Why the South China Sea is not a
Image Credit: U.S. Navy (Flickr)

Why the South China Sea is not a "Sudetenland Moment"

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The rhetoric is growing hotter among China, most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, and the United States. Recently, the U.S. State Department took the unusual step of issuing a press statement that singled out Chinese behavior for criticism in creating a new administrative district covering most of the disputed islets in the South China Sea. Beijing’s media outlets have been responding with invective that is stoking already high emotions in the Chinese public. The issue of managing tensions and territorial claims that are inherently difficult to resolve has become more difficult, not less.

It was not apparently intended in Washington for the situation to deteriorate in this fashion. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out against unilateral actions in the South China Sea and for the development of an effective code of conduct to govern rivals’ activities in the area. This was widely understood to be a needed shove in China’s direction to quit stalling on agreeing to the code of conduct and to restrain the aggressive actions of its fishermen and oil drillers. It was accompanied by American professions of disinterest in the specific territorial disputes, but insistence on freedom of navigation in the heavily trafficked waters and peaceful resolution of the disputes under international law.

China did not like the American push then, at a time when Chinese diplomacy was scoring costly “own goals” in the East China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula. But by the end of 2010, China was trying harder to get along with its neighbors and Clinton’s warning seemed to have done well. More recently, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon made a trip to Beijing (and Tokyo) that was well received by Beijing’s highest leaders and seemed to put discussion of thorny issues on a high-policy plane. Coming right after his visit, the State Department statement must have arrived as a shock in Beijing.

The South China Sea presents complicated issues of evolving international law, historic but ill-defined claims, a rush to grab declining fish stocks, and competition to tap oil and gas reserves. Beijing’s much discussed “nine-dashed line,” that purports to give China a claim on about 80 percent of the South China Sea and its territories, used to be an eleven-dashed line. Two dashes separating Chinese and Vietnamese claims were resolved through bilateral negotiations years ago. This suggests that the remaining nine dashes are equally negotiable. But China rigidly refuses to clarify the basis for its claims, whether they are based on the accepted international law of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or the less widely accepted historical assertions. Beijing’s refusal to choose suggests it wants to maximize its legal and political leverage, even as the growth of its military and maritime assets gains physical leverage over its weaker neighbors.

Beijing is not alone. Hanoi has leased oil exploration blocks in contested waters, and Manila is trying the same. Their colonial occupations left a discontinuous record of historic claims, inclining them to rely more on UNCLOS to manage disputed resources. They eagerly encourage American weight thrown onto their side of the competition with China for free.

This is where the United States needs to move with caution and only after thinking many steps ahead. The overriding strategic objective of the United States in Asia is to manage China’s rise—which appears inevitable—in ways that do not diminish vital American interests in the region. Navigating the transition period peacefully requires strength and consistency as well as the recognition of changing realities. Severe tests of the Sino-American relationship are to be expected as the United States works to persuade China to accept the existing international rules and principles that have brought prolonged peace, stability, and prosperity to the participants, especially China.

China’s immediate neighbors are by definition weaker than the much larger People’s Republic. Beijing’s temptations to exploit that differential in power needs to be resisted with policies that reward positive behavior and raise the cost of negative behavior.

Comments
156
edgar
January 1, 2013 at 07:41

spain sold the philippines to united state of america

[...] strike groups easily outmatch those deployed by Southeast Asian navies. They would be particularly well-suited to seize islands in the South China Sea. The Type 052D, furthermore, could extend its protective air-defense umbrella over the nimble and [...]

Kid Rock
August 28, 2012 at 07:13

@ John Chan :
 
Wow! I can't believe you've just called people of Vietnam and the Philippines  thieves, when in fact the last time I checked it's only 'DEMOCRACY' that CHINESE PEOPLE CAN'T FAKE…  Mr. John Chan, who's the thief now? 
 

Conflict Inevitable
August 27, 2012 at 16:28

It's quite clear to every nation involved that we all made a terrible mistake when we allowed China to participate in the WTO. You can't expect this communist state to turn back from its conquest, but that's all water under the bridge now. I believe we should press even more on the global boycott campaign against products exported by China whose earnings will absolutely used to bully the smaller countries in the region. Their manufacturing sector is now experiencing a sharp decline and should be able to fan greater local discontent.
It is understandable the current position of the US, having been indebted to China to the tune of 3 trillion USD, whose hands are tied and contented to issuing press statements as some token resistance to the latter's aggressive posture. Conflict is inevitable, it's just a matter of time.

