Asia’s Cauldron – the South China Sea

The past 5 years have shown China’s ‘peaceful rise’ to be a fallacy of composition. While Zheng Bijiang tried to convince the world that restraint and respect would characterise the strategic side of China’s economic ascendancy- heping jueqi, events on the ground, and at sea, have shown that Napoleons dragon has awoken.

The Celestial Empires maritime diplomacy has led to regional states calling for the intervention of international law to protect their interests, regional security arrangements have been growing in scope and frequency, and Pacific Command is enjoying a new found strategic purpose after 15 long years of maintaining the post-Cold War humanitarian agenda. While the joke about a Chinese takeover of Taiwan as a “million man swim” has lost its momentum, China’s naval expansion has not- growing in leaps and bounds over the past two decades, and for the first time posing a clear challenge to the American navy.


Chinese maritime and territorial claims have upset the diplomatic equilibrium in the region; the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Kuala Lumpur saw the bloc voice criticism of China’s strategic agendas in the South China Sea. This is in contrast to ASEAN’s generally positive relations with China in the post-Cold War and post 1997 Asian financial crisis era, with a few exceptions of course. The 2013 Summit also saw criticism of China. ASEAN is made up of 10 member states; Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The PRC has been claiming both territory and rights over the South China Sea, bringing it into conflict with other SE Asian nations asserting sovereign control over these same islands, reefs and water ways.

While the summit agenda concerned mainly inter-ASEAN affairs, some member states, notably the Philipines, urged that the issue of Chinese maritime claims be resisted. These long simmering tensions run parallel to deepening levels of commercial intercourse between China and ASEAN members including the China-ASEAN free trade agreement and now the Maritime Silk Road Concept.

The 26th summit of the Association of Southeast Nations included discussion of, and statements in support of of issues that have been on the agenda for some time now,  such as a common time zone, climate change and disaster relief plans as well as efforts towards stronger levels of economic integration between its 10 member states. What was notable however was a statement by summit chair Malaysia;

“We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability.”

The reference was obviously aimed at China which has made impressive gains in cementing its control over islands and reefs in the sea, at the expense of its neighbours. The criticism is consistent with ASEAN’s goal of “centrality”, which includes strategic dimensions according to the RAND corporations Peter Chalk,

“The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has declared its intent to establish a fully integrated Community that extends across the economic, political, security and social realms by the end of 2015. Such a regional arrangement would, for the first time, provide the countries of Southeast Asia with a single regime of intergovernmental collaboration that can be used to draft, implement and refine joint policies and courses of action. That would greatly facilitate future proactive planning and aid the development of comprehensive and codified forms of supranational cooperation and governance.

The main aim of those changes is to better situate ASEAN to achieve its core goal of “centrality” — a term coined to emphasize how internal cohesion can be leveraged to both advance economic progress and manage the Association’s relations with external partners.”

ASEAN’s rotating chair is currently held by Malaysia with PM Najib Razak maintaining a careful balancing act between ASEAN interests and the PRC. China has significant maritime disputes with Vietnam,  Malaysia and the Philippines in the South China Sea, not excluding the Natuna Islands and Taiwan.

Recent satellite images show significant progress has been made in the construction of Chinese logistical installations such as the soon-to-be-completed 3000m runway on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratley Islands. A second runway appears to be in the mix for the Subu reef, with Chinese dredgers moving  millions of tons of sand from the sea floor atop reefs and smaller islands, making them large enough to be strategically useful.

Projected stationary aircraft carrier

Above: China’s stationary aircraft carrier in the South China Sea: Woody Island, part of the Paracel archipelago.

Below: Another runway at Fiery Cross reef in the Spratleys. China aims for air and naval control of the South China Sea.

Amongst those states with competing claims on the South China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam have been the most vocal and proactive, respectively. The Philippines called on ASEAN to “finally stand up” to China and demand and end to reclamation efforts; China responded by calling these demands “unreasonable”, clearly a snub to these states territorial rights and China’s disdain thereof.

All this is taking place at a time when the same states that buy Kilo Class submarines to resist the PLA are also taking steps towards greater commercial intercourse with the PRC; the past 15 years have seen trade between ASEAN and China have increase by over 500%. The Asean – China Free Trade Area which came into affect in 2010 has however been criticised as being a one-sided deal favouring China; in effect making ASEAN a “a dumping ground for China’s extremely competitive industrial and agricultural sectors”. But business is booming and while commercial links do buy China alot of sway within Asean, but perhaps China forgets the way that domestic politics often force foreign policy issues, to its disadvantage.


