My Newsweek Japan Story on the Sino-Vietnamese Clash in the South China: End of the Peaceful Rise?

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Nwk J Vn China

Below is the English version of my essay for the current volume of Newsweek Japan. (Japanese version here.)

Regular readers will know that I have argued for awhile that we (the US) should not provoke China into unnecessary hostilities. I’ve thought for awhile that Hugh White’s idea of a concert in Asia is the most likely to insure peace. If the US insists on giving no ground, then a Sino-US conflict out of sheer misperception is likely. But accommodating China can’t be seen as an invitation to bully the neighborhood – just not so much as to cause a war with America. So it is a fine line to walk, and China certainly isn’t helping. In the last year, it has picked fights with Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines. Like most people, I find this pretty scary, but also somewhat inexplicable. Increasingly, I think the ‘peaceful rise’ days are over (argued below), but this might also be external fallout of a new Chinese administration looking to prove itself to the PLA. I hope I am wrong…

“On May 2, China placed an oil rig inside Vietnam’s offshore exclusive economic zone. This deployment was accompanied by some 80 ships, include armed warships. Vietnam responded by sending out its coast guard. These ships were meet by ramming and water-cannon. This in turn sparked anti-Chinese rioting in Vietnam that has killed dozens and sent Chinese workers fleeing the country. In the last year, China has also tangled over islands in the South China Sea near the Philippines and with Japan over Senkaku.


These naval tussles fit with a larger pattern of Chinese maritime behavior in the last 5 years or so. The 2008 Olympics are widely understood in China as a mark of its return to global prominence and great-power status. Since then, China has taken a tougher line promoting its territorial claims in both the East and South China Seas. The new Chinese premier, Xi Jinping, perhaps to prove his bona fides to the powerful military, also seems to be flirting with ‘maritime nationalism’ as a legitimating ideology. He has overseen three territorial contests (with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam) in just one year.

The anti-Chinese sentiment on display on Vietnam is a risk to Xi, even if it was government-encouraged. If it spreads, it could help tighten an anti-Chinese coalition running from India east and then north through Southeast Asia to Japan. East Asia’s elites do not want confrontation with China, but as Asia democratizes, ignoring public opinion will get harder. Xi, coming from a repressive dictatorship that ‘manufactures’ faux-public opinion, may not realize how important street pressure can be in democracies. And democracies, like the Philippines, encourage the natural sympathy of one another, including the Americans. Xi, new to his position and anxious to placate military hawks at home, may not see that he is playing with fire.

The End of the ‘Peaceful Rise’?

In the early years of the new century, as China increasingly looked set to become a future superpower, a senior Chinese academic famously declared in the magazine Foreign Affairs, that China would pursue a “peaceful rise.” As Chinese strategists looked at history, they saw the rise of new, powerful states threatening older, established states. Just in the 20th century, the rapid rise of Germany twice destabilized the global status quo, as did Japan, and the Soviet Union. In each case, a cold or hot war ensued; the challenger inspired so much fear that a massive coalition balanced against it and brought it to its knees. Indeed, China had direct experience with this; it was a part of both the anti-Japanese and anti-Soviet coalitions. So China was to be different this time. It would learn from the past to reassure its neighbors.

Two elements would reassure the region: First, China’s rapid growth would not frighten its neighbors or overawe others; instead it would attract them. All Asia could trade with China in a mutually beneficial cycle. And today, Asia’s economies are in fact deeply interdependent. Second, China would pursue the peaceful resolution of border disputes. Overlapping territorial claims are one of the surest causes of war in the modern period. China itself has gotten pulled into past border conflicts with the Soviet Union, India, and Japan. So ‘peaceful rising’ China would show its magnanimity through generous conflict resolution. Indeed, China is so much stronger now than many of its neighbors, that it can easily afford to make concessions in order to signal its benign intentions.

Curiously, for reasons we do not entirely know, this seems to apply only to China’s land borders. In the East and South China Seas, China has never signaled much willingness to compromise. As early as the early 1990s, China was making capacious claims to the Spratly Islands which lie far closer to the (southern) Philippines and Malaysia than mainland China. And roughly since the 2008 Olympics, China has stepped up its claims to the Scarborough Shoal, near the northern Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, near Vietnam.

