WE Filipinos take few of our policy problems seriously. But I don’t think we can laugh off our South China Sea situation.
We got embroiled without thinking in the South China Sea land-grabs—having neither the will nor the means to defend’ our claims. (Re-naming it the ‘West Philippine Sea’ was pathetic.) But now we’re engaged, we must accept that China is deadly serious in its effort to dominate East Asia’s great inland sea.
For Beijing, the islets are above all else a security problem. China’s leaders are acutely aware that—for more than 150 years—every foreign intrusion into a declining Chinese empire has come from the sea.
Defense in depth
Nowadays, carrier-borne aircraft have a long attack distance, so they must be countered with deep defense in depth. Chinese ships and planes will need the islets to reach out into the Western Pacific—to meet any threat to China’s 18,000-kilometer coastline and its exposed industrial heartland. Right now, PLA aircraft patrolling the area must refuel while airborne.
Cultural pride is also engaged: Chinese notions of “tributary” peoples taking advantage of the momentary weaknesses of the once and future “Central Kingdom.” Even on his death bed, Mao Zedong involved himself in the flash conflict that seized the Paracels from the Vietnamese in 1975.
Century of humiliations
Nations typically use episodes of past greatness to prop up their present-day weaknesses. Counter-intuitively, Chinese public intellectuals are building on the Confucian concept of humiliation as their spur to action.
They’re focused on China’s “century of humiliations” at the hands of the Great Powers—counting from the First Opium War with Britain (1840-42)—to “rejuvenate” their country from its period of “decline, foreign occupation, civil war, state repression, and revolution.”
After nearly two generations of growth on a scale and speed the modern world has never known, China is reclaiming—as its due—its place as a power of the first rank.
And it isn’t just regional eminence that China seeks, but parity with the American global power. Beijing’s diplomacy is starting to contest Washington’s influence in the Middle East, the Arab world, Africa and even Latin America.
China’s foreign investments are winning it allies in countries where western business fears to tread. Beijing is apparently the largest investor in five of the ten economically riskiest countries.
Beijing is also financing the BRICS powers’ project of a “Third World” lender to rival the western IMF-WB combine in funding regional infrastructure. Already it has floated the idea of a railway network to develop the Amazon River basin.
Meanwhile President Xi Jinping himself is promoting a latter-day “Silk Road” to unite the Asian continent overland. Not incidentally, such a Road will mitigate the US containment of Beijing’s China Sea frontage.
In his continuing series of shirtsleeve summits with President Obama, President Xi is reported to be frank, direct, business-like. He wants the US to acknowledge China’s emergence as an equally great power—with a rightful role in “shaping new global rules and norms.”
Xi speaks of building “strategic reassurance,” “respect for each other’s ‘core interests’ ” and recognition of each other’s “spheres of influence.”
As we may expect, these talking points are not to the established power’s liking. For Washington, they claim too much too early for the rising power. To China’s closest neighbors, they’re in fact ominous—in the light of Beijing’s violations of its own guarantees to the former British colony of Hong Kong. Hence, shirtsleeve diplomacy hasn’t met East Asia’s initial expectations.
Just as worrisome, US governance seems impaired by dysfunctions in a multiracial society riven by inequalities of wealth and life-opportunity. In national politics, demagogues speak the rage and bigotry of ill-educated whites who have lost their jobs to globalization. Though “wealthy, powerful and technologically proficient,” America seems to have slipped its moral moorings.
The Columbia University economist Jeffrey D. Sachs feels “the ferocity of the quest for wealth has left Americans exhausted and deprived of the benefits of social trust, honesty and compassion.”
The Nobel Prizer Paul Krugman worries about rising racism, even as society’s demographic profile is shifting. And the journalist David Halberstam cites the “arrogance” of the foreign-policy establishment, “which rarely acknowledges the limits to US power.”
Over the medium term, East Asia must prepare for a recession of American power—and the relative rise of Chinese influence.
Certainly the US will maintain its Asia-Pacific presence—and in its own interest—since no coalition of middle powers can equal the potential weight of the homogeneous Chinese people. (Trans-Pacific trade should also continue to attract US business; it has surpassed trans-Atlantic trade since 1980.)
But the US will less and less be able—and willing—to bear by itself the burden of preserving the bubble of stability that has made East Asia the world’s fastest-growing region.
New power balance
The US think tank RAND suggests the US will be unable to defend Taiwan by 2020; and a more recent survey for the Defense Department says China should have several carrier strike groups by 2030. For the US coalition, the loss of Taiwan will breach the “Great Wall in Reverse” that now prevents China’s access to the Pacific and the world ocean.
Certainly any China Sea settlement must take account of Beijing’s legitimate security—and economic— apprehensions, concerns and interests—not just in East Asia’s inland sea but in the Pacific Basin as well.
The new regional power balance must include Japan, a unified Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia—perhaps even a renascent Philippines, for we’re no longer a cipher in the regional reckoning. We’re a nation of over a hundred million.
Australia and India too have extensive East Asian interests. Already Delhi is being spooked by Chinese nuclear submarines operating in the Bay of Bengal that India (itself a nuclear power) regards as its strategic backyard.
Resolution of the US- China relationship is critical. If the two powers haven’t yet overcome their strategic mistrust, they seem to have accepted they have differences they could not resolve overnight.
On this basis, they can start working together on global problems—climate change being the most salient—that no single power can resolve by itself.
Certainly global economic governance on the G-20 model will require China’s participation. The IMF suggests China’s GDP may have already surpassed that of the US in purchasing-power parity in 2014. China also leads in the export of high technology and green energy.
A Deng Xiaoping solution
Over these next 10-15 years, the task for our statesmen must be to replace the American peace that has enforced stability in this region with a Pacific peace founded on the balance of mutual benefit.
And a constructive Chinese role in organizing a Pax Pacifica would show off China’s willingness to be the “responsible stakeholder” Washington challenges Beijing to become.
The middle powers must pull their weight in unison; and their goal should be a compromise between the US and this resurgent China. And, in my view, the best approach is still what Deng Xiaoping—the architect of China’s rise—advocated:
The claimant states should shelve the issue of sovereignty for a later time; demilitarize the disputed areas; and develop in partnership the resource areas they claim competitively; and let mutual benefit—and time—ease the national passions the rival claims have raised.
The foreseeable future
Over the foreseeable future, we in East Asia must co-exist with a China driving for great-power status—a Japan nurturing a resurgent nationalism—and an America continuing to assert its Asia-Pacific role.
The scale of its military spending attests to the US determination not to be overtaken by any other power—or even combination of powers.
The Asean states—if they are to cope with this emerging configuration of regional power—must become more closely integrated, economically and politically.