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Three Sides to the South China Sea Issue

If we examine the situation in the South China Sea, we can surmise that there are three mindsets running: the Southeast Asian state wants to exist; the United States sees a Fascist-Communist state wanting to project its power and its ideology to the region; and China simply wants to reestablish the traditional order where their declarations carry the force of international law…

Introduction: the Effects of the Hague Ruling

So the Hague has ruled in favor of guaranteeing exclusive rights to the Philippines in contested waters claimed completely by China.   As expected, China refused to recognize the tribunal, calling it a “puppet court” and insists that the entire South China Sea is within the ambit of its “sovereign domain”.   They are also threatening to impose an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) as a political ultimatum for nations to recognize once and for all its sovereign rights.   For America’s part, it has sent “freedom fleets” across the contested waters not only to project its power but also to “deter apparent Chinese aggression”.    The international media could very well trumpet this as a lead-up to a “superpower showdown”.

If we, however, examine the situation in the South China Sea, we can surmise that there are three mindsets running: the Southeast Asian state wants to exist, and it considers the “incursion” as a threat to its patrimony and existence; the United States sees a Fascist-Communist state wanting to project its power and its ideology to the region; and China simply wants to reestablish the traditional order where the Southeast Asian states looked to them as the final regional authority and their declarations carry the force of international law.

All these perspectives seem to clash, but they each have valid originators.   There are geopolitical, national, and moral aspects in the struggle, and each of them must be carefully examined.   This post then hopes to explore all three viewpoints and conclude with how they converge.   (There are parallels in the Middle East, with the factions of America, Iran and the Arab states).


The Perspective of the Individual Nations (Philippines, Vietnam, e.g.)

               The rights that the Southeast Asian nations enjoy and are expected to enforce were actually only recently given and ratified.   Before the Second World War, these states had no rights to begin with, and were colonies of the Western powers.  They gained sovereignty in the post-war era, in the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s (in the case of Malaysia).  So the definitions of territoriality, national patrimony and sovereignty evolved over time.  The rights to the South China Sea back then were in flux, but before the post-war era the sea was largely partitioned between the Western colonists, and before that by factions struggling in China at the time (the Qing and the remnants of the Ming).   There was defined ownership of the waters, mostly as imperial domains (by the West or China).

The advent of the Japanese conquests changed all that. The Japanese didn’t exactly merely replace the existing rulers of the Southeast Asian nations; at that time, there were already existing nationalist movements clamoring for independence or some degree of autonomy.    In the case of the Philippines, some degree of it had already been granted in the 1930s.   In some rare cases, autonomy hadn’t even gained traction until the Japanese came.   When they did, they broke both the political as well as the psychological control of the European powers over the Southeast Asian colonies.   And though the Japanese maintained primary control over these states, they gave the Southeast Asian states a taste and sense of faux autonomy, and at time came close to self-rule.

So from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, the Southeast Asian nations began to define the extent and limitations of their sovereign rights.    These rights were still under flux (and caused conflict) even through the 1970s and the 1980s.   When Chiang Kai-Shek, representing a Chinese National Government that had mostly controlled China (but never completely), declared that the South China Sea was Chinese territorial waters, nobody protested because there were no existing or well-defined states at that time to protest it.   Everything in the Southeast were in flux, and the waters of the South China Sea had just recently been “liberated” from European/Japanese control.   So far as anyone was concerned, the South China Sea was waters nobody owned, and Chiang’s declaration was premature.   When an enterprising Filipino sailed to the “island dots” in the South China Sea and declared the islands as Philippine territory, he wasn’t invoking ownership by right of historical sovereignty, but by terra nullus—mainly, since nobody owned it, finders keepers.   The Spratlys acquisition was practically by right of conquest.   And in the perspective of the Southeast Asian states, it was a legitimate act because Chiang’s premature declaration in 1945 wasn’t valid because there had been no basis; no international treaty had ratified it, no international body had legitimized it, and it was a unilateral act at a time when there was no “political quorum” among the other states.

The UNCLOS, agreed by the Southeast Asian states and China on the conduct of the states in the South China Sea, was the primary basis the Southeast Asian states had to define the economic and political rights they had to the waters.   It must be remembered that to them, the laws post-WWII were the only ones that defined their territoriality.


The Truman-Eisenhower Doctrine (United States)

               If you analyze all the statements the United States has had pertaining to the South China Sea (including the guarantee for the freedom of navigation in the waters), you could clearly attribute it to a strategy that America adopted and has maintained since the beginning of the Cold War.

