities for Japan”, by Professor Satoru Mori from the Hosei University in Tokyo, Japan. (Faculty of Law, Department of Global Politics; little did I know that he was also a former diplomat).

A considerable number of issues were covered, everything from Trump’s ‘America First’ trade policy to maritime freedom to the security threat posed by North Korea. All were interesting and eye opening, but the thing that really was a revelation was what China was getting up to under the pretence of its ‘One Belt One Road Initiative’. Here’s one such instance. Sri Lanka got itself into a pickle with the Chinese, hiring them to build them a port facility. When they couldn’t pay what they owed the Chinese, the Chinese settled for a land lease of the port for the next 99 years – and the Chinese were only half done anyway!

 

Worming a Hole in the Strategic Apple

Even more surreal was Chinese maritime policy, based on unilateral ‘land grabs’. When I heard the phrasing, I assumed what was meant was disputes over maritime boundaries and territorial waters. That was the level my imagination was willing to stretch itself, then Professor Mori explained exactly what he meant towards the end of his talk. Turns out that the Chinese are ‘inventing’ islands and then claiming them as their own. Several coral reefs were targeted, with sand taken from the floor of the Pacific Ocean to cover up the coral reefs and break up to the surface. In the process they created several islands and started building airstrips on them. Oh, and the harbour at the Sri Lankan port is, by pure coincidence, deep enough for docking warships.

According to strategic analysts, the ‘suspicion’ is that China wants to construct a strategic triangle right slap dab in the middle of the Pacific, placing key countries like the Philippines within the range of Chinese air power. And that means exposing American regional allies, and American naval and air bases, to Chinese power. (This is like George Orwell describing England as ‘Airstrip One’ in 1984!)

My kneejerk reaction was a rehashing of the Cuban scenario from the 1960s, with missile silos. The reason that particular scenario came to mind, typically for me, was Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958). Specifically this scene: “Of course we are only a small country, but we lie very close to the American coast. And we point at your own Jamaica base. If a country is surrounded, as Russia is, it will try to punch a hole through from inside.” Fits the Chinese like a glove, if you ask me. They’ve found a way to punch through America’s traditional island-based containment strategy of the Chinese mainland. The Chinese have never had the ‘warm water port’ problem that has always perplexed the Russians and so the Americans have gone to considerable lengths to keep them box-in by sea.

Professor Mori did not think anything so radical would take place, however. (The Chinese were much cannier than that). If missiles were deployed, they wouldn’t be nukes like in Cuba but surface-to-air missiles. Still, it just goes to show that art is always one step ahead of politics. Note that Greene’s novel was written before the Communist takeover of Cuba, and the whole storyline was about a ramshackle British spy who made things up only for them to actually happen. And missile silos were hinted at in the novel. (The erstwhile hero, Jim Wormold, is a down and out vacuum salesman who agrees to work for British intelligence to pay off his bills. But because of the slim pickings he keeps having to make up data to keep his superiors happy, so he draws the inside of a new model vacuum cleaner and British intelligence think it’s some new secret weapon).

Art is most definitely one step ahead, and not just in the spy genre. To return to the North Korean threat, Professor Mori explained that what ‘could’ happen if the North keeps stockpiling bombs, and the means to deliver them, that it might fool itself into thinking that this will somehow deter the Americans from escalating any future war on the Korean peninsula. An even worse scenario is if the North Koreans come to think that their ICBMs can encourage the Americans to ‘decouple’ themselves from their regional allies, leaving South Korea and Japan exposed and alone up against an aggressive, expansionist North Korea. (The more missiles, the more bargaining power you have, the logic goes, further whetting the North Korea appetite).

 

The Economics of Worst Case Scenarios

This may seem ‘far’ from us but it most definitely is not. As Professor Mori explained, any destruction of Japan and South Korea and an outright war in the Pacific Basin, would sink the world economy for sure. Not to forget that maritime trade from the Pacific travels through the Indian Ocean all the way through the Suez Canal to Europe. So it would most definitely effect us, whether we like it or are aware of it or not. And that’s not discounting the global energy economy and oil tankers snaking their way through the Suez Canal. The Indo-Pacific, which could be a global locomotive for growth and prosperity – as Professor Mori argues – could have the opposite effect, becoming a black hole that sucks the rest of the economies of the world down with it.