China’s relations with Vietnam have long been in the spotlight: the 2014 oil rig incident showed the extent to which both states stuck to their guns over their respective claims in the South China sea. Recent developments indicate a possible thawing of tensions: the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), Nguyen Phu Trong was invited to Bejing in April by President Xi Jinping with the stated aim of improving relations via direct party to party talks.

The Chinese newspaper Xinhua wrote that Trongs visit indicated the growing strength of China-Vietnam relations, based on “geographic proximity, economic complementarity, cultural affinity and ideological similarity” and that no outside power will “drive a wedge between them”.

China seeks a resolution of territorial disputes via bilateral negotiations while Vietnam seeks to bring international law into the equation, justifying its sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea and Paracel islands according to conventions established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Stratfor analyst Robert Kaplan. author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific Asia’s cauldron writes that “I was repeatedly counseled on Chinese grand strategy, which is, according to the Vietnamese, to postpone all multilateral discussions with ASEAN of South China Sea disputes while Beijing gets strong militarily, and, in the meantime, to extract concessions from individual Southeast Asian nations through bilateral negotiations – divide and conquer, in other words.”

Vietnam, which has fought numerous wars and skirmishes with China including a skirmish over the Paracel Islands in 1974-which it lost,maintains a fierce independence, refusing to defer to its giant neighbour on these matters. Vietnam’s significant arms purchases and courting both America and Russia testify to the proactive strategy being employed to offset a Sinic hegemony in the neighbourhood.

Kaplan quotes a American official as estimating that “If China can break off Vietnam they’ve won the South China Sea, Malaysia is lying low, Brunei has solved its problems with China, Indonesia has no well-defined foreign policy on the subject, the Phillipines has few cards to play despite that country’s ingenious boisterousness and incendiary statements, Singapore is capable but lacks size.”

Global Order

In the Red Menace I speculated about how Russia’s takeover of the Crimean peninsula – the de-facto territorial expansion of a 21st century sovereign state operating within the dictates of the Westphalian System, threatened world order. The BBC’s Bill Hayton wrote recently that understanding why the United States is so concerned about events in the South China Sea requires us to keep two things in mind; one is the dispute about “which country owns the features that dot its waters.” and the other  “more critical dispute is about the future of the international system that has run the world since the end of World War Two.What international rules should countries follow and who should make them?”

Chine rejects a resolution of the South Sea disputes via UNCLOS for example – an institution it sees as bringing foreign notions of order to bear. I imagine the Chinese see International Law as an inferior product created out of the wreck of an exhausted Europe and ascendant America that has been developed over a century, and a product which is inimical to Chinese national interest, perhaps best exemplified by the continuing independence of Taiwan whose sovereignty has been legally sanctioned by a Westphalian world order.

Henry Kissinger writes in his 2014 World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History that

“Every international order must sooner or later face the impact of two tendencies challenging its cohesion: either a redefinition of legitimacy or a significant shift in the balance of power. The first tendency occurs when the values underlying international arrangements are fundamentally altered-abandoned by those charged with maintaining them or overturned by revolutionary imposition of an alternative concept of legitimacy.”

What this now order will be remains unclear but it is interesting to note that the Free Market is essentially facilitating China’s great power capacities, guaranteeing a powerful rival. Whereas Carl Schmitt criticised the Weimar Constitution with its loss of the ‘concept of the political’ leading to its ultimate demise as it allowed the Nazi’s to seize power using constitutional means, today we have an American led order rooted across the North Atlantic which is allowing a massive East Asian power to emerge using the means provided by itself, such as access to capital, technology transfer, and market access. Edward Luttwak writes that

“The great flow of technology transfers to China is in turn merely a subset of the unbalanced U.S.-China economic relationship as a whole, which is beneficial for Americans as consumers, borrowers, and financiers above all, while being harmful to Americans as workers and producers, but which is evidently so beneficial to the Chinese that it shapes the entire “American policy” of the CCP, with the overriding aim of perpetuating that unbalanced economic relationship for as long as possible, or rather until China emerges as the richer and more advanced country.

