Trump’s ‘gunboat diplomacy’

In my column, “China’s gunboat diplomacy” (July 19, 2012), I wrote: “ ‘China frigate leaves shoal: [Malacañang] Palace happy,’ said a huge electronic billboard, which I saw on the way to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to catch a plane home last July 16, 2012. The news of a grounded guided missile Chinese frigate near Half Moon Shoal (Hasa-Hasa Shoal) in the Spratly archipelago, 69 miles west of Palawan, raised the tension level between the Philippines and China ever since the latter declared the entire West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) an extension of her territorial continental shelf in 2010. And China made it crystal clear that this vast body of water — rich in oil and natural gas deposits — is a ‘core national interest,’ which in diplomatic parlance means ‘non-negotiable.’

“And to make sure that everybody — including the United States — knows that she is serious about her stand on the issue, China is building a naval force that would make her the dominant sea power in Asia-Pacific by 2020. And to let everybody know that she means business, she acquired an old aircraft carrier from Russia and retrofitted it with state-of-the-art technology and is now undergoing sea trials.”

Floating airbases

With 10 operational supercarriers and a new one — the USS Gerald R. Ford — joining the fleet in a few months, that means that the U.S. could deploy up to six carrier battle groups to cover the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific region. In addition to these supercarriers, the U.S. has nine amphibious assault ships that are more like aircraft carriers on a smaller scale.

Although China is way behind in her aircraft carrier-building program, she has now two carriers. The first one, a refurbished Cold War-era Russian carrier, is barely operational and the second – which was her first to build indigenously — is currently undergoing sea trials before she’s commissioned for deployment. With a 10 to one ratio in favor of the U.S., the Chinese Navy wouldn’t stand a chance against America’s large fleet of supercarriers.

Ever since the U.S. converted the collier USS Jupiter into an aircraft carrier — the USS Langley (CV-1) — in 1920, the U.S. became the world’s dominant naval power because of her ability to deploy aircraft to these floating airbases at sea. Consequently, two more colliers were converted into aircraft carriers. After that, the U.S. built six brand-new aircraft carriers. By the time World War II erupted, America had the naval advantage no other world power had.

Big Stick ideology

With the capability to project air power in the high seas, the U.S. pursued her foreign policy objectives with what had come to be known as “gunboat diplomacy” or “Big Stick ideology.” In other words, the conspicuous display of naval power anywhere in the world implies a direct threat of warfare, which forces another country to agree to terms America demands.

In World War II, the U.S. was able to defeat the Japanese naval forces in the Pacific because of the use of aircraft carriers. Had Japan destroyed America’s aircraft carrier fleet based at Pearl Harbor in 1942, the outcome of the Pacific war might have been different. Fortunately, due to intelligence reports of an impending Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. moved her entire aircraft carrier fleet out of harm’s way into the open sea.

During the Cold War, the U.S. started building large nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that came to be known as “supercarriers.” Following the new 100,000-ton Gerald R. Ford-class (CVN-78) of supercarriers, two others — the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) and USS Enterprise (CVN-80) — are in various stages of construction.

Clinton’s gunboat diplomacy

On July 21, 1995, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) triggered what is called the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. That was when she fired a series of missile “tests” in the waters surrounding the Republic of China (ROC) – commonly known as Taiwan. It was believed that the first set of missiles was intended to send a “strong signal” to the Lee Teng-hui’s government, who was perceived as moving the ROC’s foreign policy away from the “One-China Policy.” The second set of missiles was fired in early 1996. It was believed that it was intended to intimidate the Taiwanese voters in the run-up of the 1996 presidential election.

In March 1996, with the threat of PRC invasion, President Bill Clinton ordered the deployment of two supercarrier battle groups – the USS Nimitz and USS Independence – to the region. The Nimitz and the amphibious assault ship USS Belleau Wood daringly sailed through the Taiwan Strait, the narrow channel that separates the PRC from Taiwan. Unable to respond to the Nimitz’s “provocation,” the PRC realized then that she couldn’t stop the U.S. from coming to the aid of Taiwan, and the PRC humiliatingly backed off.

Since then, the PRC embarked on a massive build-up of her naval forces. But today, she is still short of catching up to America’s naval prowess. However, with more than a thousand land-based missiles deployed along China’s coast facing Taiwan, China might be bold enough to respond next time the U.S. deploys a carrier battle group to the Taiwan Strait.

North Korea problem

Recently, North Korea took a big step in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). She is also believed to possess of more than a dozen nuclear warheads that can be delivered by ICBMs, which would make the U.S. vulnerable to North Korean nuclear attack. It couldn’t be ascertained if they’re already operational. However, at the rate North Korea has been conducting missile tests, which seem to be successful, it would just be a matter of time before she becomes a threat to America’s security.

In a move reminiscent of the 1995-1996 Taiwan Crisis, the Trump administration deployed two carrier battle groups – the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson — to the Sea of Japan, which is within striking distance of North Korea.

In addition to the two battle groups, the USS Nimitz has been ordered to deploy to the Western Pacific to join the other two carrier battle groups. The deployment of Nimitz marks a rare situation, when a total of three carrier battle groups are simultaneously deployed in one region. Some analysts say that the Nimitz’s deployment might be a “special contingency plan.” With four to five guided missile cruisers and destroyers and one or two nuclear attack submarines accompanying each supercarrier, the large assemblage of naval assets in a theater of operations has never been bigger since the end of World War II.

There has been a lot of speculation about what’s in President Donald Trump’s mind when he allowed three carrier battle groups to converge in waters near North Korea. In a recent telephone conversation between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Trump told Duterte: “We have two submarines — the best in the world.

We have two nuclear submarines, not that we want to use them at all.” In response to news report of their conversation, North Korean officials said that their country was ready for nuclear attacks in the event of “U.S. military aggression.”

With the White House loaded with retired military generals whom Trump has given a lot of latitude to decide what military action to take when the need arises, there are two ways this situation could lead to. One would be to use the template of Clinton’s “gunboat diplomacy” during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Crisis that could compel North Korea to back off and sue for peace. If that is going to happen, then Trump’s “gunboat diplomacy” works. However, if North Korea fights back with a nuclear attack on South Korea, then all hell breaks loose!