Scotland's Lesson for China
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Scotland's Lesson for China

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How’s this for stream-of-consciousness thinking? In a roundabout—very roundabout—way, the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) electoral triumph last month offers a cautionary tale for China as it attempts to shape events in the China seas and the Indian Ocean.

Here’s how. SNP chief Alex Salmond campaigned on a pledge to hold a referendum on Scottish independence within five years. In effect, Salmond will put the question of whether to dissolve the United Kingdom to the Scottish electorate. If approved, independence would reverse a decision of similar consequence made by Scottish society at the close of the 17th century. The northern kingdom embarked on a quixotic imperial enterprise in Central America, launching itself into maritime competition with established English and Spanish empires. It bankrupted itself and lost its independence in the process. Union between England and a reluctant Scotland was the product of a disastrous gambit in a faraway theatre.

The Central American Isthmus was a transhipment point for goods centuries before the Panama Canal opened. In 1696, accordingly, the Scottish parliament approved a scheme aimed at establishing an outpost at Darien, in Panama. Darien looked like a natural candidate for a colony. Founder William Paterson called it ‘the door of the seas, and the key of the Universe.’ As with most imperial ventures of the day, a combination of piety, the thirst for renown, and the nation’s urgent need for commerce and natural resources impelled Scotsmen’s quest for overseas colonies. Successive crop failures threatened widespread starvation, while the English wanted to squelch competition from Scottish traders. It seemed logical for Scotland to develop trade outlets of its own. English pressure dissuaded banks in Amsterdam and Hamburg from lending the Scots capital for the venture, so individual Scots opened their pocketbooks. Landowners and aristocrats mortgaged their estates to supply funds. Reports historian Arthur Herman, the company raised 400,000 pounds—half of all the money in circulation in the country—in mere months.

The Darien enterprise made sense in the abstract, but it was a disaster in cold reality. Five ships set sail in 1698, dropping anchor off Panama that November. Upon arriving, however, the settlers found they had stocked only six months’ worth of supplies rather than the nine they had intended. English merchants in the Caribbean kept them from obtaining more. Mosquito-borne fever soon broke out. Discipline collapsed. The Spanish renewed their own claim to Scottish holdings. With little recourse, survivors of the expedition slunk home only a year after setting forth. Two subsequent expeditions fared no better. The venture cost some 200,000 pounds while driving the Bank of Scotland into insolvency. ‘With the kingdom’s finances in tatters, and its agriculture in the grip of famine and starvation,’ concludes Herman, ‘Scotland’s ruin was complete.’ Destitute Scots found themselves compelled to assent to union with England. While he hasn’t phrased it in these terms, Alex Salmond is offering their descendants the chance to overturn the result of Darien.

This is no mere historical curiosity. The Scottish catastrophe reveals some inescapable verities that ought to give Beijing—or any aspiring great power, for that matter—pause before it embarks on grand adventures. No nation can do everything. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz sketches a rational cost/benefit calculus to help leaders think through new endeavours. While Clausewitz is thinking about opening new lines of operation on the battlefield, his insights apply to undertakings of all kinds. He urges leaders to keep their eye on the ball. For him, the ‘centre of gravity,’ or ‘the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends,’ must remain the focus of effort. Diverting energy and resources is worthwhile only when the likely gains are ‘exceptionally rewarding,’ and when doing so doesn’t place the primary effort in jeopardy. Scots bet their future on a secondary endeavour—and lost their independence. The Darien debacle ranks alongside such historical catastrophes as classical Athens’ decision to invade remote Sicily—a fateful choice that cost the Athenians the navy on which their prosperity and their geopolitical supremacy in the Greek world depended.

