How China Sees the South China Sea
Image Credit: Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center

How China Sees the South China Sea

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Last week a friend asked me to revisit a historical analogy broached in those thrilling days of yesteryear when I wrote for Flashpoints. Good idea. There is more to say about the comparison, which sheds light on why China plays well with others in the Indian Ocean but not the China seas.

The analogy is the doctrine of "no peace beyond the line" practiced in late Renaissance Europe. To recap: in a nifty bit of collective doublethink, European rulers struck up a compact whereby nations could remain at peace in Europe, avoiding the hardships of direct conflict, while assailing each other mercilessly beyond a mythical boundary separating Europe from the Americas. In practice this meant they raided each other's shipping and outposts in the greater Caribbean Sea and its Atlantic approaches.

It feels as though an inverse dynamic is at work in the Indo-Pacific theater. Naval powers cooperate westward of the line traced by the Malay Peninsula, Strait of Malacca, and Indonesian archipelago. Suspicions pockmarked by occasional confrontation predominate east of the South China Sea rim, a physical — rather than imaginary — line dividing over there from home ground.

A non-Renaissance European, Clausewitz, helps explain why seafaring powers can police the Gulf of Aden in harmony while feuding over the law of the sea in the East China Sea and South China Sea. It's because the mission is apolitical. Counterpiracy is the overriding priority for the nations that have dispatched vessels to the waters off Somalia. Few if any of them have cross-cutting interests or motives that might disrupt the enterprise. It's easy to work together when the partners bring little baggage to the venture.

Or think of it in terms of vector mechanics. Clausewitz's go-to formula holds that how much a government values its political goals should dictate the magnitude and duration of the effort it mounts to obtain those goals. In a coalition, each partner performs its own calculations. Because countries have different interests, inhabit different bits of territory, and see the world through different historical and cultural lenses, their value-of-the-object calculations tend to differ. The vectors diverge. Disparate priorities complicate efforts to align the arrows in more or less the same direction, achieving common purposes, strategy, and operations.

It's rare indeed that coalition partners have the same goals, with few ulterior motives interfering with coalition management. But that does seem to be the case in the western Indian Ocean. The strategic vectors point in the same direction, largely of their own accord. The only real difference is the degree of effort each partner puts forth. Quarrels over free-riding, however, are minimal in a voluntary, informal consortium like the counterpiracy task force. Ergo, peace — even cooperation — beyond the line.

You see where I'm going with this. The expedition to the Gulf of Aden is an easy case. It proves a trivial result, namely that rivals can collaborate for mutual gain when they have the same interests in an endeavor. Now plant yourself in East Asia and survey the strategic terrain within the perimeter separating the Indian from the Pacific Ocean. China views the South China Sea, to name one contested expanse, not as a commons but as offshore territory. Indeed, Beijing asserts "indisputable sovereignty" there.

Such pretensions grate on Southeast Asian states, while the United States hopes to rally coalitions and partnerships to oversee the commons. But if Beijing is serious about the near seas' constituting "blue national soil" — and our Chinese friends are nothing if not sincere — then outsiders policing these waters must look like invaders. How else would you regard foreign constables or armies roaming your soil — even for praiseworthy reasons — without so much as a by-your-leave?

To Chinese eyes, then, Southeast Asians' exclusive economic zones (EEZs) must resemble unlawful occupation of Chinese borderlands. And if there's an iron law of strategy, it's that protecting sovereign territory represents a political aim commanding the utmost importance. In Clausewitzian parlance, it demands maximum defensive effort for as long as it takes. Trying to co-opt ASEAN governments or scuttle U.S.-led constabulary enterprises makes sense if you reason from Chinese precepts.

The upshot: coalition partner beyond the line, coalition breaker this side of the line. There is a common denominator between the Asian and Renaissance European cases, then, namely turf. Home turf. Europeans agreed that different rules would govern their interactions at home and overseas. In so doing they spared themselves the ravages of cross-border invasion. This bespoke a fundamentally conservative outlook. China is trying to regain what it considers its historic maritime periphery. Consequently, it has assumed a more acquisitive, offensive posture.

Either way, securing one's home ground and environs is Job One. The character of undertakings in faraway theaters, by contrast, depends on the extent to which national interests coincide or clash in those theaters. Rivals might cooperate out of expediency, go at each other, or ignore each other. Bottom line, the counter-piracy campaign is an eminently worthwhile endeavor. It should continue. Whether it can be replicated in more fractious zones on the map — and whether it can improve overall relations among nations — is another question entirely.

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