“. . . the best evidence is the China policy of the U.S. Treasury, which seeks to perpetuate exactly the same unbalanced economic relationship, in spite of the deindustrialization caused by the chronic trade deficit in manufactured goods. Objectively, if not subjectively, the U.S. Treasury, under its current leadership as before, actively favors China’s economic growth and technological advancement –having no departmental responsibility, or perceptible concern, for the inevitable relationship between China’s overall economic and technological capacity and its resulting military aggrandizement. That is simply not part of the Treasury brief, and there has been no presidential intervention to make it so. . .”

The interesting thing about China’s response to its neighbours quarrelsomeness is its use of economic incentives to draw these states into deeper levels of interdependence with China. This seems to be a strategic response to an unfavourable regional climate: consider Kissinger’s observation that “The geopolitical challenge of every major Asian nation, including China, is not so much how to conquer neighbours as how to prevent these neighbours from combining against it”.

Chinese belligerence has generated plenty of heat: the enemy of my enemy is my friend logic sees the United States rebuilding relations with those who have the short stick in the affair – Vietnam kicked the Americans out in 1975, now they are finding common interest in cooperation; Vietnam and the Philippines have announced a strategic partnership; the Philippines kicked the Americans out in 1992, now are welcoming them back; a recent RAND report sees Chinese belligerence as providing useful opportunities for the United States.

To counter this, China is trying to reconfigure the commercial lifelines in the region by drawing in its neighbours via ever increasing levels of trade and channelling this network along two new proposals; the overland “Silk Road Economic Belt” plan through inner -Asia and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” linking China and its SE Asian partners to Europe via the Middle East and India. Rodger Baker writes that “Today, there are two primary concerns driving Chinese maritime activity: economic resources and strategic access.”It appears the superpower has figured that by creating an interdependent hub and spokes configuration with China at the centre- the first pillar of its regional hegemony will be cemented; economic- with political and strategic leadership to follow.

One problem is, as Chinese economist Angang Hu puts it; China’s strategy of becoming the worlds manufacturing center is based on a “half open model,” that is, “open or free trade on the export side and protectionism on the import side.”


Kissinger writes in World Order that “Of all conceptions of world order in Asia, China operated the longest lasting, the most clearly defined, and the one furthest from Westphalian ideas.” Sovereign equality has no roots in the geopolitical cosmology of the region: Kissinger speaks of an order between China and its neighbours being characterized by hierarchy, deference, and tribute: South and East Asian states, from Japan to Cambodia were historically part of a “Sinocentric” tribute system which saw wealth and trade benefits flow into the Celestial Empire. Free trade “on the export side and protectionism on the import side” is naturally consistent with a tributary ideology.

He writes that “Asian peoples accepted the premises and protocol of the tribute system-a symbolic subordination to the Chinese Emperor by which Chinese protocol ordered the universe-labelling their trade as “tribute” to gain access to Chinese markets. They respected (at least in their exchanges with the Chinese court) the Confucian concept of international order as a familial hierarchy with China as the patriarch.”

If the real questions are what “international rules should countries follow and who should make them?” then what can we expect from China? If the “half open model” is any guide, then the tribute system might well resonate with the ambitions of a Chinese elite who feel justified in their pursuit of regional hegemony by the facts, or interpretation of history. China obviously feels no need to treat the other claimant states of the South China Sea as equals. Its “revolutionary imposition of an alternative concept of legitimacy” is a challenge to international law and order as we know it. According to Kissinger, Chinese world sense of world order reflects “a universal hierarchy, not an equilibrium of competing sovereign states”. This is of course a description of the de facto state of affairs in the world today: America at the top, Haiti at the bottom, and everyone else in-between. Giving states a podium, or modicum of sovereign equality does not translate into fair dealings in the international system – the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must said Thucydides.

China knows that by taking the South China Sea, it has broken the rules, and by breaking them – can change them.  They know and understand that much of what currently goes as operative world order reflects not a pure and rational political philosophy giving rights to all equally, but rather the interests and culture of the western hemisphere, and that China deserves a proactive voice in shaping a new international system.

D.S. Hurrell

Featured image from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/9c/1941_China_from_the_East.jpg/800px-1941_China_from_the_East.jpg

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