China’s Troubled Water

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

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Steve Chan affirmed, at the outset, that his book will not repeat the conventional/popular views “out there” on China. Ostensibly, that would put him right smack in the thick of how to chronicle China in the most authentic or original manner without being seen as biased? Worse, without being seen as “pro-China” in order not to be seen as “anti-China”? Steve Chan, an experienced and seasoned Sinologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, would just like to get the facts straight on the maritime issues in South China Sea, which is now connected to India Ocean per the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the Association of Southeast Asia Nation (ASEN), Australia, India, Japan and the United States. More countries in European Union and elsewhere are bound to accept the Indo-Pacific arena as the most critical geo-political and geo-economic theater of great powers relations.

To be sure, having gone through 40 years of economic ascendance, China is an economic juggernaut that some even the likes of Rand Corporation in the United States believe can eclipse the United States in terms of the size of Gross Domestic Product a few years sooner than 2029.

That, naturally, implies the top dog status of the United States in the world, including the ever important South China Sea, could fall under the total sway of China; which the United States have to keep China at bay without which the balance of power as the member states of Southeast Asia Nations interpret it would be “imbalanced”.

Invariably, what more can be said about China though? Anything new on China, including the outbreak of the pandemic in Wuhan has been covered quite extensively. But Steve Chan believes the maritime dispute in the South China Sea deserves critical reflection.

This novelty is done through Steve Chan’s theory of bargaining, which is the core of the book. According to him, some if not all states may do their earnest to avoid wars and conflicts. They are not as belligerent as some academics tend to suggest. For example, neither Britain nor Argentina wanted to be enmeshed in a war over the Falklands Island.

The latest was an area that remains neither strategic nor important to both sides. Indeed, it was described by an Argentinian writer Jorge Borges as “two bald men fighting over a comb”, a phrase repeated by Steve Chan in the book. Yet, the two states fought over it. Furthermore, it was too late for the United States to stop the war too.

According to Steve Chan, by deploying the theory of bargaining, one can illuminate China’s position in the South China Sea. First of all, in any situation of bargaining, or alternatively game theory, one member state will try to anticipate what the other is doing in order to deter or pre-empt it; ideally to get the other side to change its behavioral trajectory.

Secondly, the whole process of trying to anticipate another state’s behavior, is the essence of strategy too. But within the context of this second simple strategy, lies a whole spectrum of emotions, which remain rational, but are nonetheless still propelled by factors such as fear, honor, anxiety, insecurity and pride.

All these emotions lie dormant and latent in China. However, as China emerges as a major power, its century-long investment in the value and belief of protecting its non-negotiable sovereignty has naturally become more poignant; as is the legitimacy of its cause, and the local/national popularity with which it gains from its one-upmanship viz another country, especially great power. These emotions are powerful in light of China’s umpteenth humiliations by great powers too.

Thus, if one were to see China and South China Sea from the twin combo of cold hearted calculations and hot headed-ness, one may begin to understand why China behaves the way that it does on the Nine Dashed Line. In fact, no one knows if China is insisting on defending its territories within the Nine Dashed Line, or, the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ)as well. If the latter is the case, then China’s EEZ would overlap with that of other claimants, potentially, Indonesia’s EEZ that surrounds the North Sea of the Natuna Island.

Granted that there are two sides to China’s behavior, one driven by increasing military firmness, while another propelled by unclear yet potentially expansive ambitions, Steve Chan argues that the situation in South China Sea, as it applies to Sino-US relationship now, is extremely fluid. It will not necessarily lead to war and conflict; nor joint development.

Rather, anything that can happen, will happen; no doubt. But be it war, or peace, it is subject to the two countries' efforts to try to work things out, either between themselves, or, together with other Southeast Asian claimants.

However, the one nagging problem of this book, despite its relatively new launch in 2014, boils down to this: the book could not encapsulate the various events in the South China Sea in recent years. Almost every other day, there are some kind of incidents at the sea, including East China Sea too. Nor did the book focus on the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the likes of Australia, France, Japan, India, the United States, and Indonesia, with the ASEAN in tow.

In October 2016, for example, Chinese fishing vessels tried to ram themselves into Korean Coast Guards in the East China Sea. In some cases, Korean Coast Guards reacted to these incidents, by threatening to react with military force. One Korean Coast Guard accidentally lobbed a grenade into the Chinese boat. More recently, the Korean Coast Guards fired their machine guns into the air to ward off the Chinese fishing vessels. These may occur in East China Sea, but there is nothing to prevent things from going ugly in the South China Sea too.

China has also resorted to building airstrips in Fiery Cross in the South China Sea. Anti-air-craft airplanes have also been installed. All of these new features are added to the reclaimed land in the sea.

Having built more than 3500 hectares of reclaimed land in the South China Sea, all within a short span of 1.5 years, there is no telling when would Beijing be stopping these activities?

The more recent events in 2020 does show that China cannot be held accountable for its behavior alone, since other smaller countries do not lay claim to large parts of the South China Sea too. Based on the bargaining theory, Steve Chan has produced a much more positive and optimistic picture; that issued may be fluid but they may be subject to rounds after rounds of negotiations among the claimant states and China. But whether the developments in the South China Sea can follow the narrative and script of Steve Chan, still remains to be seen, especially as the world enters the last quarter of 2020, with pandemic as the backdrop.



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