China in the South Sea Islands: Pride Goeth (first published 7/23/12)

This article was written just before the recent announcement by China of its intention to garrison the Paracel Islands, and should be read accordingly.

When island standoffs come once every few weeks, and the grounding of Chinese frigates on disputed shoals is the expected order of the day, the question “Why the heck does anyone care?” moves to the forefront of the minds of most reasonable observers. What the Spratleys or the Paracels actually represent to China’s foreign policy from an internal perspective is a question comparatively ignored. Of course, answers of a sort to both questions are quick to hand. Resources, national prestige. But what does that really mean?

Energy

Is the CCP so worried about the vulnerability of their energy supplies, not to mention future shortfalls as development continues, that they are consciously risking the very considerable goodwill they had amassed in the past decade of Chiang Mai currency swaps, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement and a carefully-strategized soft-power offensive on the geostrategic necessity of finding abundant, proximate oil and gas resources? There is reason to believe that China is deeply concerned about the vulnerability of its African oil supply to disruption en route through the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits. Further, the CCP has known for over a decade that it will have to dampen consumption levels and invest in sustainable technologies or risk outstripping the conceivable energy (and other) supplies available to them. However, it is quite likely that they have a few years left to go before that wall is in sight.

Prestige and Territory

East Asia is home to quite a number of ongoing territorial disputes, both maritime and continental, and China is involved in quite a few of them, yet life has somehow gone on without any hint of resolution. It could be that what China might have seen as pre-emptive actions in the region- notably Vietnam’s threat last year to grant oil concessions in the Spratleys- required a countervailing assertiveness for home consumption, and that the issue has snowballed. If this were the case, we could expect China to look for an opportunity to cool the issue down.

What Happened to the ‘Peaceful Rise’?

Why didn’t the recent ASEAN meeting show any sign of this? China wants all of these issues to be negotiated on a strictly bilateral basis. China has historically been quite careful about the limitations it might incur through multilateral commitments, and ASEAN can be said to bear much of the credit for acculturating China to the many multilateral organisations it has joined in the last decade. In the end, however, the strain of caution remains, and China may well see multilateral negotiation as a dangerous gamble particularly here, where they would have to be seen to play by ASEAN rules in the best case, and in the worst case the United States might try to muscle in, as it already has. Unfortunately, many ASEAN countries seem to have been driven beyond the point where the status quo is considered acceptable. The issue is live, and China may not be able to defuse it.

That is one interpretation. Another is that the CCP has yet again done too good a job substituting nationalism for Maoism. This has got it into trouble before. Widespread protests erupted within China in 2005 over Japan’s bid for a Security Council seat, and were immediately suppressed by an embarrassed Communist Party. It could be that popular opinion has swung through China Emergent all the way to China Triumphant. The tone of Chinese military rhetoric and building programs certainly suggests something of the kind. If so, then the secret fear of many China observers could come to pass: that a situation might develop in which the Chinese Communist Party feels that it cannot defy nationalist sentiment in the name of reason and will abandon its long policy of conflict containment in order to survive politically.

By far the worst case scenario is that the Party leadership, having decided that it cannot or will not clean up the internal corruption, political and labour scandals which have led to a constant, exponential annual increase in public protest since the 1990s, actually views these events as a useful distraction. This is the worst case, not because the Party is stirring up conflict as a distraction a la General Galtieri in the Falklands, but because if it has truly thrown in the towel and given into another generation of corruption under the Party “princelings” (and the structure of the new leadership suggests that possibility) then China surely is headed for a different kind of wall, a political wall in addition to a resource wall. It will surely take other countries with it.

The Tone of the Region is up to China

In any case, whatever the scenario we entertain, the significance of the island disputes is not in the disputes themselves- but that does not mean they are not significant. Every scenario points to the same choice. If China doesn’t find the will and the means to cool things off (and no one but China can), China may find itself crashing right through all its rhetoric of “peaceful rise” and all of its hard-won trust in the region. China can be either the nationalist bully, or the conciliatory regional power- but the choice is in play.

Afterword

When this article was first written, it concluded with the words “Hang on to your hats.” Little did it appear how apt that advice might be. The decision to garrison the Paracels comes after the installation of a municipal government for the islands’ sparse population, and announcements regarding the development of tourism and natural resources. By themselves, any of these could be seen as diplomatic manoeuvres, and the garrisoning of the islands, which were captured from South Vietnam in 1974, is not an entirely surprising extension of China’s military presence in the group. Taken together, however, all of these things indicate a disturbing assurance on the part of China that it can make a disputed island group its own simply by behaving as though it were. China either does not expect anyone to muster the force or the will to effectively contest such a policy, or wishes for such an incident in order to demonstrate the futility of any resistance to its territorial boxes.

Regardless of the military fact that China can indisputably win any conflict up to a regional war with any or all Southeast Asian countries, in either case, it is making a serious mistake. Even if everyone backs down, the results would undoubtedly polarise the region, and even if no one wanted to risk open conflict, this would be a definitive end to the friendly face of China’s rise, and the beginning of a path that might ultimately lead to a confrontation involving the United States, something that could not fail to be disastrous for everyone involved.

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