Increasingly it looks like the period of the peaceful rise is over. This is not clear yet, and major regional powers, such as Japan, the US and South Korea are still hesitating. Openly lining up against China would be a major step; no one takes it lightly. But the tempo and toughness of China’s maritime claims seem to be quickening. Particularly, the Chinese dispute over Senkaku, with the world’s third largest economy, which is allied to the world’s largest economy, suggests a greater willingness of China to take risks to change the regional status quo. Is the peaceful rise finished? Is China turning into the aspirant for regional hegemony that so many fear and that ‘peaceful rise’ was to forestall? If so, Asia’s politics will become far more dangerous in the coming decades, with a major threat of conflict.

What are China’s Maritime Claims?

Since the 1940s, both the communist government of mainland China, and the republican government, later of Taiwan, have published maps of the South China Sea that include the so-called ‘nine-dash line.’ It reaches fairly deep, intruding into waters that might even be claimed by countries as far south as Indonesia and Malaysia. In the south, the Chinese claim includes the Spratly Islands; in the northwest, it includes the Paracel Islands. The states most effected are the Philippines and Vietnam – not surprisingly the two countries that have tangled most with China recently.

However, China is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In fact, all the states involved in the South China Sea tangle have signed (as have Japan and South Korea). UNCLOS gives signatories a 200 miles (370 km) ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ (EEZ). By this benchmark, China’s deepest claim would extend south from Hainan Island to roughly the Paracel Islands. Hence China’s current claim deep into the South China Sea is extraordinarily capacious, wildly beyond anything that UNCLOS might reasonably permit, and no other country has recognized China’s huge, extra-UNCLOS jurisdiction.

Given this, China has instead resorted to a strategy of picking up various islands and shoals in the South China Sea, from which it might then claim its EEZ extends another 200 miles. This is very clever, as it allows China to ‘leap-frog’ from island to island, with each island extending Chinese sovereignty in a domino effect. This is far craftier than taking the whole South China Sea in one fell swoop – a move that would surely activate resistance.

This logic is how China justifies the current oil rig. China claims the Paracels, several hundred miles south of Hainan, which in turn allow China to project another 200 miles of sovereignty from them. If that logic is accepted, then the rig is in China’s EEZ. And this is precisely what the Chinese foreign ministry has argued: these waters are Chinese, and there is no dispute.

But UNCLOS does not necessarily support such hop-scotching claim-making. Islands cannot necessarily be used to extend an EEZ. The islands must be inhabited and capable of supporting life. They cannot simply an uninhabited rock or shoal. Indeed, this wording was included in UNCLOS precisely to prevent the kind of rolling claims China is now attempting. To permit that would allow states to project unreasonably far from their mainland, and generate spiraling claim-overlaps and lots of conflict – again exactly what is happening now in the South China Sea.

UNCLOS further requires that states must negotiate over the precise border when their EEZs overlap. (This is why control of Dokdo/Takeshima would not influence the Korea-Japan maritime border, contrary to widespread belief.) Hence, even if China’s rather flimsy EEZ claim from the Paracels is accepted, the rig’s current position would still violate UNCLOS, because it overlaps with Vietnam’s EEZ, and China did not consult Vietnam. It just put the rig in place without notification, and backed it up with warships. It is hard to read China’s move as any other than provocative.

Geopolitical Fallout

China’s behavior is hard to read, and it is important to not get carried away. China hawks often focus on China’s support for North Korea, its testy relationship with Japan, and capacious claims in the South China Sea to suggest that China is dangerous and bent on expansionism. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may himself believe this. But it should also be noted that China’s claims so far have been to uninhabited maritime spaces of unproven economic value. Nor do China’s neighbors spend enormous sums of money on defense, which one would expect if they perceived China as a major threat. David Kang of the University of Southern California has found that East Asian states spend on defense about as much, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), as Latin America, where war has not be a serious diplomatic tool in a century. This is a curious, unexpected finding, but, to take Japan as an example, for all Abe’s tough talk on China, Japan continues to spend less than 1% of GDP on defense.

A helpful analogy here might be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent Anschluss (the German term for the Nazi absorption of Austria in 1938) of Crimea. Putin, angry and paranoid, openly annexed a large, developed, populated land-space. In the wake of that, western opponents invoked the Austrian Anschluss or the Nazi absorption of Czechoslovakia as parallels. Putin was accused of 19th century power politics in the 21st century. Russia is now under sanction; the ruble and the Russian stock market are sliding; growth is slowing; and American soldiers and hardware are now rotating through NATO’s eastern-most members. Putin’s authoritarian regime may enjoy a boost of nationalist approval, but the shenanigans in Ukraine will further accelerate Russia’s medium-term decline.

