For over two years ocean rocks have dominated China’s foreign policy issues. So far the Party has managed to anger virtually all their neighbors and has left an opening for America’s pivot to Asia. In my opinion, regardless of whether or not China’s claims are valid, the gov’t seems to be losing the battle on the international stage.
One afternoon when I was chatting with a typically soft-spoken co-worker about my future plans in the Pacific, she pointed out the Philippines on the map and said, “I hope the ocean swallows this country up so that China doesn’t have to destroy it.” As I picked my jaw up off the floor, she elaborated, “Since I was a little girl, these little islands have been a part of China, and I can’t accept the idea of giving them up. It would make the map look all wrong.”
It was something of a wake up call for me as this insanely nationalistic war call was coming from an individual who has been adamantly against the Communist Party in other discussions. Though I shouldn’t have been too surprised that this person who wanted the best for her country, also wanted her country to be “whole”. To her, war in the region is unavoidable; few things ruffle feathers in China the way discussions of territory do. A Chinese politician giving up historical claims is as likely as a Republican candidate proposing a one child policy.
When we started talking about what might happen if China did need to “wipe the Philippines off the map,” it became clear that there was no victory for China in that scenario (nor would it be good for the Philippines, U.S. or anyone else).
Imagine with me if you will how such a thing would unfold-
First one country, likely after provocation by fishermen, would open fire on an opposing vessel sparking the conflict. If the media is as biased against China as some of the angry youth believe, than surely China would be blamed for the increased aggression regardless of the facts. After all, what benefit would there be for any of the neighboring countries if China were absolved of blame? It would only put them at greater risk in the future. In the U.S. it would excuse a military build-up, and in an election year, who knows how much of a reaction would be needed to keep people’s votes.
As a result of the conflict, the US and neighboring countries would lend military support (or at least some gesture), there would be a call for sanctions, and many individuals would likely boycott Chinese made goods (in addition to those Americans who already do). In the long run, this military conflict would likely cost China’s economy more than the prized oil is worth, and the short-term effects of the economic punishments could seriously undermine employment and by extension, stability (although some argue that a war would give nationalism a pretty healthy boost in an already sagging economy). In the U.S. billions of dollars in investments in China would likely be lost, and the price of goods would swing sharply upward.
War would be lose-lose for all involved.
While I’m in no way an expert on the South China Sea issue, I’ve yet to see a scenario that ends with China maintaining any kind of positive image overseas.
Based on this (oversimplified) thought experiment, to me it seems that China’s best choice is to continue with the plan of waiting to exploit these resources, and encouraging their neighbors to be patient in finding a solution they can all agree on, and prevent the situation from reaching the point that the U.S. feels it needs to get involved. It gives the country the opportunity to lead, offers a second chance at building trust within the region, and keeps the U.S. away from China’s backyard.
Unfortunately, oil isn’t the only resource being considered and appearances must be maintained when it comes to issues of sovereignty (if these “islands” don’t belong to the mainland, Taiwan might start getting ideas….) It seems that Chinese fishermen have depleted their own stocks, and are now searching further afield for fish, leading to standoffs that would otherwise be avoided in Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.
It is China’s environmental issues that are pushing officials (on both sides) to puff up their chests as much as it is the massive quantities of oil that they had been willing to wait for. This makes it much more difficult to reign in, as calling on fleets to stay ashore looks weak domestically, and pushes up already high food prices. I fear that if war does come to this region, it won’t be the result of decisions made in Beijing, as Chinese leaders are aware of the risks, but rash acts by patriots, fishermen, and the forces sent in to deal with them.
I think each issue is different. The Philippines one is where it is most difficult for me to be sympathetic to China, as China’s claims allow almost no room at all for the Philippines to have its own territorial waters, and those islands are very, very far from the Chinese mainland. On the other hand, in the Diaoyu/Senkaku case, while I am by no means an expert, the islands are quite a long way from Japan and there seems to be at least some historical argument for their being Chinese. But ultimately the most important thing is that bloodshed is avoided over uninhabited rocks.
I am somewhat more optimistic than you for two reasons:
a) the economics surely seem to favour China. The world knows that China is a huge economic power, vital to the world’s economy, and surely likely only to increase in economic significance in the future. Therefore there will be quite a lot of pressure on most countries’ leaderships to yield to China and encourage other countries to make concessions to it, and also the need to secure China’s economic development and avoid causing too much economic turmoil will encourage its leaders to be cautious.
b) Technology is constantly advancing. New sources of energy are being discovered; soon maybe there will be no need for petroleum-fuelled vehicles (perhaps hydrogen fuel cells will replace them). If China can wait a decade or so, perhaps it will no longer be so thirsty for oil and the island issues will lose significance.
War is a lose-lose choice, but I think China is currently headed straight for it.
And the likelihood of this choice is only increased by the huge numbers of young men in China that won’t be able to find a wife and settle down – diverting their attention and energy to family life and away from other issues.
One of the main claims of legitimacy for the government domestically is the idea that it is a Chinese government (not foreign or foreign-imposed) and, by fiat, that it will work to create a greater China. In order to perpetuate this claim, it must hold fast to the appetite that it has whetted with the population that it will reclaim all of its “lost” territory (Xinjiang, Xizang (Tibet), Taiwan, Diaoyu/Senkaku, South China Sea and whatever else I’m forgetting at the moment). So, the government is playing with a very dangerous sword. It must appease its domestic constituency by claiming as much lost land as possible while working within the international framework with other nations. So it will bluster where it can and hope that nothing comes to a head. (I should note that all nations face this problem but it is very acute in countries like China where power is held by force, not popular elections.)
Frankly, I would be more worried about what would happen if the government falls or cannot control its citizens (as Tom aptly pointed out here). That is what is much more frightening. Though, to be fair, it is a situation that the government itself has created with its distracting calls to nationalism in order to maintain power.