THINKING back to when I was working in China – negotiating oil and gas concessions with the Chinese government – I often used to think that there was some old walnut faced little man sitting in a small room somewhere plotting out the way in which things were to be done in China. And of course what they should do in order to gain the advantage in my oil and gas negotiations. They are certainly very inscrutable – never let the opposition know what you are thinking, keep a straight face all the time. I think the walnut faced guy is still there, plotting away.
Now China after several thousand years of isolation is entering the world stage and it has economic and military power. It has this because; they are frugal sort of people, China has become the factory of the world and it has attracted enormous amounts of FDI [about 25 times that of the Philippines and which accounts for 30% of China’s industrial output]and it has 1.3 billion potential customers. It claims that just about the whole of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory and so is now busy developing coral reefs in order to demonstrate to everybody it’s power and capability. The Philippines, a sovereign state also claiming ownership of the coral reefs which the Chinese are developing isunsurprisingly very upset and contests the Chinese claim. Despite the Philippines efforts to negotiate the Chinese refuse, so the Philippines took the dispute to arbitration at the United Nations. The Chinese state that they will not participate in nor recognize the United Nations arbitration, and they just keep on enlarging the reefs. It seems there is little that can be done to stop them despite G7 and American criticisms. For the Philippines to consider military action or trade sanctions is useless, neither would have the slightest effect on China’s progress in the South China Sea unless the Philippines could persuade bigger nations to actively support it and that is a difficult call in a world in which China has such economic power. It’s a problem.
China does not want to follow “the rules”, at least the rules that are set by the United Nations, a body in which China is a senior member which was established as a successor to many of the functions of the League of Nations, of which China was also a member. The League of Nations was established after the First World War in order to ensure amongst other things that there would never again be a world war.There was. Another primary objective of the League was to settle territorial disputes, these being matters frequently leading to wars.
The ability to decide not to follow the rules and get away with it is reserved for those with power. Morality or doing what is generally held to be right is not a consideration. No doubt China considers itself right in its South China Sea activities and it may indeed be right for itself, but is it right for everybody else ? There are also concentrations of power within the Philippines and often that power is used for selfish ends without any consideration of how its use or abuse may affect other people. “If more can be made [for us]by not following the rules and we can get away with it without any consequences, then let’s do it. Even if we are actually called to account for any such irresponsible behavior we can probably wiggle our way out of it” – with a combination of money, connections and cunning borderline legalese.
Of course not everybody agrees with the rules and there are times when it may be morally acceptable to break them, like jumping a red light in the middle of the night when there is no traffic around in order to get a critically ill person to hospital. But to break or ignore well established and long standing rules purely for selfish gain at the expense of others is not morally acceptable and should invite sanction. But power can get you off the hook and effective sanctions cannot be imposed.
The Philippines will say that China’s activities are land grabbing, but land grabbing happens here too albeit on a rather smaller scale. The problem is that when this sort of thing is allowed to happen, when power prevails over all and sanctions are impossible to apply then models are established and the same thing can happen again and again. There is nothing to stop it. The Philippines can solve its internal abuse of power problems if it has the will. Internationally it is more difficult particularly if a nation decides to ignore the United Nations rules, and to be fair it is not only this business in the South China Sea that evidences flaunting of international rules, there are endless other examples not least from the colonial era. We really need a set of united nations.
Colonisation; the forceful entering into and governing of a sovereign territory is now generally agreed to be unacceptable. But what forum has the power to override a nation’s determination to occupy territory that is claimed by other nations ? It all seems to depend solely on relative power, but the power should be debating power within a rule based framework rather than the rule of the gun and the flexing of economic muscle. Senior membership of the international community of nations must be earned by example, everybody can see where the power resides there really is no need for such braggadocio to exemplify it and continually shove it in people’s faces. Better to show a mature sense of responsibility, reasonableness and fairness and earn far greater international respect through doing that, but then “political power grows from the barrel of a gun” said Mao Tse Tung – if we follow that then the World could be in for some rough times ahead.
Mike can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.