South China Sea Heating Up

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“War: a massacre of people who don’t know each other for the profit of people who know each other but don’t massacre each other.”

Paul Valery

Commentary & Analysis

South China Sea Heating Up

Despite the UN tribunal ruling that China has “no legal basis” for its expansive claims in the South China Sea, China is digging in and saying they refuse to accept the decision. [Bill Haden. The South China Sea, Yale University Press.]

From local schoolroom to national museum the leadership has worked to instill the notion that China’s modern history was shameful until the Party took over. While much of the message is about taking pride in the country’s contemporary achievements, it’s underpinned by a sense of personal violation at the dismemberment of the country’s national territory and the collective violation of the Chinese people at the hands of foreigners. This narrative, in turn, now underpins mainstream discussion of territorial issues.

“The 4m sq km sea is crossed by ships carrying $5tn worth of cargo every year and also has large energy reserves, including an estimated 11bn barrels of oil and 190tn cubic feet of natural gas,” according to the Financial Times.

There is a lot at stake here. But China has legitimate strategic rationales for pressing its questionable claims, which suggest its goals won’t change despite a UN ruling. [Bill Haden. The South China Sea, Yale University Press.]

Broadly speaking, there are four main strands to China’s interests: a sense of historic entitlement to the South China Sea combined with a desire for national prestige, the need for ‘strategic depth’ to protect China’s coastal cities, the desire to guarantee strategic access to the open waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans, and the wish to have access to the resources of the Sea itself – particularly its fish and hydrocarbons.

China’s rise also suggests the South China Sea conflict will be part and parcel to political-military discussions/actions for years to come and keep policy wonks and the US Pacific Command busy for some time [John Mersheimer, Can China Rise Peacefully?, The National Interest, Oct. 2014]:

Offensive realism offers important insights into China’s rise. My argument in a nutshell is that if China continues to grow economically, it will attempt to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. The United States, however, will go to enormous lengths to prevent China from achieving regional hegemony. Most of Beijing’s neighbors, including India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, and Vietnam, will join with the United States to contain Chinese power. The result will be an intense security competition with considerable potential for war. In short, China’s rise is unlikely to be tranquil.

Many US strategists tell us the islands being built up by China have no real military consequence—they cannot be defended. But there is a strategic vision here, it seems.

In his brilliant book, titled, On China, Henry Kissinger used board games as examples of competing strategic vision among China and the West.

China plays wei qi; which translates into the “game of surrounding pieces” (pronounced “way chee” and in Japan known as Go). This game is about “the concept of strategic encirclement.”

“Chess, on the other hand, is about total victory,” says Kissinger. “The vast majority of games end in total victory achieved by attrition or, more rarely, a dramatic, skillful maneuver.

So, “if chess is about the decisive battle, wei qi is about the protracted campaign. The chess player aims for total victory. The wei qi player seeks relative advantage. In chess, the player always has the capability of the adversary in front of him; all the pieces are always fully deployed. The wei qi player needs to assess not only the pieces on the board but the reinforcements that adversary is in a position to deploy.

So let’s think of the South China Sea as a broadening encirclement strategy by China towards its South China Sea neighbors and also a test of the West’s resolve, resources, and commitment to its allies in the region.

The West is about Clausewitz and China is about Sun Tzu. Game on says Mr. Haden.

Two strategic imperatives and many regional interests collide in the South China Sea. The dispute is so dangerous because it crystallises two nations’ ideas of who they are. Both the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China are founded upon, and their elites are imbued with, a mighty sense of purpose. For China’s Communist Party rulers, legitimacy comes from a history of anti-imperialist struggle and an ongoing campaign to recover territories hacked from the national corpus by colonists and traitors. However historically mistaken the belief, those territories include the Sea. The United States’ elite has an implicit belief in its manifest destiny too: America as an ‘exceptional country’, the world’s ‘last best hope’, an ‘indispensable power’, an upholder of the norms and rules of the international system. The South China Sea is the first place where those norms and rules are being challenged. If the United States loses access to those waters it loses its global role and becomes just another power. The shock would be profound and the consequences for American identity, prosperity and security devastating. It could be something worth fighting for. And, as we shall see, plans are already being made.

Thus, there are reasons the US is growing closer to the Philippines and Japan. And why we will likely see a change in Japan’s pacifist constitution, especially now that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gained power in the recent elections.

The Chinese government has used the islands before to stoke nationalism. We saw this back in 2010 and again in 2012 during the protests in China over the Senkaku and Dioyu Islands.

Another well-known television pundit is Air Force Colonel Dai Xu. On 28 August 2012, the Global Times published an article of Dai’s calling Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan ‘the three running dogs of the United States in Asia’. ‘We only need to kill one, and it will immediately bring the others to heel,’ he claimed.

Now that Brexit is off the front burner, China may be back on. One major implication: If China presses this issue now, it will not be good for the global economy. It will exacerbate trade tensions and investment flow into, and out hot money out of, China. We are keeping an eye on the yuan—which as you can see in the chart below has weakened sharply against the US dollar (with potential for a lot more)—putting pressure on export competitors in Asia and elsewhere.