Why China will go to war for the South China Sea



DURING the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Henry Kissinger wrote an advice for policymakers in the Washington Post on how to work their way out of it. This is one of the key takeaways of that article: the West must understand the deeper significance of Ukraine for Russia (“Henry Kissinger: To settle the Ukraine crisis, start at the end,” March 5, 2014). Our decision-makers should apply that advice in our territorial conflict with China.

On February 4, 2014, in an interview with the New York Times, former President Benigno Aquino 3rd compared China to Nazi Germany. Aquino thought that China’s territorial disputes with our country is like Nazi Germany’s disputes with Czechoslovakia over the latter’s areas populated with ethnic Germans. These areas, which were known as Sudetenland, were leftovers of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which became border areas of Czechoslovakia. For Aquino, the South China Sea is this century’s Sudetenland: if China gets to do what it wants, Aquino surmised, the world would face another Nazi Germany.

The problem with the Sudetenland = South China Sea analogy is its lack of understanding of the South China Sea’s significance to China. Just like any form of historical thinking, historical analogies are supposed to help us understand the present by way of relating it to what happened in the past. In the case of historical analogues, the analogue (the past event) is used to shed light on the target. The analogy being lifted from European history rather than from China’s own history is the reason why its allure only produced a dull glint.

The South China Sea is better off understood as this century’s Shandong.

Shandong province lies in the northern coast of China. During the competition for concessions by the foreign powers in China, Germany occupied the Jiaozhou harbor in 1897. By virtue of the Convention for the Lease of Jiaozhou Bay, Germany was given the right to economically exploit Shandong province (known to Western powers then as Shantung).

In 1914, Japan went into war with Germany. Germany lost and, consequently, Japan took over Shandong. Japan promised to restore China’s sovereignty over the province. However, in its 1915 Twenty-One Demands, Japan pressured China to give it further economic and political rights over it and other areas. Despite China’s protest, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles awarded Shandong to Japan. China refused to honor it. It was only in 1922, by virtue of direct negotiations between China and Japan, that full Chinese sovereignty over Shandong was restored.

At first blush, the Shandong Problem and the South China Sea conflict don’t look like being analogous. Shandong is terrestrial. It has inhabitants, while the disputed islands in the South China Sea are uninhabited. So, what makes the South China Sea this century’s Shandong?

Shandong and the South China Sea have analogous existential significance to China. During the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Dr. V.K. Willington Koo, the delegate sent by Bejing to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, passionately pleaded that Shandong province be returned back to China and not be given as a reward to Japan. Being the birthplace of Confucius, China’s premiere philosopher, giving up Shandong was like giving up China’s soul.

Meanwhile, Jiaozhou, which is somewhere in north Shandong, provided the shortest route from outside to the capital. Giving up Shandong would be making China’s capital easily accessible to foreign attacks. Shandong was not just simply a piece of territory for China, its significance has implications to China’s sense of self and security. Giving it up would be like spiritual and physical suicide. Thus, China fought hard for Shandong.

If Shandong’s existential significance to China is spiritual, the South China Sea is material. China’s economy is largely dependent on exports mostly transported through that sea. Its energy needs are supplied by oil imports that pass through it. Any disturbance in that area would have serious repercussions on China’s economy. Without any presence in the South China Sea, China would also be vulnerable to attacks, like what happened to it during the First Opium War. Just like in Shandong, retreating from the South China Sea would be inimical to its security.

Both Shandong and the South China Sea served as a fodder for Chinese nationalism. As Shandong was awarded to Japan during the Paris Peace Conference, on May 4, 1919, protests spread all over China, carrying the sentiment that China was betrayed in Paris. This May Fourth Movement, precipitated by the Shandong problem (among other issues), ignited fervent Chinese nationalism.

The South China Sea conflict has also aroused incendiary nationalistic feelings in China. After the Permanent Court of Arbitration released its ruling on the case filed by the Philippines, Luo Xi, a Ph. D. graduate of China’s Renmin University, wrote in an article in The Diplomat that major social media sites like WeChat were “flooded” with calls for enlisting in the army (“The South China Sea Case and China’s New Nationalism,” July 19, 2016). The outrage was so inflammatory the Chinese government had to censor the online calls for war. The arbitration ruling, as Luo puts it, is seen in the same light as the awarding of Shandong to Japan—a humiliating assault on national dignity.

Thus, the South China Sea will never be just a sea for China. It will fight to remain there, though the heavens may fall.


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  1. china doesn’t need to go to war.
    duterte has shown his weaknesses.
    insularity and naivete is soon exposed in international relations.
    take it from an expert.
    the transparency and hypocricy is amusing to watch.

