Shifts in the Western Pacific

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Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. visited Washington last week, where he signed what is essentially a collective defense agreement. In doing so, he sealed their bilateral relationship just a few weeks after signing another agreement that allows the U.S. to station troops and aircraft at bases in the Philippines. The alliance creates a serious problem for China, whose fundamental interest is having unfettered access to the Pacific Ocean and thus unencumbered global trade.

At roughly the same time, Taiwan and Japan held a meeting to plan the coordination of forces in the event China attacks Taiwan. That Beijing immediately condemned the meeting emphasized its significance. The fall of Taiwan would be a serious threat to Japan’s access to the Pacific and possibly a threat to the Japanese mainland. These threats may be far-fetched, but a Chinese occupation of Taiwan graduates them from non-existent to at least theoretical.

Japan has been in the process of expanding its military for some time, and obviously a joint Japanese-Taiwanese force would necessarily include the United States. There are also indications that South Korea would participate.

The new map of the Western Pacific thus puts China in a very different position. An invasion of the Chinese mainland by any new coalition is still impossible given the size and sophistication of Chinese land forces. But China’s difficulties in securing guaranteed access to the Pacific and its regional waters have soared. The ability of Japan and Taiwan to intercept Chinese naval movements, combined with the United States’ and Australia’s ability to block Chinese movement to the south, is a problem for Beijing. The obvious vulnerability of the coalition is that it has shown its hand and undoubtedly has not fully completed its defenses. China could preemptively strike any one of the coalition partners in theory, but the narrowness of the waterways makes the risk of defeat high.

South Pacific
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There is evidence that China understands the severity of the situation. President Xi Jinping recently moved Zhao Lijian – an official who came to embody China’s aggressive and confrontational wolf warrior diplomacy – from a spokesman role to head of the Foreign Ministry’s Boundary and Ocean Affairs Department. This will herald a significant, if not radical, shift in Chinese foreign policy. Indeed, the Taiwan News outlet recently reported that top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi outlined new policies for Taiwan, saying that the old ones must be reconsidered.

Our view is that though China’s systemic internal problems make it weaker than its military and economic stature suggest, it’s still a major power that can, under the right circumstances, assert power far from its shores. But these are not the right circumstances. The geography of the Asia-Pacific is changing to Beijing’s detriment. China has made gestures toward a policy shift. It remains to be seen whether China’s internal politics allow it to be this flexible.

George Friedman

George Friedman is an internationally recognized geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs and the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures.

Dr. Friedman is also a New York Times bestselling author. His most recent book, THE STORM BEFORE THE CALM: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond, published February 25, 2020 describes how “the United States periodically reaches a point of crisis in which it appears to be at war with itself, yet after an extended period it reinvents itself, in a form both faithful to its founding and radically different from what it had been.” The decade 2020-2030 is such a period which will bring dramatic upheaval and reshaping of American government, foreign policy, economics, and culture.

His most popular book, The Next 100 Years, is kept alive by the prescience of its predictions. Other best-selling books include Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, The Next Decade, America’s Secret War, The Future of War and The Intelligence Edge. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Dr. Friedman has briefed numerous military and government organizations in the United States and overseas and appears regularly as an expert on international affairs, foreign policy and intelligence in major media. For almost 20 years before resigning in May 2015, Dr. Friedman was CEO and then chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996. Friedman received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of the City University of New York and holds a doctorate in government from Cornell University.