Here’s the tie-in with contemporary China. By no means is Beijing exempt from the Clausewitzian logic on which Scotland foundered. It has taken on many commitments in the Yellow, East China, and South China seas, while its resources remain finite. For example, the South China Sea returned to the headlines this month after an interlude of relative quiet. Several run-ins between Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino maritime services disturbed the peace in contested waters. Last week, the Vietnamese and Chinese militaries held a virtual challenge and reply, conducting successive live-fire exercises. For its part, Manila bestirred itself to send destroyer escort Rajah Humabon to patrol disputed sea areas. All South China Sea claimants upped the ante.

Natural resources, economic development, and prosperity are the propellants for Chinese actions, as is the imperative to burnish China’s reputation as a seafaring nation. Is China running risks in the near seas comparable to those run by Scotland three centuries ago? Hardly. China is the biggest power in Asia, not a small nation desperately trying to escape subservience to a more populous, more prosperous, occasionally predatory neighbour. Nor is China gambling its national fortune on an imperial enterprise halfway around the globe. The near seas are nearby, after all, while to date China’s leadership has exhibited prudent restraint about expanding its presence in theatres like the Indian Ocean or the Persian Gulf. Nor will the Chinese state bankrupt itself trying to manage China’s nautical surroundings, even if its maritime project misfires. Setbacks are conceivable. A debacle of Darien proportions verges on unthinkable.

China confronts in miniature what the United States confronts on a global scale. With stagnant resources at best, the US military can’t afford to think of security as indivisible. That is, every contingency in every quarter of the globe can’t command the same policy attention and military resources as the rest. That’s why the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard agreed on a maritime strategy that fixes attention on the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean while implicitly relegating the rest of the world’s oceans to secondary status. Similarly, if Beijing is serious about managing multiple theatres, it can distribute assets evenly among them — attenuating the amount of usable power available for each. Or it can set priorities, concentrating assets on more urgent matters while accepting risk in secondary ones.

Astute Chinese commentators acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all strategy may not work across multiple theatres. To name one, Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics researcher Zhang Wenmu designates Japan as China’s chief rival. Zhang urges Beijing to abjure geopolitical competition with the United States beyond the ‘first island chain’ and to pursue quite different approaches vis-à-vis neighbours in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Because ‘China has completely different tasks to the north and south of Taiwan,’ Zhang prescribes ‘a diplomatic approach in the South China Sea along with a hard-line attitude in the East China Sea.’ Differentiating among theatres would ease the strain on scarce People’s Liberation Army assets needed to put substance into Chinese policy along the Asian periphery.

Beijing may be able to defend a ‘core interest’ in the South China, face down Japan, or accomplish any one of its goals along the periphery. That it can enforce its will everywhere is far from clear. China disregards Clausewitzian wisdom and the lessons of history at its peril.

 

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.

Comments
19
anonymous
July 5, 2011 at 15:31

China has no friend and Chinese phylosophy’s to poison people everywhere.

Hai Ba Trung
June 25, 2011 at 00:25

People would laugh if they can see the map of the area that China is trying to claim. They will not get an inch of that claim. I can see Vietnam share the ovelapping area with the Philippine. The Chinese claim is ridiculous and there cannot be any compromise. Vietnam also want the Paracels back. Someday the bully will get its nose bloodied. It is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog. Vietnam have defeated Chinese historically to defend itself and will continue to do so. China should be careful. Bully should always be careful.

Hai Ba Trung
June 25, 2011 at 00:18

Vietnamese can and will fight successfully to defend itself. China should read up on history. Vietnam have defeated the Chinese when they are vastly outnumbered in numerous war. Vietnam will teach China a lesson. They seems to have forgotten the old lessons

anonymous
June 24, 2011 at 07:12

The lession for you is you speak out your ambition so early then the world know china is a devil disguised as human. Finally China will dies because USA, Russia, EU, Japan, ASEAN… attack

Observer
June 24, 2011 at 02:20

China does not want to follow international rules and norms.

It uses Paracel Islands, the same place that it murdered South Vietnam sailors in 1974, as a base to extense its ridiculous “tonge of cow” to claim almost the whole East Sea. It also uses the even more ridiculous and laughable faked “historic evidences” that no one on Earth would believe except the CCP and its ilks.