America never considered itself a traditional imperialist power.   It was a democratic state, and the lawmakers of the country were subject to the will of their constituents.   And though in the late 1800s there was a jingoistic, racist ideology adhered to by the general American population which helped ratify the annexation of European territories in the name of “inculturation to enlightened American ideals and civilization”, the sentiment changed over time.   They did not consider themselves as “royals” in the old European sense, but “stewards” of the countries they held.   This neo-imperialism was not characterized by a political control, but by an economic-ideological one.   Cuba in the early 1920s would be an example of the American model.   Puerto Rico in the present is also another.   This model sees a degree of local political autonomy, while economically the territory remains tied to the United States.   So except for economic dominance (which they are reluctant to admit), by the 1930s the Americans saw themselves as “stewards” of fledgling autonomous states.

They are actually similar in colonial sentiment as the Japanese.   They also consider themselves as the “liberators” of the old political order, and don the role of “the new conquistadores”, this time in the name of liberal Democracy.   While the Japanese fused traditional and modern styles of imperialist culture, the United States completely embraced a “democratic imperialism” which they considered as the complete opposite of imperialism, since liberal democracy was characterized by the “concept of self-rule by guaranteed freedoms”.   It didn’t make sense to them why nationalist movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America would adopt anything other than “democratic self-rule”, and could do no more than continue to oppose them while trying to promote their perception of self-rule.   In this age of the triumph of liberal Democracy, the Southeast Asian nations would easily think the American mindset and doctrine jived with their own, since “democratic self-rule” fit nicely with their own “postwar autonomy”.   But America is an imperialist, although in the modern, economic-cultural-ideological sense.   It just so happened the individual states are okay with “self-rule ideology”.

Continuing in that train of thought, the Americans ended the Second World War with the collapsed of the old European order, and the traditional “royal-aristocratic imperial” order.   Their ideology of liberal democracy was also opposed to the “rebel ideology” of Fascism which their vanquished foes adopted.  The character of Marxist-Communism, with its rigid enforcement of socio-political control, also seemed Fascist in character.   It just so happened that in the end of the Second World War, the “other half of the world” was ruled and governed by this ideology, with the Soviet Union as its primary seat.    So America and the western “First World” was now opposed to the creeping “Second World” of the Communist states.

While the concepts of sovereignty and patrimony were being defined in Southeast Asia, in the 1950s another concept was forming in the United States politico-military circle.   The “neo-Fascist” Marxist empire was largely characterized geographically by one thing: it stretched to the limits of the borders of Western Europe in the West, and after 1949 the maritime borders of the “free” states of East Asia, North- and South-.   So in the 1950s, President Eisenhower and his generals began a policy of militarized encirclement of the Communist countries. In the Ancient Roman times, Roman generals called it circumvallation, or the encirclement of an enemy army with fortifications.   To the Americans and their allies, it was the policy of containment.   Mainly, “contain Communism within the confines of the Soviet Union and its allies” within the Eurasian landmass.   This involved arming Western Europe, allies in the Middle East and South Asia, and the North- and Southeast democratic states.

Post-1991 and before the ideological decline of liberal democracy in the late 2000s, China remained the only significant Marxist-Communist country left in the world.   The Tiananmen Square tragedy in 1989 validated to the Western world that despite the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s adoption of capitalism in Chinese Communist culture in the late 80s, it remained a repressive, despotic system. America, however, was buoyed by the optimism of the 1990s defined by the collapse of the Soviet Union.   US leaders were of the belief that with due pressure China would be forced through political concessions “free up” the country to the “influx of democratic freedoms”.   This was probably the mentality when it forced China to accept “democratic concessions” in exchange for integration to the World Trade Organization (WTO).    China, however, soon reverted to its traditional hardline Marxist doctrine and policies, and with its consequent economic rise following their entry to the global market, acquired the military infrastructure to project its power if not match the United States.

Faced with a rising Marxist-Communist China, the United States reasserted the Eisenhower doctrine of containment, acquiring strategic “forward bases” from Japan to Vietnam, and militarizing “liberal democratic” states allied to America, akin to their Cold War strategy in Western Europe.   Western analysts have noted that the Chinese military, in response, adopted the “Island Chain Strategy”, which divided East Asia into perimeters or “island chains” that China would hope to control by force or by influence in order to break the containment employed by America.  They are correct in arguing that America’s actions are designed to contain China and stunt its geopolitical rise.    The United States has not changed its Cold War doctrine of containment on China since 1949.

The Old Order (China)

               Communism arrived in China at a time of xenophobic nationalism and was caught in the chaos of that period. The Qing Dynasty, ruling China for centuries, had collapsed before a nationalist movement capitalizing on its weakening from the encroachment of the Europeans.   The Chinese xenophobia was not misplaced: the western interlopers had virtual economic control of key maritime cities in the country, and was slowly partitioning China into personal fiefdoms as it collapsed into warring political factions.   The Communists were only one faction in several controlling different regions in China.  That changed when Chiang Kai-shek, the general who took the reins of power in the Nationalist government, subjugated the other factions and pragmatically co-opted the Communists, before turning on them in the 1930s.   Communism in China had its roots in the early modern period, but China’s geopolitical roots—which it continues to be sensitive about—were centuries deeper.

