SCMP by Leslie Fong, 29.3.2018:
China believes those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to re-live them – and it has many bitter lessons from which to choose
The latest spat between the United States and China following the entry of an American destroyer into waters within 12 nautical miles of an island over which Beijing has claimed sovereignty is certain to draw international attention again to the rapid military build-up by the Chinese in the South China Sea.
China has dubbed the USS Mustin’s foray into waters near Mischief Reef as a “serious military provocation” and said it had to dispatch two frigates to “warn off” the American destroyer, which, according to a US official, was carrying out a “freedom of navigation” operation.
With the administration of US President Donald Trump already turning tough on China, there is every chance such operations will be stepped up to show Beijing that it cannot continue to extend its military reach into the South China Sea without a vigorous response from Washington.
Add to this the imminent deployment of British and French naval vessels to the South China Sea as a show of strategic intent to China, and the stage is set for another sharp increase in tension.
The move by Britain and France is purportedly to demonstrate European solidarity with the US and its staunch allies like Japan and Australia in standing up to a rising China that they believe wants to challenge the rules-based international order that has been in place since the end of the second world war.
But it will change nothing. There is little chance that Beijing will slow down, let alone stop, its massive effort to construct runways and other facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea for its fighter aircraft and warships. If anything, it will step up the pace. Why?
The answer that Washington would like to have the world believe is that Beijing wants primacy over the South China Sea and is set on acquiring the ability to project military power to enforce that claim.
Coming from a country which has stated openly, in its National Security Strategy, that it will not countenance the rise of any other power to challenge its global dominance and which has some 900 military bases and facilities around the world to back that up, that is, well, a bit rich. Which is the country that regards the Gulf of Mexico as its backyard and wants all others to back off?
Not surprisingly, the Chinese, from the other side of the looking glass, see the growing tension over the South China Sea quite differently – it is the US that is playing up the fortification of those islands as a prelude to Chinese intimidation of its neighbours, just so it can maintain or even increase its armed presence in waters not far from China’s 14,500km coastline.
Beijing is convinced that Washington is trying all ways to contain China’s emergence as an equal – increasing freedom of navigation patrols to challenge any Chinese move to deny the US Seventh Fleet area access, fostering closer defence cooperation through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with Japan, Australia and India and, in the latest turn of the screw, calling for an alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative for massive infrastructure projects linking Europe and Asia.
Challenge the international rules-based order? Beijing is unlikely ever to let slip any hint of wanting to do that even if it is so minded. At the same time, however, it does not see the need to apologise for the prevailing view in China that its sovereignty should not be compromised by rules written by Western powers at a time when China and many other countries, for that matter, were too weak to stand up for their interests and rights.
The 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which left open the ownership of Xisha (Paracel), and Nansha (Spratly) islands in the South China Sea, is one prime example. China, which has long claimed sovereignty over these islands, was not even invited to the deliberations led by the US and Britain under the auspices of the United Nations to formalise the return of what Japan plundered from the countries they conquered during the Pacific War.
This sowed the seeds of the present disputes among claimant countries. One cannot help but wonder whether ownership of these islands would still be an issue had the British and the Americans not shut the door on Communist China then because of the looming cold war.
For the record, China, in fact, does abide by rules laid down under international accords, whether on climate change or exploration in the Arctic and Antarctica, but just not those that it thinks will undermine its sovereignty or core interests. It is not alone in taking such an approach – the US, for instance, does not want to be bound by rulings handed down by the International Criminal Court.
Thus to conclude that China is bulking up militarily because it wants to be able to throw its weight around and force others into submission is a presumptive judgment. Washington, which practically invented the term “regime change”, should be the last to cast this stone.
There is no denying, of course, that China is growing in confidence and wants a larger voice and role on the international stage. Indeed, its leader Xi Jinping said as much recently, in a notable departure from the policy of keeping a low profile advocated by predecessor Deng Xiaoping and adhered to by Deng’s successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Xi has left no one in any doubt that China would want a place at the top table, but not at the pleasure of the Americans.
In sum, is China arming itself to the teeth because it wants, in a crunch (over Taiwan for example), to be able to say no to the US? Most probably. Or is China doing so in the expectation that cowering neighbours will always say yes? I don’t think so but we shall see.
Still, why is China so hell-bent on pushing ahead with the military build-up when it knows full well that this is certain to raise suspicions, even from those who bear no ill will towards the country?
The answer is that China does not want to feel vulnerable ever again. It believes in the adage that those who failed to learn the lessons of history are doomed to re-live them. And among the bitter lessons for China is this – sovereignty must be underpinned by strength.