Mon, Jun 11, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Beijing’s long game for the Singapore summit

Kim Jong-un is not the key player that Donald Trump and his aides should be concerned about during tomorrow’s summit — it is Xi Jinping, as the White House’s focus on short-term gains over long-term achievements creates a major risk for the US as well as its key allies in Asia

By James Stavridis  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

As we approach the Singapore summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump — two volatile leaders drawn inexorably to the flame of international publicity without a clear idea of how the talks will come out — there is a larger agenda at play that is far less visible to the public.

While North Korea and the US play a simple game of checkers, with characteristic stops and starts, the Chinese have an entirely different board game open in front of them — the ancient game of Go.

Go provides many more possible moves than even chess, entails a longer-term strategic outlook and operates in a manner that makes understanding the strategy of an opponent far more difficult.

The US needs to think more coherently about Chinese strategy if it is to retain a sufficient level of influence in the most vital parts of East Asia.

What is China up to? And how should US leaders react to the strategic challenge, even as they try to deal with the tactical threat of North Korea?

The real strategic centerpiece in East Asia is not the Korean Peninsula, although it is quite important.

The true crowning jewel is the vast South China Sea, a body of water not much larger than the Caribbean, and which boasts millions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic meters of natural gas beneath its placid waters.

Even more important, a third of all global shipping passes through its international waterways. It is arguably the most strategically valuable large body of water in the world — and China claims it almost entirely as territorial waters.

This is a breathtaking claim. It would be as though the US simply claimed the entire Gulf of Mexico as a sovereign sea — meaning ownership of everything from the airspace over the water to the hydrocarbons kilometers below the surface.

China bases this claim on historical operations in the region, and lays out a detailed case for its control, but these claims have been disputed by every nation around the periphery of the sea, adjudicated by an international tribunal and rejected.

Refusing to take this legal setback, China is doing all it can to pragmatically buttress its claims. It operates warships and civilian vessels as though it is the sole proprietor of the waters; challenges all foreign-flagged ships operating there; files international protests against US and allied military ships operating throughout the region; builds and militarizes large, ecologically damaging artificial islands.

Beijing is, in essence, building a series of unsinkable aircraft carriers throughout the 3.88 million square kilometers of the South China Sea.

China is playing a very long game indeed. While the Pentagon is excited about developing a new five-year plan, the Chinese are thinking about how the region comes out in 200 years.

They have three crucial strategic objectives in the region, which they will continue to hammer home.

First, they want undisputed control over the South China Sea, principally for the hydrocarbons. Second, they want to consolidate Chinese influence around its periphery, especially full incorporation of Taiwan (they hope without a fight, but if necessary, they will eventually take the island militarily). They will also seek a dominant partner in the Philippines and/or Vietnam. Third, they want a divided Korean Peninsula so they can maintain dominant influence in the north and check the US influence in the south.

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