Why China will go rogue
China is set to defy world opinion and go rogue. Here’s why:
In a few weeks, the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the International Court of Justice in The Hague is expected to be announced. It is widely expected that the tribunal will decide in favor of the Philippines’ central complaint that China’s brazen occupation of rocks, islets and artificial islands in the South China Sea, including the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, violates the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which both nations are signatories. An adverse ruling that rewards China’s bad behavior and makes a mockery of the Unclos would be unthinkable.
China warned in 2013 when the case was filed that it would not recognize the tribunal’s ruling. That is not a frivolous threat. That’s why it solidified its stake in the disputed waters by illegally constructing airfields, docks, and military installations defended by missiles. Obviously, it aims to stay on those facilities for good, confident that possession is supreme to law.
Why would China tarnish its reputation in the global community at a time when its leadership is reaching out to the world?
The answer has nothing to do with its so-called “historical claims” to all the atolls, islets and waters within its arbitrary “nine-dash line” which marks almost the entire South China Sea as its private lake. Prior to 1932, most of China’s treaties, constitutions, maps and official documents identified Hainan island, a mere 19 miles from Guandong province, as its southernmost territory. The historical claims are therefore completely groundless. It’s really all about ambition, national security and power: Xi Jinping’s goal to make his country a credible global power requires that China break out of the encirclement of naval and military bases that the United States deployed around it at the end of World War II. And since it is highly dependent on trade, it is of strategic necessity for China to have significant control over seaways that generate over $5 trillion in trade annually—and waters that may yield enormous natural resources.
A topographic map of China reveals this geopolitical reality: Its land borders in the west, southwest and north are suicidal to invaders, protected as they are by vast deserts, severe weather conditions, high mountain ranges like the Himalayas, and thick jungles in the south. Those borders give China huge buffer zones of natural protection, provided it maintains order in restive Xinjiang and Tibet. China’s geographic vulnerability lies along areas within 300 miles of its coasts, where most of its 1.4 billion people live and where its great cities, farms, and powerhouse industries are located. In short, China is virtually a narrow coastal state, much smaller than its huge size on a map.
It is that coastal vulnerability—in its only verdant side—which made China overreact and consolidate its vast ambiguous claims in the South China Sea, including incursions into Philippine maritime domain beginning in the late 1970s.
From the mid-1980s to 2012, China’s red-hot export economy produced remarkable growth rates, resulting in world-class infrastructure, gleaming megacities, and a burgeoning middle class numbering some 300 million. But with rapid growth came instability marked by widespread corruption and discontent fueled by income disparities in the cities and in the poorer interior parts.
With China’s sputtering economy now facing real estate, stock market and toxic loan bubbles, shuttered factories, alarming unemployment, rising discontent and much slower growth due to mismanagement and the global recession, its leaders are faced with king-size headaches in attempting to strike a balance between ambition, necessity and capability. Xi must control dissent and inspire his people to believe that China has become a global power. By vigorously waving the flag and rekindling Chinese pride and nationalism through political, economic, educational, military, technological-infrastructure symbols and other means, Xi hopes to do just that.
America is keenly aware of China’s intentions and will try to contain Chinese power projection in the South and East China Seas through adroit diplomacy, the help of its allies, and calibrated brinkmanship. But it will be very careful not to (militarily) engage China aggressively and risk falling into what Xi termed an “impossible Thucydides trap” during his state visit to the United States last year. It was an allusion to the escalating tensions between a mighty oligarchic Sparta and a rising democratic Athens that resulted in a protracted war which led to the downfall of the two rival Greek states.
Xi has a point. US-Sino relations, post-Vietnam, has been a peaceful, unique rivalry marked by strategic accommodation in trade, investments, and treasury bonds totaling over $2 trillion. But let us not forget that history is also replete with the folly of leaders and nations whose miscalculations led to war and ruin.
Can Xi succeed in his game plan? It will be a very tough act. Certainly, a struggling Chinese economy and a more independent-minded middle class of rising expectations will work against him as discontent and internal power struggles force the present leadership to be more dictatorial and oppressive.
And by going rogue, how can China keep friends and gain new ones in an interdependent world of growing transparency and rules-based systems? If you seriously violate the playbook on international relations, you must be prepared to pay a heavy price.
Narciso Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.
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