A realist, a realist, my kingdom for a realist… or China and the resting elephant

(map copyrighted BBC 2012)

Here’s something for all you realists (Clinton) out there…

It seems that China is beginning to make some very serious strategic moves in the South China Sea. The burgeoning regional power has in the past months been increasingly asserting itself in the disputed territorial waters lying off the mainland and Hainan coast. While Beijing claims a significant part of the waters and the scattered island groups (including the Scarborough Shoal, Paracel and Spratly island chains) as having been integral parts of the Chinese nation for some 2,000 years, rivals including Vietnam (who claim both the Paracels and the Spratlys have been under their sovereignty since the 17th Century) and the Philippines also lay claim to the waters. While the area does have important strategic importance (not the least of which the Malacca Strait), the area is also believed to have significant oil and gas resources that make the waters especially inviting to those countries that are attempting to keep their grip on these long contested territories.

China and the Philippines have come head to head over a small scattering of outcrops known as the Scarborough Shoal (or the Huangyan islands in China). The volcanic rubble lies approximately 160km from the Philippines and 800km from China, and following weeks of posturing, flag waving, and even some serious faux pas (in a wondrous blunder a Chinese newsreader referred to the entire Philippines as Chinese territory), the area has seen Philippine vessels (an ageing coastguard vessel and fishing boats) come face to face with somewhat more impressive Chinese naval strength, with neither side showing signs of stepping down.

The latest escalation in tensions has seen diplomatic pressure being applied to the Philippines, threatening tourism, wider media and public condemnation (which in the country is usually state censured and therefore in this case most certainly endorsed), as well as more instrumental moves including tightening import inspections. A statement in the Global Times ran “The Philippines needs to be taught a lesson for its aggressive nationalism. For China, the standoff over Huangyan Island is a matter of sovereignty. And now Manila needs to be defeated in this area… If the standoff escalates into a military clash, the international community should not be completely surprised”.

Moves in the Philippines are also increasing in intensity, with 1,000 protesters outside the Chinese embassy today calling for China to step down from its agressive stance. As the rally organiser stated, “Our protest is directed at the overbearing actions and stance of the government in Beijing, which behaves like an arrogant overlord, even in the homes of its neighbours.”

As the two countries continue to ‘dig-in’, what is of interest is the wider ramifications of any rising tensions in the area. While territorial disputes has been simmering gently under the surface for quite some time, recent Chinese  and apparent aggression (or at least strongly-worded rhetoric for a state that is adverse to superlatives), seems somewhat out of character. Why has it chosen to take up the dispute so vocally at this point in time? China argues that the recent ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ of the US in the Asia Pacific has emboldened Manila, which is resting on the laurels of the 1951 Philippines-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

And this is of concern. With US assertion that it remains vested in the region, what will Washington’s response be to the increasing tensions? Even if it does not wish to become embroiled in a military intervention, it must abide by its San Fransisco ‘hub-and-spoke’ network of bilateral ties, for fear of setting off a domino effect as countries scramble to counter an apparent US abandonment of the region. And with the Chen Guangcheng debacle and the subsequent request by Beijing for a US apology, ties between the two key players are not on the sturdiest of footings at present. While we will inevitably (!?) see the easing of tensions and diplomatic side stepping, such incidents really do emphasise the possibility of a ‘flashpoint’ in the Asia Pacific as China continues to grow and extend itself across the region. Any spark could very quickly escalate into a realist ‘powder keg’. Realists and liberals and those of us sitting on the fence must all agree,  US – China – ASEAN egoism and interests, economic and strategic interdependence, and regional security is beginning to get rather precarious.

As was eloquently put by a professor in a recent class, growing China is like an elephant sitting on the grass – it is bound to leave an impression on the area.


A Realist’s list

Since we’ve been discussing different theoretical approaches and how they relate to the real world, I thought Stephen Walt’s hypothetical take on how American foreign policy decisions might have panned out if realists were shaping the diplomatic agenda was interesting (as well as back-slappingly self-congratulatory and provocative).

Walt (who describes himself as a ‘realist in an ideological age’) states that a neoconservative/liberal internationalist alliance has driven US foreign policy for the past two decades. These two camps are committed to ensuring America’s primacy (and the continuation of a US-led liberal world order) and this goal legitimates US military intervention as it polices the globe. According to Walt, the main difference between the neocons (think Cheney, Rumsfeld and co.) and the liberal interventionists (see ‘the Clinton Doctrine’, Blair as co-opted by the US) is the value liberals place on institutions like the UN, whereas neocons see them as a barrier to “America’s freedom of action”. Despite this quibble, liberal interventionists are just “kinder, gentler neocons,” while neocons are just “liberal interventionists on steroids.”

Walt selects 10 examples of recent US foreign policy-in-action (including the Iraq War, the ‘Global War on Terror’, Israel, Libya and China) and poses the counterfactual: what if realists had been in charge instead of the neocon/liberal coalition? Walt claims that his realist policymakers would (among other things): never have led the US to war in Iraq, would have zeroed in on al-Qaeda and not engaged in a broader ‘war on terror’ that included targeting the ‘axis of evil’, wouldn’t have got the US caught up in the Balkan wars in the 1990s, wouldn’t have been involved in overthrowing Gaddafi and would adopt a containment strategy towards China.

Without wading into each item on his list, I think realists like Walt consistently undersell the benefits of ‘economic interdependence’ when talking about China.

We’ve already talked about the possibility of a G2 based on economic relations and the US accommodating a rising China in a reconfigured ‘international society’. Although there will be inevitable tensions between Washington and Beijing, surely US encroachment on Chinese sovereignty (as advocated by realists and their Asia-Pacific counter-balancing bloc) will only unnerve (and potentially provoke) the Chinese? Wouldn’t a better approach be to continue to strengthen trade links and other forms of reciprocity to create a symbiotic relationship?

