West Pacific Zone Of Peace
By Niloufer Bhagwat
In recent decades the West Pacific Region has contributed overwhelmingly to the rapid economic development of the continent of Asia and to global trade, and today is as vital a region for Asian and global economic growth and prosperity as the Eastern Pacific seaboard of the United States of America once was for the continent of North America and International trade. The United Nations Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in its 2011 Review on Maritime Transport highlighted, that almost half of the world’s annual seaborne trade in 2010 passed through the Strait of Malacca which runs between Indonesia , Malaya and Singapore and through the neighboring Straits of Sunda and Lombok to the South China Sea and beyond, and that “as the entire region’s economy continues to expand so will the importance of the Malacca Strait for Asia and for global trade”.
It is this region of the Western Pacific and the Indian Subcontinent, with its offshore island territories of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Andaman Sea, with the nearest geographical feature of these island territories, the Indira Point, only 90 miles to the North of the Western entrance to the Malacca straits connecting the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, which was historically the prize in Asia for Western trading Companies initially seeking trade and thereafter colonial control and military occupation of the region , as it was easier to accumulate capital from the enormous resources and labor of captive nations, a historical inequity necessary to overcome with technological advances, rapid inclusive development protecting the habitat and the ecology of the region, while preserving the rich biodiversity, fishing resources and the cultural heritage of diverse nations and peoples inhabiting this vast region.
120,000 Ships annually pass through the Malacca Straits including tankers and container ships carrying oil and gas, commodities and manufactured products , evidence of the importance of the region as a “major gateway for trade to and from Asia “ and the world’s “second busiest waterway”. Half of the world’s maritime trade transits annually through the South China Sea in the West Pacific region, According to the August 11, 2017 survey by the website Total Energy titled “The Strait of Malacca a Key Oil Trade Chokepoint, Linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans”, “nearly one third of the 61% of total global production of petroleum and other liquid fuel products moved on Maritime routes in 2015 transited through the Strait of Malacca ,the second largest Oil trade choke point after the Strait of Hormuz. Petroleum and other liquids transiting through the Strait of Malacca increased for the fourth time in the five years up to 2016; nearly 16 million barrels of oil per day (b/d) passed through the Malacca Straits the shortest sea route between the Persian Gulf, Africa and the Asian Markets in the West Pacific. That is approximately 19 times the amount of oil that transits through the Panama Canal and four times the volume that transit through the Suez Canal .The major economies of the region, of critical importance to the global economy namely China, Japan and South Korea in that order, are dependent for the bulk of their fuel supplies on the sea routes this region. The countries of this region are also India’s leading trade partners.
The economic and productive importance of this region was calculated and researched by American and European Transnational and Multinational Companies, Banks and financial institutions outsourcing their operations to the West Pacific from the nineteen seventies and by other major Companies from within the Asian Continent, relocating manufacturing units to this region deriving enormous profits from the cheap and efficient labor arbitrage; repatriating a large percentage of their profits to their home countries under bilateral agreements. Several countries from the region of the West Pacific have been integrated into the maze of manufacturing networks and supply chains which extends from China, Japan and South Korea to ASEAN extending all along the West Pacific. It would not be an exaggeration to state that popularity of the products of these Companies sold as brands in the global markets was contributed to by the human resources of the people of the countries of the West Pacific who have regrettably received only a miniscule fraction of the price of their products sold in Western and International markets The countries which became the bases for the outsourcing in this region expended substantial local resources in the production process, despoiling waterways, large tracts of agricultural land and forests cleared by Companies depriving millions of their habitat, causing widespread ecological devastation, an aspect wholly ignored in the propaganda of the trade wars. Hundreds of Western and Asian Companies manufacturing from the West Pacific have been disproportionately enriched the inevitable outcome of an economic system, of Corporations chasing higher profits, their economies of scale dictating their drive for cheaper labor for unconscionable enrichment which is integral to the dominant economic policy and its model of development and not related to any secret conspiracy.
This West Pacific has not been without its share of brutal wars, genocide and conflicts. However after the defeat of the United States of America in Vietnam, and the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, the countries of this region have in recent decades been relatively free from war and strife barring the tensions in the Korean Peninsula, the Rohingya issue, a few local insurgencies and terrorism, sometimes directly related to internal economic and ethnic political discontent which needs to be addressed politically, as economic and social inequities and injustice can only secure an uneasy truce and not peace within a country which impacts the wider region. While highlighting inter State geopolitical issues we neglect political, economic and social injustices within a country and region, which are as important as external security issues to preserve peace and amity within countries for overall harmony and to protect countries of the region from the intermeddling of extra regional powers waiting for a pretext to intervene to establish a foothold .