Beijing is far smarter. It is often said the China has learned a lot from the collapse of the USSR, but post-Cold War Russia too is a useful object lesson. Putin has continued to act as if Russia is a superpower equivalent to the US. He picks fights he cannot win and has alienated the world by nationalist posturing and paranoid conspiracy theories. Crimea is the logical consequence. China by contrast is calculating and determined. Instead of large, Crimea-like claims backed by a show of force sure to galvanize opposition, China pushes a little here and a little there. It makes ‘shadow claims,’ kinda-sorta-maybe claims. These can easily be walked back if the response is too harsh or the publicity is too awful. But if they go uncontested, the claims can settle in over time and then be re-understood as definitive later on.

And frequently these claims are made though non-military actors, so that they do not look like a formal declaration of sovereignty by official state channels. Fisherman, oil-drillers, airlines, coast-guard ships, and so on are often the leading edge of Chinese claims. Should they get in trouble, China can always say they do not represent the state, or conversely, use their arrest as a nationalist rallying moment. The contrast here with Putin blundering into Crimea with special forces or threatening eastern Ukraine with invasion is obvious. Putin is under sanction, while China might get sued at the toothless World Court.

Examples of this Chinese informal claim expansion include the behavior of Chinese fishermen in the Yellow Sea, where they are routinely arrested by the South Korean coast-guard, but keep coming back. Or the expansion of China’s air defense identification zone last year that provoked such a sharp response from Japan and South Korea. Or the promotion of fishing, oil exploration, sea-bed mining, and so on in the South China Sea. All involve non-state actors with informal state support. These private actors carry the flag, without formally carrying the flag – a useful, purposeful confusion. Their actions never rise to the level of major conflict requiring the attention of the Americans. But if their operations settle in – as they seem to be on the Scarborough Shoal, which China has effectively annexed from the Philippines – then it will be very hard to dislodge them.

What to Do?

Responding to this is far trickier than Crimea, where Putin’s thuggery is in clear form. China’s claims are small enough that convincing the Americans to act will be hard. The US is war-weary after a decade of the war on terrorism. It is still recovering from the Great Recession and would like time off from major new international conflicts – as the enormous opposition to intervention in Syria demonstrated. It is hard to imagine the US risking war over the Spratlys or Paracels. Indeed, I believe US public opinion would not support war with China just over Senkaku either, regardless of what President Obama recently said.

So the traditional Asian reflex of calling the Americans is not enough. The Americans would indeed help if China invaded a neighbor, Crimea-style, but the Chinese are too smart for that. These island disputes are simply not enough for the US to risk war with China. Worse, American intervention is easily manipulated by China as imperialism or ‘hegemonism.’ A Chinese general, in a press conference last Thursday, already blamed the Sino-Vietnamese tension on the American ‘pivot’ to Asia. America is a convenient whipping boy that allows China to change the subject. Instead, East Asian states need to:

1) Start cooperating much more seriously among themselves. American analysts have been saying for a long time that the inability of Asian states to cooperate on defense – that the US has multiple bilateral defense treaties with individual states, rather than one NATO-like multilateral treaty – is redundant and wasteful. It is long overdue for Japan and Korea, e.g., to bury the hatchet and seriously cooperate. China gleefully exploits the Pacific War to isolate Japan. Similarly, ASEAN finally needs to get its act together. It is 40+ years old, but continues to fail to present China with a unified position on the South China Sea.

2) Reach out the incoming Indian government. Narendra Modi is wild card at the moment. But he is a Hindu nationalist by belief, not a Congress socialist. He almost certainly takes a dim view of Chinese expansionism, as the Chinese navy has sought to operate in the India Ocean as well. And Abe has indeed reached out to India before.

The Chinese move into Vietnamese waters is yet another small step by China indicating that the days of the peaceful rise are concluding, and that time of nationalist assertion is coming. In this, PM Abe may find a hidden relief. He must feel vindicated; of all of Asia’s leaders, he has been the most hawkish on China. He has long realized that Japan is a unique bulwark against Chinese regional hegemony – if that is indeed what China seeks. China still had time to change course; its halting, on-again-off-again pressure on its neighbors suggests there is a policy battle occurring in Beijing over just how much to push the neighborhood. We often assume that the civilian party leadership struggles against the military, but we do not really know. If the Chinese leadership, whether military or civilian, does not bring the ‘nine-dash line’ into greater conformity with UNCLOS, maritime stand-offs such as this current one in Vietnam will occur more frequently.

Filed under: Asia, China, International Relations Theory

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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