Unsurprisingly, Walt’s realist policy prescriptions look visionary when written with the benefit of hindsight. Adam Elkus deconstructs Walt’s article and points out that Walt’s definition of realism is slippery at best. I think one of his strongest arguments is around the relationship between IR scholarship and policy:

 IR scholarship is scholarship—it seeks to generate knowledge about the world around us. That knowledge can help aid action, but in and of itself does not constitute an operational approach for action…. [IR theory] was never optimized for the purpose of telling policymakers how to handle individual cases….Even if Walt’s realist policymakers understood the right solution, boning up on Offense-Defense Theory tells you nothing about how to operationalize it within the American political system.

Elkus concludes by saying that: “…theory’s primary role is to increase the analytical tools available to a policymaker.”

Along with the irony of a realist like Walt positing unrealistic scenarios (in Walt’s defence ‘top 10 lists’ always make for an easy blog read), maybe Kenneth Waltz’s claim that realists “face the world as it is” not as it ought to be is not quite as grounded in reality as realists would have you believe. Especially when realists don’t have their hands on the policy levers…

Sticking point for China

I’m seeing a potential discrepancy or contradiction between my readings in my Ethnicity & Identity paper and my China and the World paper. Everything i’ve read on China indicates the CCP has an undying commitment to the state system and the sovereignty of each state in that system. My readings this week elaborate a little further and tell me that, at least in China, the state dictates both culture and interest for the people (not a big leap to call those integral parts of a nation).
So when i read Paul Spoonley for my Ethnicity & Identity paper saying, “it is the nation that has been problematised and has become de-hyphenated from the state,” that things start to get a little dicey.

If nations are no longer inextricably attached to states or geographical locations we’ve officially become a global society where nation-hood is mobile and state-hood is transferable. Okay, so maybe all the pieces aren’t in place yet for a global culture to exist, but we’re at least driving down the on-ramp and getting ready to merge onto the highway. We can always get off at the next exit, but we’re going this direction for the time being regardless.

Global anything seems to be a big issue for China, or at least the CCP. Global culture, global spread of democracy, U.S. global hegemony, it’s all an issue for the CCP that feels like it’s very existence is threatened by these forces. If Spoonley is right and nations and their states aren’t tied to one another anymore then China has to face the possibility that the state does not create the nation and that the national identity of China is an independent entity.

Is it possible for China to maintain this ideology while the rest of the world “de-hyphens”? I don’t think the CCP can exist if the Chinese nation decides it, rather than the state, forms it’s identity and culture.

Is this all just a chicken and egg question with no good answer?

...couldn't resist.

G2 and sanctioning

I woke up at 2am thinking about last night’s class and our China-US discussion – yes my life is rather sad at the moment… We didn’t talk much about the economic cooperation between the two and the fact that US companies are setting up shop in China and vice versa.  Nor did we talk about the fact that the US “cooperates” with China in the energy markets and allows Gulf oil to go through the so-called chokepoints from the Middle East to East Asia.  Of course China is not that comfortable with this situation and has consequently been striking deals with Sudan, Angola, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran (to name just a few) with no US cooperation whatsoever. Nevertheless there’s a huge amount of cooperation in the economic sphere which may bode well for a G2.


But one example which didn’t come up was the fact that China has supported the US war against terror. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t appear that this is a good example of US-China partnering. The Bush Administration’s response to September 11 gave China the excuse to label the Uyghur separatist groups in Xinjiang “terrorist groups”. Beijing claimed that they were linked to wider Islamic terrorist groups and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network. This may have been true, but Beijing grossly twisted the raison d’être of these groups and played on Chinese fears.


So aside from the economic cooperation and the Six Party Talks I’m still struggling to find examples of G2 partnering.  Do others have ideas?


On the sanction aspect of cooperation which we discussed, I’ve been googling trying to find out what the sanctions are for breaking the Maastricht rules.  It doesn’t seem that the treaty provided for sanctions, but France and Germany are pushing for them.  See for example http://www.channel4.com/news/france-and-germany-have-broken-borrowing-rules


Given that in the last week two of my lecturers have blatantly asked me whether I’m a realist and the third lecturer commented on my cynicism (to which all three classes roared in laughter – why I don’t know…), I thought I should set the record straight.  Financial sanctions are one thing, but I think perhaps the greatest sanction is damage to a state’s reputation.  States are hugely concerned with their reputation – partly because they known they’re in a repeated game, but also because they just want to be seen as good citizens of the world.  I saw this play out when I worked for the NZ administration but also in the UN context, where, while one could see a lot of realpolitik, reputational preoccupations certainly figured large in decisions states made.

USA and China

Just a short up-date after yesteray’s discussion about China and the USA.  I received a newspaper article that China and Russia launched naval drills in the Yellow Sea last week. Interestingly, the States and the Philippines started their own naval drills some days before that.

ABC news concluded the following: … “Formerly Cold War rivals for leadership of the communist world, China and Russia have since found common ground in countering liberal democratizing trends across Asia and Eastern Europe and frequently vote against Western initiatives in the United Nations Security Council.

Most recently, they have united to block any U.N. actions on Syrian violence that could lead to some form of humanitarian intervention, a prospect both nations abhor.”


I think that supports the discussion we had yesterday. There might be still more “Realism” left in world politics than we assumed. Could that naval exercises be another proof why it might be very unlikely that we see China and the States co-operate and think about absolute gains? To me this seems to be much or a struggle for power and (again) oil amongst other natural resources which are assumed to be under the Yellow sea. Even the neo-liberal assumption that institutions support the cooperation between states and assist states to overcome fears of cheating does not seem to be true for this case of China and the States as China’s behaviour in the UN Security Council shows.