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.


6 comments on “A realist, a realist, my kingdom for a realist… or China and the resting elephant

  1. clintonwatson says:

    Nice write-up Adslater. Of course, China will fiercely deny she is “extending” herself in the region. Unlike the US and other great powers, such as the UK and France, she doesn’t have territories scattered around the world. These islands are her backdoor. I don’t know to whom these islands ‘belonged’ in the past, but it’s a fact that China’s naval strength was unrivaled until the 15th century when China turned inwards. The treasure fleets, which travelled as far as South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and Eastern Africa, dwarfed anything Europe could muster up at the time. It’s therefore quite conceivable that these islands were really part of the Middle Kingdom back then. Yours, forever the realist

  2. sarahchan30 says:

    Quite interesting item in today’s news: Australia’s Foreign Minister, Bob Carr says first visit to Beijing has been dominated by China’s concerns over Australia’s military ties with the United States ….


  3. ryankf says:

    That’s the first map i’ve seen showing the exclusive economic zones juxtaposed over the area China is claiming in the South China Sea. Wow, it’s rather shocking to look at considering China’s radical adherence to the idea of state sovereignty. For a nation that puts so much value in a live-and-let-live international culture it’s surprising to see them push the boundaries of their claim so far.
    Some of my readings in other papers suggest when China pushes out or has areas of international conflict (not necessarily militarily) they are distracting from or hiding domestic issues. The South China Sea seems to provide a lightning rod for a lot of Chinese.
    Just to quickly touch on Clinton’s comment – the significance of China historically in South East Asia can’t be understated, however, what China’s presence 2,000, 1,500, or 500 years ago was has little bearing on their sovereign rights today especially considering they operate with an entirely different form of government. If there had been some continuous possession of territory their claim might have more relevance. If China abandoned sovereign territory 500 years ago i think their claim has lapsed.
    Some of those comments mentioned above about the Philippines seem to regard Filipinos as squatters in their own homeland living there on borrowed time.

  4. adslater says:

    I agree that when there is an historic claim to the area it should be legitimately recognised internationaly. But as you say Ryan, I think claims leading back 2,000 years are getting pretty tenuous. The (somewhat ambiguous) demarcation of the EEZ established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should remain the defining legal precedent for claiming territorial sovereignty. Otherwise we will see a scramble for any attractive piece of real estate on the high seas that can be claimed simply by inserting a state flag, some sand bags and a patient marksman…

    Interesting to see China actually voicing concerns over US-Australian relations – a ‘remnant of the Cold War’ – in that article Sarah.

    I think all arguments for rocky outcrops in the far reaches of the Pacific aside – this relationship highlights the deeper issues at hand… how can China continue to grow in the region without stepping on some more serious toes? The Philippines (and others) may choose to step down when standing against such a powerful adversary, as it did in 1994 over the Mischief Reef incident (believed to be an attempt to defer conflict as occured 4 years earlier in the Johnson South Reef Skirmish during which 70 Vietnamese lost their life).

    But if China continues down the path of its apparent policy of lebensraum (‘live and let live unless we want it’) the real concern is when neither side is wiling to step down. How long will the ‘middle kingdom’ be permitted to reach out its pudgy hands to grasp at those resources it fancies (a child with a burgeoning ‘middle’)? Such an occasion will severely test the regional efficacy of ASEAN (who one could presume unlikely to rap China too harshly across the knuckles) and the US…

  5. clintonwatson says:

    The South China Sea provides a lightning rod for Chinese because they associate the area with US containment. Every Chinese I’ve spoken to is aware of the US containment policy. I have been stunned at their knowledge on this. Perhaps they learn about it at school, but they appear to associate the South China Sea, Taiwan and the East China Sea with US containment. Given the rise of their country, it’s not surprising it stirs them up as they become more confident in taking a stand against the US and her allies.

    I agree territorial claims based on historical grounds should be legitimate. But legitimacy based on what? I’m not saying China abandoned sovereignty claims 500 years ago. I’m just saying I’m not 100% clear on the history. If I’m not mistaken Chinese continued to fish in the area for centuries. As for rocky outcrops, New Zealand has loads of these: Auckland Islands, Macquarie Island, the Kermadecs…We’re just lucky we’ve got good mates across the Tasman. We’ve already done our scrambling – first mover advantage.

  6. sarahchan30 says:

    One more news item for anyone interested: ‘Australia must choose strategic ‘godfather’ in either China or the US’:


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