In my July 4 op-ed for the Daily Herald, I introduced the concept of “backyard wars” as limited but violent expressions of ongoing rivalries between great powers. I observed that “often, and increasingly in the present era, these conflicts are fought through proxies armed and otherwise supported by rival great powers.”
Currently, what amounts to a cold war between the U.S. and China is fast heating up and approaching the stage where it too will find expression in regional backyard wars. This situation is extremely worrisome, not only because of the terrible suffering backyard wars inflict on the peoples who fight them and nations where they are fought, but also for what they portend. The problem with backyard wars is that they often don’t stay confined to their back yards: there is a tendency for them to escalate, especially when the stakes for the great powers involved are high. And the stakes for the U.S. and China are very high indeed, being nothing less than global dominance.
During a trip to Thailand in January 2018, the Near East Center for Strategic Engagement investigated the crisis in Burma, as the U.S. and many other nations officially still identify the country whose military leadership changed its name to Myanmar, and determined that, at the time of reporting, Burmese Army forces commanded by General Min Aung Hilang had conducted ethnic cleansing operations in the Arakan region against the Rhohingya and other ethnic minority groups. To date, these operations have resulted in at least 6,000 civilian casualties and the removal of another 65,000 people from their homes.
The purpose of these operations was to clear the way for a $14 billion deep water oil processing and transport facility the China International Trust Investment Corp. is constructing on the Arakan’s west coast.
Beijing has assigned Southeast Asia a critical role in the transshipment of Middle Eastern oil to China, to that end it is aggressively expanding its footprint throughout the region. In Burma, this process of expansion has taken the form of building Indian Ocean port facilities for receiving China-flagged tankers laden with crude extracted from Middle Eastern oil fields. It also entails building port refineries for processing the crude, and pipelines for moving the refined petroleum overland from the ports to China.
In undertaking these projects, the Chinese have demonstrated that they will allow no one to stand between them and the achievement of their geostrategic goals. For China the ends justify the means, which include the elimination of undesirable minority groups from their area of operations.
Nor is China concerned with the disapproval of the international community. However, they are aware of that disapproval and have taken steps to lessen it, particularly in Southeast Asia. To that end, China continues working assiduously to cultivate the favor of Southeast Asian nations and peoples. China began pacifying Southeast Asia generations ago by sending Chinese nationals to live primarily in those strategically located countries. Today, their efforts have resulted in second and in some cases fourth generations of Chinese being born as part of the fabric of those nations.
As part of this continuing effort, the Chinese are conducting a public-relations campaign in which they are presenting themselves as Southeast Asia’s friends while vilifying the U.S. and Japan. Given the baleful history of Japanese aggression in the region, coupled with the frequently problematic record of American involvement in Asian political and military affairs, the message promulgated by Beijing has gained a receptive audience.
China’s drive for superpower/hyperpower status was given a considerable boost by the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in June 2001. As noted by Le Tian and Jia Jieqiong, authors of “Infographic: A quick guide to SCO and its military cooperation,” the SCO has in the 17 years since its formation “grown into the world’s most populous and comprehensive regional organization”.
Comprising eight member states (China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), the SCO covers “three-fifths of Eurasia and [encompasses] nearly half of the world’s population,” Tian and Jieqiong note. Accordingly, it wields tremendous power on the global geopolitical stage, and this is due in large measure to its growing military capabilities. The authors describe the SCO as fundamentally a military organization, which it has been since its inception, formed by China to achieve its expansionist aims.
The U.S. has begun to counter the Chinese steps by courting North Korea, supporting the EU in their contract negotiations with Vietnam and other future labor markets in the region, giving a lead role to Japan with Iran when it comes to nuclear negotiations with countries outside of the Middle East region, and by a coordinated hard- and soft-power campaign aimed at re-establishing its formerly strong position in Asia. As the current POTUS increases sanctions on China, they will begin losing manufacturing base to Southeast Asia.
As these maturations begin squeezing China, the U.S. should conduct a “sharp power” campaign that counters China’s revisionist narrative through promoting Taiwan as the true inheritor of the tradition of World War II KMT resistance and victory over Japan, while calling attention to the CCP’s history of collaboration with the Japanese. The U.S. must begin expanding its footprint in Vietnam and Cambodia from an economic perspective to fight China’s goals in Burma to bypass the U.S. control over the Strait of Malacca and thus marginalize the U.S.’s naval ability to affect Southeast Asia by 70%.
At the same time, the U.S. should promote reconciliation between Japan and the nations of Southeast Asia, as well as Indonesia and India. This will be no easy task and will require the application of refined diplomatic skills if success is to be achieved. But the task must be undertaken, and it must be successful if the U.S. is to maintain its position in its back yard of South East Asia.
LTC Sargis Sangari, of Skokie, a retired veteran of the U.S. Army Infantry and Special Operational Forces, is CEO of the Near East Center for Strategic Engagement, a policy research institution.