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Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 04:48 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 04:48 | SYDNEY

From the comments section: Chinese actions in the South China Sea


8 May 2014 16:43

Featuring the best comments by Interpreter readers, as selected by the editors.

A couple of excellent reader responses to Sam Roggeveen's post on Chinese actions in the South China Sea. First, Mishmael disagrees with Sam's proposal that China could pursue a less risky (and cheaper) 'rise' by limiting defence spending in relation to GDP and doing little to provoke balancing coalitions:

A legitimate if unoriginal suggestion to the CCP leadership. It is not exactly the first time Westerners have suggested or hoped for China to be a different, more post-war German kind of power. Unfortunately, the same suggestions directly ignore several facets of the Asian strategic environment which preclude such an outcome.

1. China is still "incomplete." From the point of view of the Chinese leadership (and a great many of Chinese people) there are still Chinese territories which are still occupied by hostile powers. For example Taiwan and the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. "Peaceful rise" has plainly not worked to resolve these in China's favour, nor has it stopped balancing coalitions from forming on the basis of those disputes.

2. Maritime security. China depends upon trade by sea more than any great power since imperial Britain. Just like imperial Britain, China will seek overwhelming military advantage in what it perceives to be critical maritime areas. As the Malaysian airline tragedy demonstrated, China can neither count upon the willingness, nor the capacity, of local littoral states to defend its interests, therefore necessitating a massive military (particularly naval) build-up.

3. Hostile/threatening states. China's neighbours include some of the most dangerous countries in the world. North Korea is an example that requires no explanation. There are also other countries like Vietnam and Japan who for historical reasons have always sought to militarily compete with China, and their anti-China military posture and strategic planning has predated the contemporary rise of China. Still other countries in the region are weak or unstable, and Chinese interests and people do face significant threats there in which diplomacy or any existing coalition cannot solve.

4. Non-existence of effective regional security frameworks. There simply is no credible forum for China or any other state in the region to resolve disputes safely and fairly. The US alliance system is a hub-and-spokes model which is ineffective at resolving inter-ally disputes (S Korea and Japan) and in any case China is pointedly excluded from that alliance. The Philippines suggested the use of international courts, but to China (and every other claimant in the South China Sea except the militarily weak Philippines) that method is too erosive to their conceptions of state sovereignty. ASEAN was designed to preclude collective action and security dispute resolution. Unlike Europe, for a variety of reasons (I like to emphasise the different US priorities in the early Cold War period) Asia never developed legitimate, effective regional security institutions which might have secured states' interests in a transparent and multilateral fashion.

In this context, telling China to adopt the West's preferred development plan for potential Great Powers sounds extremely disingenuous. A far more effective argument which would have traction with Chinese leaders and thinkers alike would be to attempt a strategy plan from the Chinese perspective. Instead of ignoring or outright denying that China faces threats, seek ways for China to resolve them within its interests. For a variety of reasons, the rise of an anti-China coalition is nigh inevitable. For related reasons, Chinese action to preempt a potentially more disadvantageous strategic outcome, such as Vietnam controlling the South China Sea's oil, are logical. China needs its formidable military not at some point in a rosy future where all disputes have been settled amicably, but right now when the foundations for Asia's future are being hammered out. Unless there is a credible way to do this that is sensitive enough for Chinese interests for China to accept it, China's strategic posture is necessarily that way.

Second, Markus Pfister suggests that China's behaviour may have no logical basis:

You are absolutely correct, Sam. Note that one could have said exactly the same thing to Japan in the early 20th century.

 I am sure you are aware of Luttwak's brilliant recent book The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy. It says everything I want to say but more and better.

It is an error to look for a reason at all. There is none — or at least no rational reason. This whole thing — the public and private rhetoric, the playground bullying — is driven by a profound collective narcissism, with all the greed and bombast and self flattery and desperate need to humiliate others that that implies.

I refer you to Nietzsche's dictum: "Madness, a condition rare in individuals, in peoples, parties, nations, ages is the rule." I realise that you and I are in the business of understanding the laws of collective behaviour, and to this end we assume the existence of reasons as universal as the laws of physics, and we may not want to hear otherwise, but perhaps we are not physicists but social scientists who must study not only normal human behaviour but also dysfunction and insanity, not only Newtonian homo economicus economics but also Einsteinian behavioural economics.

The sad fact is that this China thing is all going to end very badly and so, while like Neville Chamberlain we are duty-bound to do our utmost to try to guide matters back to the path of safety, like Winston Churchill we also have to prepare for the worst. How best to do that, individually and collectively, are two conversations we need to have.

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