In short, China is a bully and invader. No doubt about it.

Observer
June 24, 2011 at 02:15

Oh, Vietnam would be sorry? Sorry like how they beat the crap out of Chinese invaders in 1979? Sorry like how they beat the crap out of Chinese invaders for several thousands years? Sorry like how they beat the fearsome Mongols three times, the same one that defeated China so fast?

Look like Frank is the one that failed history class.

Yup, they sure are so sorry. LOL.

ozivan
June 23, 2011 at 17:05

Can anyone tell me the chances of Scotland going independent ?

Frank
June 23, 2011 at 15:42

Vietnam and Korea had been smartly managed to be friends of China. So, China had been kept them as good neighbors.

China will never tolerate an enemy living close by.

If Vietnam turned into enemy, Vietnamese will be sorry forever.

Just read China’s history.

Frank
June 23, 2011 at 15:35

All people do that. You must be a child if you cannot tell.

Frank
June 23, 2011 at 15:34

The “United Kingdom has been long in the breaking.

Frank
June 23, 2011 at 15:32

Yes. Exactly.

“Like the Mongols and Manchus”

What reason?
June 23, 2011 at 13:09

And then got absorbed into China as minorities?

bryan
June 23, 2011 at 05:59

Point of note: Scottish “society” did not decide to enter the union. It was decided for the country (unless ny “society” you mean high). There was no choice for the masses. Also, the failed Darian enterprise was not the fundamental reason for union. The “United Kingdom” had been long in the making.

anonymous
June 23, 2011 at 03:04

Chinese seems like a person who look at you with a friendly smile and but then rob your food in your hand. What is all China talk and take these day in south China sea.

Reason
June 23, 2011 at 02:12

@Frank – “Reading China’s history, you should know what happened to the enemies close to China”.

What? You mean they (the near enemies) invaded China and subjugated the Han people? Like the Mongols and Manchus?

ozivan
June 22, 2011 at 18:07

The article starts with…..” How’s this for stream-of-consciousness thinking? In a roundabout—very roundabout—way, the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) electoral triumph last month offers a cautionary tale for China as it attempts to shape events in the China seas and the Indian Ocean. ”

Indeed, it is a… very roundabout way…. that Scottish National Party’s Chief Alex Salmond shared his observations.

But was the message intended for the Englishmen and the Americans ? And not for the Chinese..!!

Let’s examine his speech that belies his message.

Alex narrated the following (refer to article):

1. “…..at the close of the 17th century. The northern kingdom (ie. Scotland) embarked on a quixotic imperial enterprise in Central America, launching itself into maritime competition with established English and Spanish empires. It bankrupted itself and lost its independence in the process.”

2. ” No nation can do everything. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz sketches a rational cost/benefit calculus to help leaders think through new endeavours.

3. ” As with most imperial ventures of the day, a combination of piety, the thirst for renown, and the nation’s urgent need for commerce and natural resources impelled Scotsmen’s quest for overseas colonies. ”

4. ” Diverting energy and resources is worthwhile only when the likely gains are ‘exceptionally rewarding,’ and when doing so doesn’t place the primary effort in jeopardy. ”

Firstly, we must take special note that the abovementioned events happened more than 200 years ago. In the context of our current history especially since the end of World War II, we see many resemblances, as follow :

1. The US working with UK had embarked on a quixotic imperial enterprise throughout the world since WW 2. It went into not only maritime competition but also military, economic and space exploration competitions. In all…the US reigned supreme.

But today, it faces a position of bankruptcy at its doorsteps and lost its economic independence through excessive dependency on imports.

2. No nation can do everything. But the US tried to do everything..in fact excelling every other country… in being the policeman of the world costing trillions by keeping military bases all over the world, biggest maritime & military power, largest donor of aid, leader of the pack in space exploration, biggest market for the world, etc etc

In Carl Von Clausewitz’s rational cost/benefit calculus, the US are faring badly in all categories.

