In 1940, Japanese commanders decided that a future Japanese military advance across Southeast Asia could only be achieved by first acquiring the right of military transit through the French colony of Vietnam. The Japanese viewed Vietnam as a strategic pivot point, meaning Japanese forces could jump-off from Vietnam’s airfields and seaports eastward to the Philippines, southward to British Malaya, Singapore, and Dutch Java (today’s Indonesia), and westward to Thailand and Burma. Vietnam became the key to Japan’s imperial goals in Southeast Asia; without it nothing was possible, with it everything was possible.
Between August 1940 and July 1941, the Japanese negotiated with the French colonial government of Admiral Jean Decoux for access to Vietnam’s ports and airfields. Fearing a full-scale Japanese invasion of the colony unless he cooperated fully, Decoux acceded to Tokyo’s increasingly intrusive demands. By late 1941, the Japanese had unfettered access to the major seaport and airfield at Saigon. In December 1941, the Japanese sent planes, naval vessels, and troops from Saigon against Allied positions across Southeast Asia.
Following the unconditional surrender of Imperial Japan in August 1945, the British, French, and Americans re-established their military and political influence across Southeast Asia. The French deployed an expeditionary force to Tonkin, the British returned to Malaya, and the Americans again set up shop in the Philippines. Although nationalist movements eventually brought an end to Western colonialism in those areas, the West still maintained strong economic, military, and cultural ties with its former colonies in Southeast Asia.
The triumph of Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution in China in 1949 threatened the Western position in Southeast Asia much like the Japanese had in 1940 and 1941. The fervently anti-American Mao wanted to spread his revolutionary ideology and totalitarian form of governance southward through Indochina, the Malay Peninsula, and into Indonesia. Communist domination of those areas would harm not only U.S. economic interests, but also those of Japan, France, and Great Britain, three of America’s key allies in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union and Mao’s China.
In 1950, Vietnam once more became a region of vital geo-strategic importance. At the time, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh were fighting a fierce guerrilla war against France. Beijing supported the Vietminh, while Washington backed the French. The Truman administration deemed a “Free” Vietnam, meaning free of Communist influence, crucial to the security of Southeast Asia. Truman and his top advisors, including his hawkish Secretary of State Dean Acheson, believed Communist control of Vietnam would lead to the rapid destabilization and loss of the other countries of Southeast Asia.
American officials viewed a Communist Vietnam as a potential spearpoint aimed directly at the heart of Southeast Asia. Consequently, if Vietnam went Communist, all of Southeast Asia would quickly follow suit. This early articulation of the Domino Theory rested on historical and geographical reality. Vietnam had served as a military pivot point for the Japanese during World War II; and thus, it could provide that same pivot point to Ho’s armies.
From 1950 to 1975, the United States fought to prevent the spread of Communism across Southeast Asia. Vietnam became the frontline in that long war. Although the dominoes of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia did fall to the Communists in April 1975, Vietnam never became the feared jumping-off point for Communist aggression throughout Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese Communists did invade Cambodia to depose Pol Pot, but the main objective of the Vietnamese Lao Dong Party after the end of the Vietnam War was the integration and reconstruction of the South Vietnamese economy and social order. During those same years, China under Deng Xiaoping abandoned its revolutionary internationalism and focused instead on economic development. Thus, for the past four decades, peace between the Great Powers has prevailed across Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, that peace now appears to be unravelling.
For the first time in decades, China poses a threat to the sovereignty and Western-orientation of the nations of Southeast Asia. The present Chinese threat is different from Japan’s military adventurism in the 1940s and Mao’s machinations in the 1950s and 1960s. Nonetheless, the threat is real and it is growing. This time around, Vietnam is not the crucial pivot point. Rather, the region of vital strategic importance to the future of Southeast Asia is east of Vietnam in the South China Sea. It’s there that the Chinese are attempting to acquire a new geographical spear point – in the shape of the Nine Dash Line. Enclosed within the Nine Dash Line is a huge expanse of sea extending over 1,100 miles southward in a great arch from mainland China. Inside the Nine Dash Line are the Paracel and Spratly island groups, both of which are claimed by China.
In order to bolster its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and specifically the Spratly Islands, the Chinese in recent years have constructed airfields, harbors, and barracks buildings on a string of small atolls. At Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, the Chinese have built airfields capable of handling Chinese fighters and long-range bombers, including the supersonic J-16 and the slower Xian H-6.
Beijing contends that the facilities on the two reefs are strictly for peaceful purposes; but no one should be fooled by China’s dissembling. Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef are both about 300 miles east of Cam Ranh Bay and Nha Trang. It is not just a coincidence that two of China’s largest positions in the South China Sea are within striking distance of the former U.S. naval base at Cam Ranh Bay and the Vietnamese military airfield at Nha Trang. In the event of rising military tensions, or outright war, China will use the two reefs to deter or nullify the military capabilities of those Vietnamese hubs. China’s J-16 and J-11 fighter-bombers can take-off from Fiery Cross Reef and be over Cam Ranh Bay and Nha Trang in 20 minutes.
Near the north-eastern boundary of the Nine Dash Line lies Scarborough Reef. China claims it as its own. What makes Scarborough Reef so important is that it sits only 170 miles west of the naval base at Subic Bay, Philippines. If China develops facilities on Scarborough Reef, it may well have the future capability to launch cruise missiles and fighter-bombers against the Philippine and American naval vessels docked at Subic Bay.
China’s recent island building indicates that Beijing is determined to militarily dominate the South China Sea. Control of the ocean within the Nine Dash Line will give China the ability to rapidly project power southward to any region of Southeast Asia. Such a military capability will ensure that Southeast Asian nations abandon Pax Americana and gravitate militarily, economically, and culturally toward Beijing.
Why the Obama administration allowed the Chinese to strengthen their military position in the South China Sea remains a mystery. Maybe the administration hoped that rising tensions in the region would increase U.S. arms sales to the countries of Southeast Asia; or possibly, President Obama feared that a confrontation with China over its island building would have tipped the already-fragile world economy into a recession. Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain – China is not going to retreat from its outposts in the South China Sea short of war.