The United States is facing a number of potential headaches in the Asia-Pacific region. The key long-term strategic setback the super power may suffer from is a rising China, pushing the U.S. out of the region while expanding its own influence. China lusts for a blue water navy capable of projecting power beyond its shores. Accomplishing this while simultaneously building a stronger set of interdependent relations with its smaller Asian neighbors could result in America’s strategic retreat from the region under Chinese pressure.Unforced errors by China’s government in the South China Sea have created new worries about what a muscular China may look like for smaller Asia-Pacific nations, if they don’t find a way to tame China with the U.S. less than fully attentive to the ongoing diplomacy and military skirmished between China and it’s smaller neighbors.
In the mid-range time span, the United States could be dealing with a nuclear-armed, unhinged leadership apparatus in North Korea, destabilizing regional affairs through its threats, use of force, or even a possible collapse. A collapse of the North Korean state could set off a humanitarian crisis that destabilizes the entire peninsula. Currently, America may not face any imminent existential threat from either China or North Korea, but there is a problem faced by all nations in the Asia-Pacific: piracy. Piracy in the Strait of Malacca is a threat to commerce and the vitality of the sea lanes, for all Pacific powers.
Connecting the Indian and Pacific Ocean, the Strait of Malacca has for centuries acted as a commercial hub and strategic focal point of empires both near and abroad. From the Portuguese and Dutch to the British and American, every major naval power has held or coveted those who hold these waterways. Fifty percent of the world’s merchant fleet capacity is hosted at the Strait of Malacca.
Not only the very rich, but the very poor are interested in this sphere. Pirates are attracted to the sheer volume of wealth traveling on the waters. They constantly seek to evade detection and commandeer merchant ships. Major Powers have in the past come together to guard against this threat, with the United States leading the efforts by patrolling the sea lanes for international trade.
However new variables of Maritime Security are increasingly entering the equation. The balance of power in the South China Sea is shifting. In the past few years China aggressively staked out it’s claims in the South China Sea. China is in the process of a shipbuilding and acquisition craze that will result sometime in the next decade in the People’s Liberation Army Navy having more ships than the U.S. Navy.
The nations nearest and thus most effected by commercial and strategic affairs in the strait; Indonesia and Malaysia, also Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and India, watch nervously for inimical behavior by any major Pacific power, yet at the same time hope for cooperation aimed at minimizing piracy in the region.
With leadership from major powers failing, and the U.S. increasingly concerned with domestic affairs and the upcoming election season, the challenge of piracy and engendering diplomatic attention to great power relations has stalled. Smaller nations, like Indonesia and Malaysia, who are most greatly impacted by the black market trade through their waters, have taken fruitful steps towards cooperating against piracy.