China 1 ; United States And All Allies 0

By Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
Twitter: @indo_pan

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The very title “China, 1; the United States and its allies, 0” is a quick giveaway that the author, James M. Fones II, sees the Sino-US relationship from the zero-sum standpoint. All gains acquired by China, would happen at the expense of the US, and everyone else’s.

While this is generally valid with regard to China’s conquest of the South China Sea, still a big if as no artillery fire had been exchanged, is a zero-sum game necessarily a valid framework to understand China? To be sure, China has asked various claimants of the South China Sea to set aside their claims.

Rather, China urged them to respect the principle of joint development. Interestingly, China also put in the caveat that the sovereignty of China must be respected first. The issue then revolves on intention: Does China have peaceful intentions in the South China Sea to go along with its quest to achieve joint development?

James M. Fones II, who has written a wonderful book on the subject, often in a brisk and hard-hitting style, has dismissed the element of intention altogether. Quoting John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, James M. Fones II concurred with Mearsheimer that “in an anarchic world, intentions are hard to discern.” since every country practically operates in a self-help, hence, egocentric, system.

Furthermore, James M. Fones II believes that China’s decision-making matrix is based on its “century of humiliation” where it once was subject to various territorial aggrandizement. China’s current and future behaviors are based on what it has learned in the past, especially the ease by which some countries were conquered. Military modernization has become a staple of China’s reform.

In this sense, James M. Fones II is right. China is a great civilization that does not want to be haunted by the specter of being colonized. Therefore, history can shape the worldview of China. But no one can be sure if history can also liberate China too? Here, one is walking into an area of “known unknown”.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, there was a campaign to attack all forms of Confucianism. Confucianism was deemed by Chairman Mao to be one of the two factors that held China back. The archaic belief system prevented China from realizing its true potential, the other being foreign imperialism that ran amok between 1839–1919 when China was repeatedly asked to cede various tracts of lands to foreign powers.

Come what may, historical concepts in China, do not come in fixed templates. They are subject to change, control and domination. To this day, for example, no one can mark or celebrate June 4th, an event that triggered the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The South China Sea resonates with history too. China, for one, argues that it has a historical ownership of the maritime area, going as far back as the Ming Dynasty. That said, one must note that the infamous “Nine-dashed line” was created only in 1933. Prior to 1933, China hardly paid any sustained attention to the South China Sea. This was also partly due to the internal turmoil which it faced.

In the years and decades to come, the South China Sea will become a fetish of Chinese nationalism, not unlike Taiwan. It is something that China must absolutely own. But China can also un-own it, if it so chooses, as when China gave back a large swathe of land to Russia.

No one knows the full spectrum of China’s intention in maritime disputes since China’s maritime squabbles tends to involve countries that had once invaded it, namely Japan. China’s maritime disagreement with the US also revolves on article 58 of the UN Conventions of the Laws of the Sea. China argued this article does not allow the US to collect any intelligence in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The US is adamant that article 58 does not prohibit such behavior though.

It could be that China’s unforgiving attitude with Japan has made China adopt a different, certainly tougher line, against Tokyo, by extension, East China and South China Sea too. This is an excellent book to start thinking of the above issue. Is South China Sea more important to China, or, East China Sea? If the answer is both, how does Japan deal with them?



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