My international relations students asked last week: Why is China so sensitive and aggressively assertive in the South China Sea claiming almost all of it as its territory including what is supposedly international waters where some $5 trillion of commercial shipping ply annually?
Although I have more than 60 years of professional experience as international wire service correspondent in the Asia-Pacific region, broadcast journalist, editor-in-chief and publisher for Manila and Bangkok newspaper groups, I compared notes with other geopolitical analysts, veteran national security advisers and experienced ambassadors/diplomats who prefer to remain unnamed.
Our common conclusion: China’s national dream and foreign policy basis is to regain—at all costs—its past “glory when the Middle Kingdom’s role in world affairs was dominant” and the “Silk Road” commercial routes by land and sea were traced and made famous by Marco Polo.
This ambition was launched by Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong after he won the civil war against Nationalist Party head Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
Chiang and his American-supported troops fled to Formosa (now known as Taiwan) across the Strait of Formosa and pushed for its economic progress ahead of the Chinese mainland which still claims Taiwan as its “rebel province.”
When US President Richard Nixon had his State Secretary Henry Kissinger negotiate for the restoration of diplomatic relations with communist China in the early 1970s, the Mao regime agreed not to use force to unite Taiwan with the mainland.
Originally, China was not the contiguous land mass of 1.3 billion people it is today. It was composed of different warring tribes but was unified by the harsh warlord Genghis Khan from Mongolia who overran all these clans in fierce battles, and ruled them as a ruthless dictator.
But European and Japanese imperial colonial masters dominated China, heightened by the Opium War when the British penetrated China by infiltrating and taking over Hong Kong in 1877. London developed it into a trading and shipping hub in East Asia under a 100-year lease. The Hong Kong dollar was developed and issued by the British Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp.
The Japanese occupied and ruled Manchukuo (Manchuria) but returned it to Nationalist China in 1945 after the Japanese, with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, lost World War 2 to the Allies.
Mao proclaimed that period from the Opium War until 1949 as “two million years of humiliation” and vowed to take China’s revenge. His successor Deng Deng Xiaoping strategized it successfully by pursuing an industrial-export economy under the CCP ruling Central Committee. Now, after 30 years, China’s leadership has elevated their economy to the world’s second biggest, next only to the US after knocking down Japan to No. 3 and Europeans further below.
And China works patiently (time is “our greatest partner in progress”) to achieve its objectives in timelines of 100 years. China’s revenge path is obviously designed to have a military buildup to match the US and Russian military forces in 2049—a mere 31 years ahead—or a century after Mao vanquished Chiang.
Logically, to the Chinese and its collective leaders, this objective and the attendant strategic and tactical moves dictate that Beijing declare China is not a nation-state under the Westphalia Treaty which recognized nations as sovereign states under an international law definition.
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China proclaims itself a civilization state—meaning it pre-dated any other sovereign or independent country and recognized as such internationally by the family of civilized nations.
That convenient reasoning appears, to Beijing’s Central Committee headed by President Xi Jinping (who is also commander in chief of the People’s Liberation Army), that China can choose which international laws or rulings of the United Nations and international courts Beijing would honor as part of domestic laws and apply on China.
Thus, Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, the islands, coral reefs and atolls in it and does not recognize any other international law or legal ruling from any source if it applies against its “territorial claims” regardless of the disputed site.
Anyway, there is no effective international law enforcer so Beijing ignores any world opinion or protests against its claims or action.
If we recall, it was US President Barack Obama who could have stopped Beijing from reclaiming and militarizing the Spratlys and the West Philippine Sea atolls and reefs—when the Chinese economy was still way behind Japan, Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Canada, Russia and Brazil. But the Obama regime refused to do that. And China has quietly erected military facilities in the South China Sea, asserting its occupation of these man-made islands as proof of its territorial sovereignty because occupation and control is 99.99 percent sovereignty.
Obama could have followed the Vietnamese tactics against China. In 1997 the Chinese troops crossed their common border and occupied northern Vietnamese territory. General Nguyen Giap whose troops had defeated the French in Dienbienphu in 1954 and the Americans in Saigon in 1975 shot back at the invaders.
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The PLA hightailed it back to China claiming it was returning home after “having taught the Vietnamese a lesson.” Vietnam did it again less than three years ago when the Chinese towed its huge oil rig into Vietnam’s northern territory between Haiphong and Hue to drill oil from the ocean floor. Hanoi’s navy rammed the Chinese fishermen in Cam Ranh Bay and burned Hanoi’s Chinatown.
The Chinese sent its prime minister to apologize to Hanoi and withdrew the oil rig back to Hainan, where its air force and naval units are stationed watching the South China Sea.
Expect Beijing to use its propaganda offensive and its offers of technological and financial assistance to all the 10 members of the Asean while expanding its military capabilities in the South China Sea. It will use all the available economic weapons in its arsenal to have its diplomatic leverage over the poor and less developed Asean members.
At the same time, it will boost its military capabilities proportionately as its economy soars. Beijing believes it will replace the US as the world’s hegemon in this 21st century, as the American popular democratic leadership is now threatened by disunity over domestic socio-political issues and fiscal management problems.
These strategies and tactics are part of Chinese author Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. All national leaders should read it to understand Beijing’s diplomatic, economic and military moves are meant to obtain its world geopolitical and economic goals.
China is copying exactly what America did in attaining its economic successes after the World War 2, throughout the Cold War and through the economic crises from 1929 through the last decade.
Reliance on one sovereign friend or ally is disastrous and can always lead to the less developed or poor nation’s disadvantages. It creates more disadvantaged or poorer people in the small country.
The only solution: Be a friend and ally of all and an enemy of none. That is not tough to do as long as the leadership keeps the national interest always the priority in any deals or negotiations.
Guillermo (or Gil) H. A. Santos writes for the Manila Times. He was previously the Executive Director of the Philippine Press Institute and a desk editor and news correspondent for the Associated Press. He also worked as a Philippine presidential campaign consultant on geopolitics and economics.
This article was also published in The Manila Times.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.