Broadly the Security challenges to the region arise from, foreign military bases and military exercises targeting countries in the region; the apprehension of blockade of trade routes in the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea; maritime boundary disputes between China and a few countries of ASEAN; maritime boundary disputes between China and Japan, between South Korea and Japan ;weapons proliferation and militarization; piracy ( now increasingly under control) natural disasters and disasters caused by severe environmental and ecological damage to forestry, local habitat and agriculture in the region by mining and other Transnational companies resulting in massive landslides; and extensive human trafficking, primarily in women and children tragically a major problem both in the West Pacific region as in South Asia, a direct consequence of extreme poverty and government neglect to protect its most vulnerable citizens from being traded in.
The South China Sea and other maritime boundary disputes are a source of serious potential conflict in the region. Undoubtedly maritime boundaries have been difficult to demarcate in view of island territories of several countries in the region ,with conflicting claims by China and the countries of ASEAN namely Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei and by Japan and South Korea; despite these differences and the fact that some of the claims of the Peoples Republic of China are not in conformity with the Law of the Sea Convention to which China is a signatory; to their credit all the governments in the West Pacific region have shown remarkable restraint,and continue diplomatic negotiations. ASEAN and China have negotiated the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea ( CEUS) to reduce incidents between Navies of these countries in the South China Sea and its vicinity, and in future the Code of Conduct is proposed to be extended even to the Coast Guard. This Code of Conduct is not yet legally enforceable but an important beginning as it includes the establishment of hotlines for communications to avoid incidents at sea. China and Japan have also established a hotline to avoid confrontation at sea. The positive outcome of such negotiations to avoid confrontation improves the prospects for co-operation between these countries improving the prospects for peace with harmony, a direct consequence of mature diplomacy as a consequence of which except minor skirmishes at sea , belligerency has so far been avoided. The West Pacific is an important industrial and manufacturing region of Asia, with most countries in the region linked to a vast network of manufacture related supply chains; this economic interdependence has actively contributed to a negotiated reduction of tensions, despite the Arbitration Award of the Tribunal constituted under the Law of the Sea Convention supporting the claim of the Philippines, in which proceedings China declined to participate, yet in the aftermath of the Award both the Philippines and China have refrained from hostilities to enforce claims.
The real clear and present danger to the West Pacific region lies in the hostile competition between rising and declining major global powers, and their competitive trade wars initiated by the President of the United States, wholly ignoring the reality that US Companies had pivoted to China for economic reasons, and formal commercial negotiation commenced with President Nixon’s visit to China in 1971 with an offer which China did not decline. That is the real history of the outsourcing of manufacture. It was as vital for enriching US Companies and the consumer society of the United States of America, as the Petro-dollar deal with South Arabia and other Gulf Emirates. For the period of this US-China co-operation, after the withdrawal from Vietnam and the defeat of the Pol Pot regime, there was relative peace in the region, barring the Korean Peninsula, though not elsewhere in the world.
It is in the context of this historical backdrop and the decline in the economy of the United States of America and the increasing economic and strategic importance of this region of the West Pacific for both rising and declining powers, that the former President of the United States of America announced that the United States of America was ‘pivoting’ to the Asia-Pacific region, now referred to by the US administration as “rebalancing”, even though the United States has always had major military bases in the region even before the ‘Pivot’, and a total of 386,000 USA military personnel were already in the Asia–Pacific region and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreements were in place with a few countries in the West Pacific as indicated in the Report on Asia Pacific Maritime Security Strategy of the USA.
