Wednesday, March 23, 2016

SOUTH CHINA SEA FACE OFF: Does this make ANY sense?

"World War III's First Shot:
Will It Be Fired in the South China Sea?"
I pick up a Chinese language newspaper at the corner store in my Berkeley neighborhood every day, and almost every day there is an article about:

(a) US Navy activities challenging Chinese positions in the South China Sea; and/or

(b) China's activities to establish sovereignty in areas of the South China Sea; and/or

(c) China's military and naval buildup to try to get into the same league with the US.

The mainstream Western press has been reporting on these developments at an increasingly frequent rate.

Unquestionably a lot is going on in the South China Sea. I think we can choke on the detail if we don't try to step back and gain perspective on the situation.

What's the right way to think about what's going on in the South China Sea? I wrote a short post on this several years ago ... but I think it's time to address the question a bit more thoroughly.

The "Law and Order" Paradigm

USA as global policeman -- ever since TR.
(More on The Federalist website.)
On the face of it, there should be no controversy. There are laws about this sort of thing, and everything should be decided according to international law, e.g. the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

So it can be very easy for US people to cast the US and its navy as the "white hats" who stand ready to "police" the situation, keeping things fair for everyone. One problem: "the United States now recognizes the UNCLOS as a codification of customary international law, it has not ratified it." Well, that's awkward . . . .

In other words, before we say "Who is China to think they should be entrusted with being the traffic cop in the South China Sea?" we should first ask the question, "Who is the US to think they should be?"

The "Befitting a Global Power" Paradigm

Teddy Roosevelt with his "big stick" in the Caribbean.
As I look at what China is doing in the South China Sea, I can't help thinking of a cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt treating the Caribbean Sea as a private lake belonging to the US.

[Not a bad time to make this comparison - President Obama just visited Cuba this week to attempt to reverse some of the effects of the past 50 years of antagonism between the US and Cuba.]

The US history of imperialism in its own backyard does not justify China in taking the same attitude; nonetheless, the fact that the US has really not come very far from its "We're a global power and what we say goes" attitude makes it a little difficult to wonder that China may think they should be following in the US' footsteps.

I think one thing we all need to do is notice the double standard that is applied to China. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. China can legitimately be asked to exhibit a 21st century form of non-militaristic global power when the US decides to even make a head fake in that same direction.

(By the way, there certainly must somewhere exist a really clever cartoon updating the Caribbean-as-US-lake concept, i.e. South-China-Sea-as-China-lake, but everything I've seen so far is predictably based on boring dragon and Great Wall imagery.)

The "Neoliberal" Paradigm

To many people, it probably seems that the issues in the South China Sea should just be viewed as a matter of property rights. Stuff (e.g. oil) is there for people to exploit, and everything has a price; in light of overlapping claims, the parties simply need to define rights and compensate each other accordingly.

In other words, "we should be happy with the solution, as long as it smells like capitalism."

Oil and gas in the South China Sea
(Source: Grenatec)

But aren't the assets that lie under the South China Sea precisely the kind of oil and gas properties that are rapidly becoming valueless in light of the carbon bubble?  Given that the oil companies already have five times as many reserves as they can ever put to use without breaking the planet, aren't those South China Sea hydrocarbons destined to stay beneath the sea where they belong?

"A Piece in the Larger Puzzle"

US Military in the West Pacific
(Source: Thomson-Reuters)
I can't help believing that, from a Chinese perspective, the question of whether it is "right" for China to grab (and militarily build up) bits of land in the South China Sea can only be considered in light of the precedent established by the US in grabbing (and militarily building up) bits of land in strategic locations through the Pacific (and worldwide).

Looking at a map of US military installations in the Western Pacific brings to mind the old quip, "How dare they put their country so close to our bases?"

Moreover, of at least equal importance to bases is the terrifying firepower of US carrier strike groups. Is it any wonder that China is building up its navy? Though it may never come close to the strength of the US navy, China's navy may have the ability to close the gap in its own part of the world.

Maybe the South China Sea is just a sideshow.

Maybe what we should really be talking about with China is a military stand-down, followed by a military build-down.

(To be continued . . . . )

Additional resources:

Map showing overlapping claims in the South China Sea

Related posts

The problem: the U.S. "pivot to Asia."

The opportunity: asking ourselves, "What would we do differently if we revised our myths of Asia?"

(See U.S. Militarism in Asia: THINK DIFFERENT!)

What people in Asia (and others) have seen for the past century is that something is happening in the Pacific, and it's being driven in part by advances in naval (and, subsequently, aviation and electronics) technology, and in part by powerful nations (principally, but not limited to, the U.S.) proximate to the area.

(See The Imperialized Pacific: What We Need to Understand)

Strategic analysts are pointing out that the South China Sea is an area through which a vast amount of the world's trade passes.  And some of them have made the modest suggestion that it would be a good idea for the U.S. to dominate it now, in much the same it dominated the Caribbean at the turn of the 19th century.

(See SOUTH CHINA SEA: No End of American Grand Designs)

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