What the Chinese really need if they are to punch through the Chain is the Strait of Malacca, the point where Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia come together to bracket the world’s busiest trade and energy chokepoint. Securing Malacca – and let’s be blunt, this means de facto occupying Singapore and Malaysia and Indonesia – would bring the Chinese 1000 miles closer to their goals, while also crunching Japanese access to the same. (Although even then, India and Taiwan remain very much in the way.)
Still, you’ve got to start somewhere.
Don’t look for the United States to fight this.
For one, the American military bases at Hawaii, the Wake and Midway Islands, complemented by America’s still-firm military relationships with Japan, Australia and Singapore are more than ample for the Americans to project power to the Chain and the waters further west. Most of China’s navy has an operational range of no more than 1000 miles from their bases, which brings them to – but not through – the Chain. Anything short of a flat-out occupation of the Philippines in total won’t change that. Even then it would only be the very first step of a very long journey.
For two, the Americans are getting out of the global management game, so reducing their forward positions in East Asia, Europe and the Middle East is simply inevitable. Getting kicked out isn’t good optics, but as the Philippines are one of the less valuable bits, it makes sense the Americans would decamp sooner rather than later.
For three, the American-Philippine relationship has always been a bit…fraught. The Americans conquered the Philippines in the Spanish-American War of 1898, something the Philippines are of mixed minds about. America’s subsequent occupation of the place combined some of the less savory aspects of later wars in Vietnam and Iraq, making the Americans of mixed minds. Ongoing American operations against Islamic secessionists on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao are in reality one of America’s longest-ever military operations, something the Americans have long felt was simply the price having a footprint in the country. Few tears will be shed in America when the GIs come home for good. If anything, much bubbly will be popped on the hilarious day when Chinese forces wade into that absurd clusterf**k.
For four, even if the Americans were enthusiastic about staying, the Philippines have recently taken a political dive that Americans find…distasteful. Incumbent Philippine President Rodrigo Duarte is a less competent, less polite, more aggressive, more institutionally corrosive, more erratic, more violent version of Donald Trump. (Say what you will about Trump, he’s not actually calling upon his average supporter to go out and kill anyone he thinks is a problem. So far, conservatively, president-sponsored vigilante justice is directly credited for at least 5000 deaths between 2016 and 2018.) No, it isn’t the Americans you need to look to to counter this.
It’s the Japanese. While the Philippines taken alone are not a big deal, the archipelago’s flipping would represent the first real change in the region’s strategic structure since the Japanese defeat in 1945. For the US this is rather ho-hum, but the Americans don’t live in East Asia. The Japanese do. Japan’s navy could sail circles around China’s, but it operates at an extreme numerical disadvantage and its sail to strategically vital locales like the Persian Gulf are 2000-3000 miles further for the Japanese than the Chinese. Losing the Philippines isn’t a death-blow, but it certainly is a step in the wrong direction – especially if the Americans get out of the business of doing the heavy-lifting for Asian security. Expect a flotilla of Japanese diplomacy, military assistance, tech transfers and outright bribes as Tokyo attempts to pick up what the Americans are dropping.
Strategic issues aside, there is one aspect of all this the average American is likely to notice.
When the great outsourcing boom got going in the 1990s, much of the call-center work that Americans once did shifted to India, a low-wage country colonized by the Brits. Unfortunately for the Americans, many are uncomfortable with the mish-mash inflections of South Asian and British accents that makes up Indian English. But the Philippines had been a de facto American colony for a century. English-speakers in the Philippines sound much closer to the American Midwest than the rest of the world’s English speakers whose linguistic roots are much closer to the Brits. In the world of call-centers, the Indians now handle the rote technical work that is non-customer facing, while the Philippines are treasured for their people skills. That division of labor is unlikely to last should Manila go full-Beijing.
You think you hate automated call menus now, just wait for the abject horror to come…