3. The US have been in the chase for piety in the form of democracy and freedoms even to the extent of exporting these values;

a thirst for renown in the form of supreme leadership and recognition from all lesser powers;

and the US’s need for resources like oil and other excessive imports…all impelling the US’s quest to rule the world.

4. The US’s diversion of its resources and energy have not in return been “exceptionally rewarding” financially except in prestige…the least lucrative reward.

Does it sound familiar that Alex Salmond message is meant for US & UK ?

Look at their involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the trumpeting of democracy and freedoms, pious values of protecting civilians in one country while attacking another, taking in poor destitute countries of Eastern Europe under the EU, bailing out bankrupt EU countries , military adventures for renown without careful thought a la Sarkosky & David Cameron posturing, aid donor for political reasons, probing up of failed states, etc etc. All of em…cost money, money, money.

China doesn’t seem to fit into Alex Salmond’s description as follow :-

1. China is probably interested in the Yellow, East China and South China seas. Certainly not the Indian ocean as alleged. Or any other oceans. Therefore no over-extension.

2. China spends enough to build up its armed forces by modernising qualitively and quantitively, solely for the purpose of a possibility of war over Taiwan. As a consequence, she may reap the benefit of being the economic and military superpower in Asia in competition to the US but not elsewhere. Besides, her outlay is always cheaper than Western standards.

3. The Chinese leadership has always kept a low profile internationally, generally non-interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, not desiring to take over the political and military leadership of the world from US (it’s an expensive game), etc etc through their 5 principles of co-existence with the world.

4. Like every major nation, China competes for natural resources throughout the world….but with economic and money power. Not with military power through schemes, false intelligence and planning for control of regimes or countries in order to control their natural resources.

So far the Chinese is following Clausewitzian’s wisdom in the economic realm.

Let’s see whether it will work well. Time will tell.

Ben
June 22, 2011 at 17:42

It’s funny to spot China’s 50 Cent Party in the comments section of an article like this one. I’ve gotten used to it, but it still makes me laugh when I see them. The comment immediately diverts criticism from China to… (fill in the blank, but mostly the US), extols the values and advantages of China, and then delivers veiled threats to anyone who might challenge the PRC.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally disagree with the argument being made in this article because it loquaciously overreaches. At least make it concise. Scotland’s experience just doesn’t compare with that of China today in any sense. The government is different, the economic and political situations are different. But ‘Frank’ doesn’t at all even try to address any of these issues at all.

My issue with the South China sea is this: How is it possible that the PRC can extend it’s territorial waters so deep into the sea? There are countries that line that entire sea, who if you look at a map, deserve the area off their coast due to proximity. Just slice the sea up equidistantly for countries lining the sea, based on coastlines. The Spratly Islands are a different, cumbersome issue.

Frank
June 22, 2011 at 15:33

Fighting two wars far from home, it is USA that needs to learn the Clausewitzian wisdom.

China has Sun Tzi. Per SunTzi, you should only attack enemies that are close to you.

Vietnam and Philippine used to be far away countries from central China. That is why China had been left them alone.

Now the new transportation technology and the boom of South China altered the situation.

If either country becomes an enemy of China, China will react for sure. Reading China’s history, you should know what happened to the enemies close to China.

Prestwick
June 22, 2011 at 15:12

One of the points lost here is that the King on the throne at the time was William of Orange who wielded a fair bit of power in the Netherlands. The court of William III was stuffed full of Dutch cronies and the like to the point that most English courtiers complained of the excessive influence the new Dutch connection had on English affairs.

Thus when we say that England put pressure on banks in Amsterdam to withold financing we actually mean William of Orange which in turn means the powerful Dutch traders who were competing with the English and Spanish at the time. England did do their bit by preventing Scottish ships safe harbour and not selling goods to the Darien adventure but again that was under orders from London and in turn the Crown.

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