This ‘Pivot ‘to Asia has been received with mixed reactions from the people of the countries of the West Pacific, historically the victims of a fierce military conflict for resources in the West Pacific sector during the Second World War between the United States and its allies and Japan which devastated most countries in the region, This pronouncement has exacerbated militarization, as the People’s Republic of China thereafter urgently prioritized the modernization of its military, which had been given a lower priority during the period of thaw between the United States of America and the Peoples Republic of China , a period during which China was granted most favored nation status by the United States of America and American Companies pivoted or outsourced to China. The maritime trade route of this region through the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea is the lifeline for China’s fuel supplies and trade. However the peaceful navigation through this sea route in the West Pacific is equally vital for the fuel supplies and maritime trade routes for Japan and South Korea ( Republic of Korea) and now increasingly for India with some of its largest trading partners in the region of the West Pacific. Both Japan and South Korea have in the period after the Second World War and the Korean war hosted US military bases, and both Japan and India in recent years have accelerated military acquisitions and modernization, and have defense and related agreements with the United States of differing degrees of co-operation, with Japan having an earlier closer strategic relationship with the United States dating back to its occupation in the Second World War. India signed a Indo-US Defense Framework Agreement for the first time in 2005, and has accelerated defense co-operation in recent years . India is also a full-fledged member of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization. Both India and Japan are members of the Quadlateral of four powers, namely the US, Japan, India and Australia which attempts to counter the maritime strategy of China. Military agreements in the West Pacific and counter strategies inevitably contribute to increasing the tensions in the region, though it must be said to the credit of all the governments that in recent months the Peoples’ Republic of China, Japan, India, North and South Korea, ASEAN among others in the region have preferred the route of diplomatic negotiations to resolve differences, understanding the need to give priority to trade and economic relations in the overall interests of the development in the region, conscious of the mobilization and pressure of their citizens for just and inclusive economic policies and development as the priority issues with no support among citizens for the war mongers of the region. Logically there can be no rapid and inclusive development without harmonization of conflicting interest in the region, which is the only way forward.
The militarization of the West Pacific is not in the interest of the people of the region or of the people of the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, of ASEAN or India or any other country in the region, as all major powers including the United States have hundreds of Companies and major Banks and Financial Institutions embedded in the West Pacific region from one country to another, and derive economic benefits from manufacture and trade relations with the countries of this region.
The initiatives taken by states in the region to institutionalize peace and co-operation have been commendable, including the South East Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty, and multilayered agreements decreasing tensions created for co-operation and resolution of disputes despite the competitive militarization in and around this region. The countries of the ASEAN are at the core of the West Pacific region’s consistent emphasis on trade and economic development though it is not all equitable, balancing the interests of the major powers interacting in the West Pacific through trade and other agreements such as the proposed RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) with the ASEAN and other countries, and the proposed and modified TPP (from which the United States has withdrawn), though the impact of these proposed agreements on the economic sovereignty of the concerned countries and on the masses of working citizens is still the subject matter of serious differences, as the original TPP negotiated seeks to install an edifice and legal structures which sidestep the Constitutional framework of the countries signing the agreements and has been held by economists and citizens researching the TPP among others as detrimental to the interests of the people of these countries. Many countries of the region have also joined the Belt and Road economic initiative of the Peoples Republic of China.
The armed conflicts that we have seen in recent years in some countries of the West Pacific region arise from internal problems and the misuse of terrorism by State or non-State actors, which invite the intermeddling of external powers. The reality is that all countries in the region are not at the same level of economic and social development. Whereas a few of the countries of this region have emerged as ‘Asian Tigers’, other countries still have a backlog of poverty and development carried over from the period of colonization and neocolonialism, with substantial sections of society in some countries of the region facing serious economic deprivation and social injustice; scores of people have been arbitrarily dislocated and displaced from their natural habitat and resources by mining, plantation and other Companies, denied access to their own lands or alternative adequate resettlement and employment opportunities, with extensive environmental damage caused including by ‘haze ‘from the burning of plantations, affecting neighboring states seasonally. Sadly more people are dying from natural disasters in the region including in the more developed economies of the region than from war, including from Tsunamis not anticipated by Meteorological institutions in the region; with extensive damage from flooding, landslides and mud slides, major killers disrupting peaceful living, creating internally displaced refugees. In a few countries local discontent is sometimes camouflaged as “terrorism”, a potential for serious civil strife or conditions of a civil insurgency inviting external intervention better resolved through negotiation.
A ‘Zone of Peace’ does not envisage merely an absence of a hot war. Elimination of potential causes for conflict is essential such closure of foreign military bases and cessation of military exercises with powers external to the region and hostile to neighboring states; and ending the arms race in the region by reduction of the size of militaries and weapons arsenal.
The region’s rapid economic progress has propelled the region into the position of the world’s economic leader, though the gains of that progress have not been equitably distributed among the countries of the region and among the citizens of individual countries. War or civil strife would not only have adverse consequences for the region, and setback economic development not only in Asia but in the global economy as a whole, presently facing a severe downturn .Hot wars or trade wars and tension in the region are not even in the interest of the United States of America, the people of the USA or its Corporations. Policy makers in the United States of America may have overlooked that in recent years the trade of the United States with the West Pacific region has been greater than its trade with Europe.
In view of these realities, ensuring peace in the region is the only rational policy choice.