The genesis of China’s identity date back to ancient times, when Qin Shi Huang led a campaign to conquer independent Chinese kingdoms and establish a “unified” Chinese state under him.   More than creating a national identity, the unified state gave birth to the idea of an “enlightened State” that was the “center of the civilized world”.  This was not unique to China; the Roman Republic/Empire considered itself the “seat of civilization” in its world.   But the idea of the “Middle Kingdom” ruled by the “Son of Heaven” was ingrained in the Chinese mind that a traditional imperial racism towards other people and states was institutionalized.   And to the present time, the idea of successive Chinese states was never considered.   Rather, it was one enduring Chinese state continued by successive rulers.   So even at the beginning, China was never just a state.  It was the “divine empire”.

China espoused a monarch-subject relationship with its neighbors: the independent rulers, upon acceding to power, would pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in exchange for recognition and rewards granted to it by the empire. Early Southeast Asian states, at whatever state of their polity (empire or city-state), always sent a tribute delegation to the Chinese empire and whatever decree the Chinese empire issued had the weight of local law (usurping local rulers often gained the weight of legitimacy from imperial decrees issued by the Chinese emperor).

Owing to the constant presence of nomadic invaders to the north, China for the most part was focused there and consequently inwards.  It was ironically during the Mongol rule (or the Yuan Dynasty) that China began to look outward and assert its presence as imperial lord and master.   With the northern frontier friendly Mongol territory, the Mongol-Chinese rulers, particularly under Kublai Khan, set out to exact recognition of its sovereignty from neighboring territories from Japan to Vietnam.   Expeditions were sent with mixed results in these neighboring states, and the Mongol rulers acted as successors to preceding Chinese emperors and they in turn were recognized by succeeding Chinese emperors and governments.   It was in fact their expedition and declaration of sovereignty by right of conquest of the South China Sea that became the basis of Chiang Kai-Shek’s postwar declaration of sovereignty of the South China Sea.   Right of conquest legitimized by historic right of conquest.

This traditional order between imperial China and client Southeast Asian states was so institutionalized that early European powers colonizing the region had to continue to pay “lip service” to the Chinese empire in exchange for recognition of their sovereignty to their colonies.   It was not until the advent of the English imperialists and their refusal to pay tribute to the empire was this traditional relationship disrupted.   Chinese citizens soon woke up to the reality that not only had the empire lost its influence and power overseas, it was also losing its country to the European interlopers.

It was not until 1949 that China was stable enough to begin the long road to reestablishing this traditional order between it and the Southeast Asian region.   It never forgot that idea of its role as “leader of the world” and its “divine center”, and to that end tried to wrest leadership of the Communist world from the Soviet Union in the 1960s.    It continued to struggle for regional primacy and waged campaigns to project its growing power: against the Soviet Union and India in the 1960s and Vietnam in the 1970s.   Even while it was still under the specter of the Russian giant, it fought and won a shooting war against Vietnam in the South China Sea in the 1980s.

Communist China and its citizens truly believe that the South China Sea is within their domain by sovereign right.  This is not, however, in the modern sense of the word that delimits sovereignty of waters by a few nautical miles from the coast.   China claims ownership of the South China Sea by right of empire, and it is an act towards reestablishing the old order between China and Southeast Asia.  Kublai’s historic claim was not by virtue of the presence of Chinese fishermen in the waters (the Malay fishing ground stretched from there to as far as the eastern Pacific), but by virtue of empire.   Contrary to the belief of the other states, China is not after the few resources the waters provide, or even the strategic value it has on the “Island Chain Strategy” they hope to break the American containment.   Rather, it wants the regional states of Southeast Asia to recognize the old order: that the Southeast Asian states are client-tributary states that owe their economic and political prosperity to the benefits given to it by the Chinese empire.   Once the local state recognizes China’s dominion of the South China Sea, implicitly it is also recognizing the suzerain authority of China and its dependence on the “economic rewards” granted to it by a favoring China.   The drama of the South China Sea is the act of reestablishing the old order of Chinese leadership and suzerainty.   And the Chinese have a different view of UNCLOS: the regional states recognize the authority of the Chinese empire and have agreed on the proper protocols of the relationship.

The statement of Chinese President Xi Jinping before the Chinese Congress exhorting the country to continue to reassert world leadership, among other statements and actions of the Chinese government, is fully in line with this belief.