Conflict Inevitable
August 27, 2012 at 16:23

It's quite clear to every nation involved that we all made a terrible mistake when we allowed China to participate in the WTO.  You can't expect this communist state to turn back from its conquest, but that's all water under the bridge now.  I believe we should press even more on the global boycott campaign against products exported by China whose earnings will absolutely used to bully the smaller countries in the region.  Their manufacturing sector is now experiencing a sharp decline and should be able to fan greater local discontent.
It is understandable the current position of the US, having been indebted to China to the tune of 3 trillion USD, whose hands are tied and contented to issuing press statements as some token resistance to the latter's aggressive posture.  Conflict is inevitable, it's just a matter of time.

brotherfrancis
August 27, 2012 at 15:22

@Luj:  Hot air is cheap.  Be a little specific.  Your bliss-bunny agitprop lacks content.  It doesn't relate to anything.  How is your pep talk going to make your fantasies even a little bit factual?  If we all just scrunch our eyes shut very hard, click our shoes together and make a wish, we'll all be in Kansas in no time?  You're hiding from reality in the Land of Oz.  All the world is NOT your local Chamber of Commerce. 

Luj
August 26, 2012 at 18:20

The world has learned, painfully, the cost of war from millenia of conflict. As far as we are most practicably affected, for better or worse, America has won not just militarily, but more importantly triumphed in ideology and culture. Capitalism has triumphed over all other forms of economic thought and, aided by her prowess in technological advancement geared to her own true character of freedom and prosperity, America had spread the message far and wide, exporting highly appealing, if somewhat superficial, cultural ideals as freedom, self-determination and fun, all embodied in the products leaving their ports.
And while it seems sometimes, incorrectly, that Americans are either trying to kill you or sell you something, I still believe they've been competent custodians of the current world order.
Many of the great nations of the world fought each other to an inch from death, only to forgive, forget and forge anew together, over time. Nobody will allow that kind of bloodshed again on such a massive scale and over such a prolonged period.
Still, for a nation on the rise not to swagger and step on a few toes is neither plausible nor without naivette.
We can only hope for cooler, sounder and less ignorant heads to prevail.
 
 

Kangmin Zheng
August 26, 2012 at 06:08

@Bankotsu and pro CCP supporters,
What CCP is doing at SCS and ECS is exactly the same as Nazi German and Imperial Japan before WW2.   United States can't allow CCP to use dark force to attack its neighbors and eventually take on US at Guam, Hawaii and California.   CCP is evil, stop supporting them.   If you think China has legitimate claims at ECS & SCS, tell CCP to go to international courts.   Are there anything to hide?

brotherfrancis
August 25, 2012 at 08:42

 
Glad to see some interest here in my point of view.  That viewpoint is apparently where the ultimate extremes of satire and seriousness meet and become one.  When seriousness or satire, either one, go beyond a certain point, can there be a meaningful distinction between them?  Like Nietzsche & Wagner:  Which is right?  Is there really a difference?  If I am satirical enough, then perhaps I must be seriously at least a little correct?  So, @ACT:  ME eccentric?  Have you looked out your window lately?  Our world is far more eccentric that I can ever hope to even begin to catch up with…  But I try!  (Eccentricity is never for the half-hearted.)  Our current events are purest eccentricity carried to the extremes of a circus freak show, so the serious few among us are nowadays quite satirically-challenged…
 
My compatriot Jacques666 doesn't seem to have heard of decadence.  My take on his clearinsight that China has cruel borders whereas the U.S. has kind borders is that this natural blessing can end up with greatly counter-intuitive effects to what he presumes:  What if, for Chine, what doesn’t destroy them only makes them stronger?  Whereas perhaps the U.S. suffers from the deadly complacency of a "creeping decomposition" from our national soft underbelly, aka the Mexican border.  Our relationship with Mexico may be like the rotting of a sweet-smelling fruit in which all appears pleasant aromas and harvest pastels, but meanwhile the cute little maggots are quietly nibbling away their self-satisfied host country alive?  All with the cutest little maggoty smiles, Mariachi music and tasty Margaritas, of course.
 
So, yes, America has the safest borders anywhere, EXCEPT FOR JUST ONE.  And that is all it takes.  Remember, ancient Italy also had uniquely "safe" borders, except for that insignificant detail of a few scenic and picturesque Alpine passes on their remotest northern frontiers.  But Attila the Hun still managed to find his way in despite all the sunny travel brochures about the balmy and impregnable "Garden of the Empire."
 
