Donald’s trump card

Upon his election to the U.S. presidency, one of the few world leaders that Donald J. Trump talked to was Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. At that time, their conversation was hailed as an improvement in U.S.-Philippine relations which took a nose-dive when Duterte didn’t like then-President Barack Obama’s “meddling” in the country’s war on drugs. For that, Duterte called Obama, “son of a whore.”

In their seven-minute talk, Trump told Duterte that he was doing the right thing in his “war on drugs“ campaign in which thousands have died. But while Trump extended an “invite” to Duterte to visit the White House if he happened to be in the nation’s capital, that was the extent of their contact. No communication of any nature had been made since then. Indeed, the silence is deafening.

Meanwhile, Trump did not waste any time touching bases with his other allies, Japan and South Korea, including Taiwan whose government doesn’t have any official ties with Washington. However, the U.S., by law, is obligated to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion.

In the case of the Philippines, the U.S.’s defense obligations are spelled out in the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). However, there is no automatic provision that would require immediate American response to repel foreign invasion. Unlike Japan and South Korea, where 50,000 and 28,000 American troops are stationed, respectively, there is no substantial American troop deployment in the Philippines. In other words, if the Chinese invades the country, there is no “trip-wire” mechanism that would force the U.S. to repel the invading forces. The U.S. government has to get the permission of the U.S. Congress if the Philippines invoked the MDT.

Preparing for war

Recently, it was reported in the news that Duterte had given Defense Secretary Gen. Delfin Lorenzana the go-ahead for the U.S. military to build barracks and fuel depots in designated Philippine bases where American forces are allowed to temporarily station under the provisions of EDCA. This is a far cry from last month when Duterte threatened to terminate EDCA. He said then that he didn’t want his country to get entangled if a Sino-American war erupted. Lorenzana identified three bases where the U.S. is supposedly bringing weapons, including Palawan, which is within 200 miles from the militarized artificial islands in the Spratly Islands. It’s a timely move in the face of the escalating tensions in the South China Sea (SCS).

The U.S. is fearful that China would use these islands to gain a chokehold on the region and restrict the movement of aircraft and vessels through the SCS.

However, the U.S. would not allow that to happen and promised to keep the sea open to maritime navigation by conducting “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPS), which puts her on a collision course with China.

Recently, American satellites have observed surface-to-air missiles on those islands. With the Trump administration planning to ramp up these FONOPS to challenge China’s maritime claims, the risk of an incident triggering a confrontation is not remote. As one think tank strategist said, “This kind of military-to-military gray zone, eyeball-to-eyeball stuff can always go wrong.” And this begs the question: Can the U.S. survive a large conflict involving China’s use of her Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy? With the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) growing array of naval and submarine vessels, aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-satellite and cyber war capabilities, a “sneak attack” against U.S. naval forces in the SCS could be devastating. With U.S. forces concentrated in Japan, South Korea, and Guam, it would be difficult for the U.S. to repel a Chinese sneak attack. However, the U.S. has the means to survive a sneak attack with her Air/Sea Battle strategy, an integrated battle concept, which became part of U.S. grand strategy in 2010.

Grand Strategy

The U.S. grand strategy is to stop China from breaking out into the Western Pacific. Right now, there are two choke points along the First Island Chain that runs from Japan, through Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The choke points are the Miyako Strait (between Okinawa and Taiwan) and Bashi Channel (between Taiwan and Luzon). While Japan is capable of blocking the Miyako Strait, the Bashi Channel is wide open. And this is where Taiwan and the Philippines, both treaty allies of the U.S., would come into play.

While the U.S. doesn’t have mutual defense treaty and diplomatic relations with Taiwan, she is obligated under a 1979 U.S. law – the Taiwan Relations Act – to intervene if China launched an armed strike on Taiwan. Thus far, it has deterred China from toying with the idea of “invasion.” However, if Taiwan went ahead of declaring her independence from China, all hell will break loose and China will invade Taiwan. That is a red flag drawn by China long time ago: the umbilical cord that binds Taiwan to Mother China cannot be severed.

With the election of Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s new president under the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan is moving closer – albeit slowly and cautiously – towards declaring independence. And this seems to get the attention of Trump who took a call from Tsai after winning the elections. This was when Trump questioned the “One-China Policy.” However, after triggering a tsunami of protests from Beijing, Trump backed off. But he knows that Taiwan is ready for the big fight; all she needs is the U.S.’s support.

Malacca dilemma

Meanwhile, Duterte is playing the “wild card” in the geopolitical game in the SCS, pitting China against the U.S. It’s a question of how much Uncle Sam is willing to add to the ante? Is Uncle Sam willing to invest in building military infrastructure in at least eight Philippine bases including the former U.S. bases at Clark air Base and Subic Naval Base? Would the Philippines allow the U.S. to deploy troops and military assets at Laoag Airport in Ilocos Norte and at the Batanes Island, which would provide a crucial vantage point in blocking the Bashi Channel?

But China’s Achilles’ heel would be the one that would choke her. If the U.S. blocks both ends of the 500-mile Strait of Malacca — at the Changi Naval Base in Singapore and at the other end where two Indian territories, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, stand guard – it would stop the flow of oil from the Middle East and Africa. That would be like putting a cork in a bottleneck because of China’s dependence on foreign oil, 80% of which passes through the Strait of Malacca.

It is estimated that China’s strategic oil reserves would only last for 10 days, which would cause her economy to collapse and her military would grind to a halt. That, in essence, is Donald’s trump card.