How the three Perspectives Intersect

               While identifying with modern Marxist dogma, for all intents and purposes China is a model of the old, traditional style of rule, exemplified by the perception that the things that the average citizen enjoys is granted as a privilege by the State and not an inherent right.    It also embraces the belief of the traditional role of client-tributary by the regional states of Southeast Asia in relation to the Chinese empire.   Everything that it has ever done has been under this mindset, and it does not believe in gaining superpower status in the modern sense but in the reassertion of its old imperial status as the “center of the civilized world”.

But the post-colonial Southeast Asian states identify their national identities and patrimonies away from their traditional subject roles.  The definition of their sovereignty and self-actualization is based on international laws and national declarations ratified on the postwar era and implicitly nullifies the roles and laws that defined their traditional client status from either the European or Chinese masters. It is therefore this postcolonial sentiment that horrifies the regional state of China’s assertion of its traditional role of imperial lord and master.   Like Vietnam and the Philippines (two of the most vocal of the regional states), the regional Southeast Asian state considers any assertion of external control within the area exclusively guaranteed by postwar laws as an invasion of its sovereignty and—more importantly—a threat to its national existence.   The most aware of these states are particularly sensitive to any re-imposition of the old colonial order from any existing power.

The United States has been used by some of these states (e.g. Philippines) as a guarantor of their sovereignty.  Lacking the adequate force to repel overwhelming Chinese force, they consider American troops as adequate substitute for their own military deficit.   In turn, this dependence on American force has earned it an image of being a “puppet of American interests”.   Alliance alone with the Americans is considered a “deterrent” to what they consider as “Chinese imperialism”.   The Americans, however, are using the Southeast Asian sentiments to push the states towards pursuing the Western superpower’s policy of containment with China.   The United States would support the Southeast Asian state so long as it coincided with its own politico-military doctrine against China.

One could look at the United States’ evolving relationship with Iran as a model.   When it was a conservative, hardline Islamic state that defined itself in opposition to American culture, successive American governments refused to have a dialogue with Iran, empowering the Persian neighbors who incidentally were threatened by encroaching Iranian influence in the region.   However, as Iran became more moderate, leaning its ideology more liberally, it became more “acceptable” and has acquiesced to Iranian influence in the region, implicitly sharing geopolitical power with them.

This should have been the kind of accommodation China would have with the United States: America would implicitly acquiesce to Chinese influence in the region, and share geopolitical power with them.   By implication, China would be “granting” America the exercise of external power and influence over Chinese tributaries.  However, (and this is the only reason Southeast Asia is still regionally independent), China’s Marxist-Communism is doctrinally opposed to America’s liberal democratic ideology.   The continuing stream of news of Chinese repression of civil liberties, from arrests to censorship, and its gradual strangulation of freedoms in westernized parts like Hong Kong all convince the United States that China remains morally despotic.    With China unrepentantly Marxist-Communist and repressive (Xi Jinping recently exhorted “Marxism with a Chinese character”), the United States sees it as an obligation to deny China the power to project the “evils of its ideology”, until, like Iran, substantial reforms (at least those publicized) “liberalize” China.   China never had a democratic experience, in all its history. The only western ideology they adopted was Marxism, and it was characterized by socio-cultural control.    They never knew “freedom by right” but only “freedom granted”.   So they consider American insistence as an “intrusion” to the way “they always were”.

The diplomatic solution has always lent itself as the best solution.    America has always been lenient to former political enemies so long as reforms substantial enough as to “promote more democratic exercise” are done.  That has been the case with Myanmar.  That has also been the case with Vietnam.  China was allowed to enter the World Trade Organization after it agreed to “reforms” that exercised more “freedoms of expression” and leaned to “democratic” policies.   If China genuinely acquiesced to these “democratic reforms” and not considered them as “imperialist concessions”, then America could in turn be open to accommodation to sharing “power and influence” with China, the way the latter has always viewed it.   And, the regional states could accommodate China by recognizing it as an equal “sharing” in “influence” within the region.   That is actually the case that I think the Philippine President wants to project: that they recognize the “influence” of China within the region but not in the traditional model but in the American model, as “equals” partaking in the region.   Only if all these accommodations, from reform to recognition, are made, can there be a settlement in the South China Sea.   As it stands, nobody has given way so everybody ends up losing.

UPDATE 01-04-2017:  Perhaps a chilling reference to read (though several years old), is Asia’s Cauldron: the South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.  It actually details the Philippines as a failed state, but it mostly predicts a gloomy future.    The author of this is none other than the primary author of the Stratfor website, known for its geopolitical analysis and news.

Another recent reference I just acquired was Sea Rovers, Silver and Samurai: Maritime East Asia in Global History, which tries to explain the historical value and context of the South China Sea (how pirates and navies navigated the sea, and how the Chinese instituted bans and proclamations on the use of the waters several times).

Both references I used extensively.