It would be wrong to conclude that the Chinese position merely consists of cosmological bluster, even if it is true that there is plenty of that. Beyond the often glorified and euphemised imperial past, when neighbours reputedly prostrated themselves before the emperor in order to enjoy the privileges of trade, China draws on far fresher sources of motivation. Beijing’s attitudes toward the South China Sea, like much of the country’s behaviour as an emerging superpower, is bound up in an entirely modern Chinese obsession: overcoming the humiliations of the recent past.
Since Sun Yat-sen, the early-20th-century founder of the Republic of China, every modern leader has harboured dreams of restoring the country to the position it enjoyed before imperial China was ripped asunder by Britain (and France) in the opium wars, and then trampled by Japan in a series of degrading wars that began in the 1890s. For Chinese leaders of the 20th, and now 21st century, that means restoring lost territories: most obviously Taiwan but also the Diaoyu islands. Just as important are the rights China is convinced – or has convinced itself – it deserves to the South China Sea.
Sun’s successor, and Mao Zedong’s greatest historical rival, Chiang Kai-shek, began keeping a diary in 1928, in which he created a daily entry under the heading Xuechi, meaning “avenge”, or “wipe clean humiliation”. It came to include everything from venting about the need to destroy the “dwarf pirates”, which is how he often referred to the Japanese he was at war with, to the need to eventually create textbooks that would inculcate his ideas about the people’s duty to restore China’s size and glory. One entry reads: “Recover Taiwan and Korea. Recover the land that was originally part of the Han and Tang dynasty. Then, as descendants of the Yellow Emperor, we will have no shame.” Nationalism in China, which has swelled around these kinds of sentiments, has become a vital tool for the Communist party leadership. Yet officials have sometimes stoked these feelings in such a crude manner that it has become a hindrance to their freedom of action, and potentially even a threat to their own survival. When the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said in June, for example, that any retreat by Beijing from its South China Sea claims would not be forgiven by future generations, he might as well have said that the country’s leaders could not get away with compromise on these issues.
But there is an even more recent imperative at work in Beijing’s calculations than the matter of overcoming the humiliations of the last two centuries, and its name is the US. Today, it is that country and not Europe or even Japan, which is seen as the main obstacle to Beijing’s regional ambitions. There is simply no way for China to reign supreme in the South China Sea so long as the US has a free run of the western Pacific. Even more than cowing its neighbours, China’s island-building strategy would seem to have the US navy as its primary focus.
The waters off Hainan, near the Yalin navy base, where China maintains its nuclear submarine fleet, are notoriously shallow, scarcely 10 metres deep in many places, making it easy to spot submarines on their sorties from the island. By establishing a number of man-made island positions in the Spratlys, China seems to be pursuing a number of complementary goals. The first is reducing the ability of the US fleet to operate with impunity throughout the region. It is frequently noted that China’s tiny new islets would be impossible to defend in a conflict, but that is to miss the point. By establishing radar and maritime acoustic arrays throughout the South China Sea, along with surveillance flights of its own, Beijing will improve its real-time information, or situational awareness in the region and enhance its ability to engage enemy combatants before they can approach the Chinese mainland. As noted, with its deep surrounding waters, a place such as Fiery Cross might also serve as a convenient way station for China’s submarines.
It may turn out that the encounter with the US Poseidon surveillance aircraft recorded by CNN was more than passingly revealing about China’s ambitions for its newly built islands, and about the geopolitical contest that will unfold around them. Under Unclos, which China signed in 1996, and the US has never ratified, artificial islands built atop submerged features such as the reefs flown over that day do not entitle a country to territorial rights – and yet, there was the presumed voice of a Chinese soldier telling the Americans to go away.
From declaring that it will not abide by any Unclos ruling against it, it would not be such a large step for China to depart from Unclos altogether – particularly since the US has never joined – and insist that its new positions in the South China Sea be given a wide berth by others, in the surrounding waters and in the skies overhead. Such a decision would be risky for China in terms of the image it would like to project as a peaceable and constructive rising power, but challenging it would be risky for others, not least the US.
On the eve of a recent tour of the region, where he attended an annual Asian security conference in Singapore, the US defence secretary Ashton Carter vowed to frustrate any Chinese efforts to limit the movements of American vessels in the South China Sea. “The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world,” Carter declared in Pearl Harbor. And to this, he joined another vow. “We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come,” he said. Unsurprisingly, in China, people have begun to take a different view of the future. “In 10 years, our GDP will be bigger than the US, in 20 years our military spending will be equal to the US,” said Shen Dingli, one of China’s most prominent international relations scholars, who I met in Washington. “Thirty to 40 years from now, our armed forces will be better than the US. Why would the US defend those rocks? When you have power, the world has to accept. The US is a superpower today, and it can do whatever it wants. When China is a superpower, the world will also have to accept.”More at the Guardian.
Howard French is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers´ request form.
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