Is China a Scorpion?

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Is China a Scorpion?

Aesop’s fable of the scorpion and the frog could offer an insight into China’s South China Sea assertiveness.

Asks Colin Clark: Why has Chinese foreign policy made a sudden turnabout from ‘peaceful development’ to ‘belligerence’? I would add: is such a swerve really ‘unexpected,’ as the title of his AOL Defense column indicates? He points out that several events have disturbed the equilibrium along China’s maritime frontiers in recent weeks. Vietnam and India concluded an agreement to explore for oil in South China Sea waters claimed by Hanoi and Beijing. Japan and the Philippines held consultations, declaring a joint interest in sea-lane security in the South China Sea. The Obama administration announced that it would upgrade aging F-16 A/B fighter jets for Taiwan, although Washington stopped short of transferring new model F-16s to the increasingly outmatched Taiwan Air Force. It’s been an eventful time, even by the standards set in the past couple of years.

While conceding that any outside account of the shift in China’s rhetoric is largely a matter of conjecture, Clark postulates that non-consensus views may have found voice in Chinese media outlets, that an internal realignment within the ruling Chinese Communist Party may have empowered a more bellicose faction, and that changes in the external environment may have sounded alarm bells in Beijing. The entry of James Soong into Taiwan’s presidential election race, for instance, could siphon votes away from incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou, allowing Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen to prevail in a close election. As befits the DPP representative, Tsai voices scepticism toward closer economic ties to the mainland because they might grant Beijing a dominant say in cross-strait affairs.

Such developments discomfit officialdom in China. There’s little to quarrel with in Clark’s reading of the tea leaves, but something more basic may be at work as well. Can China help itself when smaller neighbours defy its will? For me, Beijing’s behaviour over the past couple of years conjures up the classic Aesop fable ‘The Scorpion and the Frog.’ Like most such tales, it’s short yet rich in substance:

‘A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, ‘How do I know you won’t sting me?’ The scorpion says, ‘Because if I do, I will die too’.

‘The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp, ‘Why?’

‘Replies the scorpion: ‘It’s my nature…’

Now, Aesop clearly verges on ‘determinism’ here. Cultural determinism is the idea that peoples are captive to culture, history, and religion—the intangibles that comprise a society’s nature—not to mention ‘vast, impersonal forces’ that sweep them along to their fate. This overstates reality. It denies individuals and peoples any say in their lives. We aren’t automatons. But even so, ingrained habits of mind stemming from culture shape how we respond to contemporary events. As China’s economic and military rise progresses, giving Beijing the ability to ‘sting’ others, the kind of behaviour on display in recent months may persist or even intensify.

Which I suppose casts Asian states and outside powers such as the United States in the role of the frog—the party who simply can’t bring himself to believe the scorpion would do anything against its own interest. It’s commonplace for Western pundits, like the frog, to declare confidently that China wouldn’t do this or that—challenge free navigation through the South China Sea, act militarily against Taiwan, or what have you—because it would harm Chinese interests as pundits construe them. Well, maybe. But that borders on determinism of a different sort. Call it the determinism of cost-benefit calculations. To guard against it, diplomats and commanders entrusted with managing relations with Beijing might keep Aesop’s fable in the backs of their minds.

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