This brings me back to another work of prophetic fiction, The Black Winter (2018) that I reviewed previously. I thought, naively, that the scenario of a nuclear exchange between North Korea and America’s western seaboard was exaggerated would have any impact us. (A resource war in the Middle East seemed more poignant). Boy was I wrong. It isn’t just nuclear fallout that would come our way, but the ‘economic’ fallout, and we’re in a precarious position enough as it is. (Guess I owe an apology to the author, Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi. How embarrassing!)

We could add that another linchpin in this tapestry of potential conflict is Iran. Saudi Arabia has already threatened that it will arm itself with nuclear warheads if the Iranians do the same. But Iran, remember, is part of the Belt & Road initiative itself and already one of China’s, and Russia’s, key allies in the Middle East, up against America’s chief ally, the already nuclear Israel. Things in this part of the world could ricochet eastwards and embroil China and even North Korea in the scenarios outlined above.

Sound extreme? Return to the lecture. China isn’t just building ports in Sri Lanka but in Algeria and Tunisia, with a naval presence in the Mediterranean. (Egyptians have to be wary too if they find they can’t pay their bills). Bleak, isn’t it.

Ho, hum. So, what to do in such a situation? Well, first off, blame the Americans!

 

The Best Offense is a Good Defence

What sunk the world into this unenviable standoff was American imperialist ambitions, under Mr Bush, so they’re ultimately to responsible. Now they’re so exhausted economically, and psychologically, that they’re trying to avoid getting embroiled into a new long drawn-out war and focusing on protectionist economics instead.

Still, anger and recrimination doesn’t get you anywhere in the end. Hence, the second stage towards finding a solution, which is to put on our thinking hats and start thinking up imaginative ways out. Another interesting factoid in the lecture was that the US State Department is so underfunded it doesn’t have enough staff to do proper policy studies and proposals to find a way out. If the above insights are any guide, one way to plum the intellectual depths for solutions is to draw on literature and the world of speculative fiction all over again.

As a sci-fi buff, something I’ve been working on (in my spare time) is the idea of colonising Mars as a way out of many potential conflicts on earth, and particularly in East Asia. (Not enough elbowroom on terra firma, head off somewhere else, and cooperate economically along the way to insure that you don’t fall out with each other once you get there). I envisioned a kind of economic pact between East Asian countries, and not just between China and Japan but the two Koreas too. (The Arabs hop onto the bandwagon themselves, and just in the nick of time too. Oh, and you didn’t hear it from me, but there’s a strategic triangle on Mars too!)

Sounds ridiculous, I know. Then again, the idea of creating islands in someone else’s backyard sounds ridiculous. But it happened, didn’t it? The more you restrict your imagination, the less options you have at your disposal. History is a tremendous boon here too. People always focus on the Chinese and their long and rich history in strategising from Sun Tzu to Mao Tse-tung, but they forget the Japanese have something to contribute in this regard as well. Japan, for most of its history, was a divided into feuding principalities with rival clans of samurai, and rival armouries. It was the job of the Shogun, the supreme military commander, to maintain the peace and that meant putting ‘restrictions’ on the military preparedness of the rival factions. He actually put restrictions on the size of the fortifications and number of troops of the warring feudal lords, so much so in fact, that they had to develop new defensive technologies to compensate for this. There was an arms race, but not an ‘offensive’ one that could lead to an outbreak of war.

That’s a recipe for the Indo-Pacific region. Don’t invest in offensive technologies. This will lead to an arms race, of sorts, since no one is going to want others to be better protected than he is. And the more money you invest in passive means of protecting yourself, the less money you will have left over for launching war on your unsuspecting neighbours.

Japan has so much to give the world – investment, technology, development aid – and is already a soft power kingpin because it is such a nice civilian power dedicated purely to economic and educational cooperation with the Third World. (Professor Mori went to great lengths to make it clear he didn’t want China to ever feel it was being ‘contained’ through Japan’s planned economic alliances on the Asian continent). But even soft power needs a little hard power to protect it. Just look what happens to anyone who wants to help out war-torn countries like Iraq or Afghanistan – they get kidnapped, ransomed or have their heads sliced off. But this doesn’t mean flexing your military muscles. Again, think defensively, like the Shogunite.

If Japan exports its protective military technologies abroad, it can avoid losing its soft power reputation, hitting two birds with one stone. But it has to exercise extreme caution and make sure nobody is arming itself a bit too much at the same time, or misusing Japanese technology or aid.

Oh, did I mention that I watched the Shogun (1980) series when I was a kid?!!

 

* Emad El-Din Aysha has a PhD in International Studies, from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. But he is also a movie reviewer and literary critic, in his past time,  and a member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction.

 

 

 

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