  2. If China militarize the artificial islands they created, the International waterway will be affected, and the international community will never accept, especially big and powerful democratic countries such as the U.S. and the rest of freedom loving nations. The 9-line was an old Chinese map created few years before the Ming Dynasty, and that was over eight (8) centuries ago. The reason why United Nations was created is because the people of the world have a vision of peace and unity on this planet earth. The author of this article seems to be suggesting that the rest of the world need to understand the historical, sentimental, or whatever value the South China Sea to the Chinese and they are ready to go to war because of it. My personal opinion is — China cannot afford to go to war, and will not go to war, because of South China Sea. China is bullying the small neighboring countries in South China Sea, and anytime, these small countries can be defeated by them.

    If China wanted to test how strong their Navy and like to flex its muscles, they can fire all their guided missiles on the U.S. Carrier strike group while they are on patrol on the international waters, and see what kind of response they would get from the U.S. Navy. Chinese Navy have not challenge any U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier Strike Group while on patrol, as of yet. This is the reason why level headed people know that China will never go to war, because of the issues in South China Sea. We should give them a credit for being intelligent enough not to confront U.S. and it allies, militarily because they know, deep in their heart, they will be defeated and its people will suffer. By the way, Philippines is still a U.S. ally.

    • Roilo Gomez on

      Neither can the US afford to start a war with China in China’s backyard. That would be too stupid and the Americans are also too smart to do that.

  3. arnel amador on

    for security, the chinese, SCS is a rope on their neck. if someboby pulls and tighten it they will ended up on bended knees. for ph, meyor digong must play his card very well, which he seems doing….

  4. The Philippines is stuck with China in it’s neighborhood. It has to go along to get along so why pick battles that are not going to end in this century? There is more important work to do. The Chinese will exploit and develop the South China Sea resources in the next century. The Philippines should hope to benefit from some of that through trade and services with the Chinese. The oil and minerals will affect the open market where they or their like can be bought. The more the Chinese put in the marketplace the less it will cost to buy it. If they try to keep it all for themselves then they will only be taking themselves out of the market of buyers which will also lower the price.

    In so far as their security is concerned they have little to worry about. Know anyone who wants to invade and take over China? It’s the Russians who are fearful of a northern invasion from China this time around. Securing the South China Sea to protect Shandong is fighting the last war all over again. It’s just going to get in the way of the new reality; China is the top dog in the East and that is that. They really don’t have to much of anything to make that sink in.

  5. Comparing China’s action in the time when the Nationalist government was in power to the China seas situation is comparing apples with oranges. China is not ruled by Chiang Kai Shek government anymore. The Current government wouldn’t necessarily have the same mindset as the Nationalist government. China doesn’t have to go to war with Philippines. They just need to send a fleet of naval ships and based them near the disputed islands. It would be stupid for them to go to war with a small SEA country. It will ruin their standing in the world. China is trying so hard not to go to war with any country because they need friends not enemies in their bid to build up their conutry. I am not sure whether this author knows what she is taking about. She tries to sound credible by her narrative on Shandong.

  6. We should listen to Pres. Duterte. The Chinese govt. trust our President. Justice Antonio Carpio should stop speaking for the govt. and so is former DFA Sec. Albert Del Rosario. They shouldnot speak on what to do and what not to do. Who are their backers? For whom are they working. Surely, not for the country, not for the Filipino people, for the Filipinos are solidly behind Pres. Duterte. He has the Filipino people and the Philippines foremost in his mind. We cannot go to war with ??. Instead, we have to work with China. We have to live in modus vivendi with China. He is our big brother!

  7. I think China have something on South China Sea, I’m not sure about it but Philippines a very very long time was actually invaded by China but many people don’t know about it. It was during the time of Genghis Khan. The historical claims and the truth will only be revealed only in the assets but that assets could also spark a World War if revealed.

    • why china not willing to go to war? why and how do you say china is a toothless tiger? any information to support your claim? or it is just a toothless statement from you?

    • Colonel Chang on

      Just don’t be too sure for Imperial China was a Great Invader and Conqueror but fell from grace due to its weak Manchu Rulers and their failure to adopt and accept the sudden emergence of Modern Science and Technology, but still insisted of remaining in the Arrow, Spear and Magic Sword nonsensical Era. Just like North Vietnam fighting the Americans and would have been annihilated if not for the Russians and China’s help to which she later repaid with hatred and border robberies

  8. This historical perspective gives a practical, contemporary understanding of the events surrounding the South China Sea. Thank you Sass. As usual the stupid yellow mob and their stupid yellow leader failed to appreciate the facts and just went forward with Obama’s marching orders.