Whereas for China, decadence is not an option.  So to speak, Mongols to the north of them, Mongols to the south of them, Mongols to the east of them and Islam to the west of them.  Sounds to me like the Chinese will learn to be the world's ultimate Super-Mongols, or else.  THEY know they have no where to hide. 
 
@Bankotsu:  Don't be timid!  China is not in the position of Imperial Germany before the Great War.  In particular, you have no King George V to deal with nor anything like a jealous Imperial British Establishment lined up against you.  You have nothing more to fear than a disintegrating herd of self-important Yankee rednecks!  Just remind the Mexicans and other Hispanics of the riches to their North and nature will take care of the rest for you. (Like when somebody pointed out the Italian women, in particular the Emperor's sister, to Attila and his horn-helmeted Barbarians, and then the rest was history.)
 
True enough, China must construct a Ruling Elite worthy of the name.  But the Taiwanese and Overseas Chinese can make some major contributions in that regard.  At any rate, China has her MONGOL SOUL to draw upon, not to mention a superb Neo-Confucianism that must deserve a warm welcome everywhere, but especially among the Roman Catholics.  And if China needs any suggestions concerning elitism, surely the Catholics would be more than delighted to provide you with more than a few.  You Chinese must send your comprador bourgeoisie packing and then get down to your pressing business of world domination!
 

BenjaminB85
August 25, 2012 at 05:09

"​Some people say that U.S recent aggressive wars in the muslim world are similar to the German Kaiser's bungling of international affairs. "
No. It's more like the Boer Wars, which were (you guessed it) started by the British a little over 100 years ago. 

Bankotsu
August 24, 2012 at 19:26

"China's recent actions in the South China Sea are nothing so much as reminiscent of the Kaiser's bungling, bullying foreign policy."
​Some people say that U.S recent aggressive wars in the muslim world are similar to the German Kaiser's bungling of international affairs. 
 
Who will win this battle of the spheres of influence?
 
Emmanuel Todd:
Most apparent is how clumsy the US has been to date, and how far they have
moved away from any notion of universality. They don't see the world as it
really is anymore. They are failing in any balanced and fair approach to
their allies. All of this reminds me of Germany under Wilhelm II. The US is
losing allies steadily. One gets the impression that an office somewhere in
Washington has been tasked with the duty to daily prepare a scheme to
develop new enemies for the US…
http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article4381.htm
 
 

filipino defender
August 24, 2012 at 15:51

Sir i was talking to the chinese

Cam
August 24, 2012 at 11:33

 
The surprise element the US never expected from China was the PLA generals couldn’t care how many Chinese soldiers got killed, human waves after human waves for each battle. Never in a history warfare of the world, could we see human lives were wasted like that. And the Chinese are so proud of that. SAD!

sfphoto
February 6, 2014 at 04:59

“the term “human wave attack” was often misused to describe the Chinese short attack — a combination of infiltration and the shock tactics employed by the PLA during the Korean War. According to some accounts, Marshal Peng Dehuai—the overall commander of the Chinese forces in Korea—is said to have invented this tactic. A typical Chinese short attack was carried out at night by small fireteams on a narrow front against the weakest point in enemy defenses. The Chinese assault team would crawl undetected within grenade range, then launch surprise attacks against the defenders in order to breach the defenses by relying on maximum shock and confusion”

“U.S. Army historian Roy Edgar Appleman observed that the term “human wave” was later used by journalists and military officials to convey the image that the American soldiers were assaulted by overwhelming numbers of Chinese on a broad front, which is inaccurate when compared with the normal Chinese practice of sending successive series of five men teams against a narrow portion of the line.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_wave_attack

Korea, Vietnam, Iraq.

Why is the U.S.A. pulling out of Afghanistan?

vic
August 24, 2012 at 10:49

@nirvana
Better still, go to your local library and check out the book printed by the League of Nations about China's Unequal Treaties.  I think it may be dated 1900 (or thereabouts).

Leonard R.
August 24, 2012 at 10:02

Brother Francis' post harkens me back to college days. We would hear all sorts of wild scenarios from other students. But as crazy as it all sounded, those students made more sense than what our  professors were teaching us. 
 
My prizes go to: 
 
For analysis: Jaques666
 
For fun reading: Brother Francis (and actually, the Russo-German half-way  makes sense. I can't wait to see how the PLA does south of the border though.)
 
For the rubbish bin: Professor Paal & High White

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