First of all, pray. Let us put our hands together and implore God to restrain the trigger fingers of everyone around and in Ukraine. Besides the cost in lives and livelihoods, war is sure to reignite the old conflict between the West and Russia, and again divide Europe into two armed camps.
The impact on the already shaky world economy could also be crippling, as investors signaled with the fall in stock markets worldwide and the spurt in gold prices after Russian troops entered the Crimea peninsula on the Black Sea.
Plainly, if a major war breaks out in Europe involving the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance, it could squelch recovery on both sides of the Atlantic, clouding prospects for global growth even more. The conflict, along with Moscow’s scrapping of a $15-billion bailout for Kiev, could push Ukraine to debt default, further unsettling international investors and creditors already spooked by Argentina’s crisis.
There’s more. If NATO joins the fight in Ukraine, America would be keen to avoid another major conflict elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, if the West blinks and allows Russia to carve up its neighbor, then US rivals and adversaries around the globe may be emboldened. They include Iran, North Korea and China.
This week, Pyongyang tested two short-range Scud missiles off its coast, on top of four rockets fired last week. While the fireworks seem to be in response to ongoing US-South Korean military exercises, there’s no telling what the North’s thirtysomething dictator Kim Jong Un might pull off to boost his clout after last December’s execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek and rumors of a recent purge against the No. 2 leader, now hard-to-find military politburo chief Choe Ryong-hae.
You can’t fight in two places at once
What about China? No, it isn’t going to invade or provoke a shooting war: the economic cost, plus the likelihood of being humbled by far more advanced US armaments, would give Chinese hawks pause. But they could try more assertive moves against Japan and the Philippines.
The United States will respond somehow, even flashing some aircraft carrier steel, to reassure allies. But China would have made its point: America can’t fight in two places at the same time, so those banking on US protection might not get it if Uncle Sam is tied up halfway across the world. The Middle East was a perennial source of trouble; now, maybe Eastern Europe, too.
Flash points in those regions also raise at least half a question about the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia plan of shifting 60% of American naval forces to a region where the threat of major conflict is far below the stratospheric risk at the other end of the Eurasian land mass. And those fond of conspiracy theories may further wonder if geopolitical friends Beijing, Moscow and Tehran could simultaneously stir trouble, confronting Washington with multiple crises many thousands of miles apart.
Don’t depend just on Uncle Sam
What’s the upshot of these scenarios for Asian nations? The unavoidable answer: Don’t depend just on Uncle Sam. Not that the Americans aren’t true to their word.
Rather, the world is far more volatile than in the bipolar Cold War decades, and can very well spark two or three major flash points overstretching the global policeman.
Many nations are now richer and better armed, even as an old dragon like Russia still has lots of fire as well as old grudges and ambitions to fight over.
South Korea and Taiwan learned long ago not to be overly dependent on America, and have built up formidable defenses which make aggression against them immensely costly, if not suicidal. Japan looks set to follow suit as soon as the nationalist regime of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can reinterpret or revise Japan’s Peace Constitution to allow rearmament and foreign military deployment.
In Southeast Asia, most nations have beefed up defenses too as they climbed the ladder of affluence: look at Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Vietnam, on the other hand, never wound down much its high level of defense even after America’s 1975 pullout, given the centuries of conflict with its giant neighbor to the north. History records dozens of Sino-Vietnamese battles from as early as 4,000 years ago.
Since the 1970s, the two communist powers have thrice battled: over the Paracel Islands, which China took over in 1974; in reprisal for Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979; and a 1988 skirmish over the disputed Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands. Moreover, the staunchly independent and anti-colonial Vietnamese, who defeated French colonizers in 1954, have never been one to rely on foreign powers for security, especially a former adversary like America.
The Philippines’ defenseless posture
In contrast to Vietnam, the Philippines has depended on imperial powers for external defense since it became a Spanish outpost in the 16th Century. Even after American forces exited Clark and Subic in 1991, the former US colony failed to beef up its defense, despite billions of pesos earmarked for upgrading from the sale of bases land.
Under the Aquino administration, the country looks set to reprise its past role as Washington’s main military staging ground in Asia. With the increased deployment of American vessels and aircraft within the Philippines now under discussion, the Philippines will apparently be hosting most of the 60% in US naval assets which President Barack Obama wants to shift to the region.
And while American diplomats and military brass constantly deny seeking permanent bases, in fact, the constant rotation of nuclear-armed aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and warplanes in the archipelago is enough to turn the Philippines into a strategic threat against China and North Korea, which are well within nuking range from the country.
Now, if America and Russia get embroiled in a European war, expect Moscow to tap its friends in Beijing for some kind of support, as they have repeatedly given each other in global issues. And if China lines up with Russia in the world balance of power, the Philippines, if it hosts the main US forces in Asia, could end up on the frontlines of a new East-West geopolitical rivalry.
All that for Washington’s yet-unproven support in asserting Manila’s sovereignty over faraway islands in the “West Philippine Sea.”]