War or peace in the South China Sea? 

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Benjamin Mueller's picture

War or peace in the South China Sea? 

The recent turbulences in the South China Sea have raised the worrying spectre that the Middle Kingdom’s hitherto peaceful rise may take a hostile turn for the worse in the near future. The question of whether China will embark on a mission for regional hegemony is going to have profound consequences for the stability of the entire Asia-Pacific, and, owing to the economic size of the key players involved, for the world at large. Crucially, conflict is not an inevitability. In order to prevent the first decades of the 21st century from being characterized by tension and instability in South-East Asia, the alliance of liberal states with interests in the area needs to unequivocally convey to China that aggressive expansionism cannot be tolerated. At the same time, China’s leadership must make sure not to let the dangerous genie of nationalism out of the bottle in an effort to shore up the government’s domestic support and legitimacy. China’s territorial claims are best adjudicated by the United Nations.

Since Commodore Matthew Perry forcibly brought an end to Japan’s policy of seclusion in 1852, the Asia-Pacific region experienced a series of attempts at regional hegemony by Japan, until the region was by and large pacified on an inter-state level following the end of WW2. The Cold War provided a bipolar framework of stability, in that the US’s nuclear umbrella prevented the nationalistic resurgence of an economically vibrant Japan. Similarly, the nascent Communist regime in China was content with building a Sino-Soviet alliance in search for its security. Conflict, though lamentable, was limited to the margins of the Asia-Pacific area – the Korean peninsula and Indochina. It was the Sino-Soviet split in combination with Deng Xiaoping’s ambitious economic reforms that altered the strategic picture. The twin effect of China’s sudden geopolitical independence, in combination with an era of persistently high economic growth now spanning almost two decades, have profoundly altered the balance of power in China’s backyard.

History provides a worrisome guide to the current situation. The last state to go through China’s phases of development – advancing out of a period of domestic turmoil, into one of relative national unity and stability, and eventually experiencing a sustained period of economic growth – ended up challenging the status quo in its immediate neighbourhood. That state, of course, was Germany. With increasing economic means at its disposal, Bismarck’s Second Reich began enlarging its military arsenal, seeking to emulate its European rivals in building an overseas empire, and jostled with France and Britain for dominance on the continent. Germany’s efforts were vanquished in the brutal killing fields of Flanders and the Normandy, but not without a death toll of just short of 100 million human lives. None of this comes as a surprise to adherents of the Realist school of thought in International Relations. An increase in economic power predictably results in a concomitant growth in a state’s military capacities, the Realists argue. History provides ample evidence that rising powers tend to end up fighting wars with established powers, for reasons of aggression, or mutual insecurity.

China has asserted its territorial claims over the South China Sea with increasing assertiveness in recent years. One result has been that its worried neighbours and other Pacific rim states like Australia and the Philippines have started to forge closer alliances with the United States, the guarantor of security in the region. This has led to such strange bedfellows as the US and Vietnamese navy: mortal enemies only 40 years ago, they staged joint naval exercises last year. Clearly, the situation is already serious enough to warrant unusual defence arrangements for the concerned states.

2500 years ago, Thucydides wrote that the Peloponnesian War “was made inevitable by the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”1 Are we, then, witnessing the same cruel logic of the balance of power play out its destructive consequence all over again? There are various theories about the causes of war. Among the more obvious ones is deliberate geographic expansionism by an aggressive state. China seems to so far have understood that its trade interests – on which it has mortgaged its rise to power – outweigh any possible gains from military conflict. There are more insidious possible causes of war than that, however. China’s current sabre-rattling may well spark off a security dilemma, in that China’s neighbours seek to arm themselves against any future aggression. That in turn could then justify further belligerence on the part of the now-insecure Chinese position. It is not hard to envisage such a fragile tinderbox of purportedly defensive arrangements from spiralling out of control into a war that no one wants. That, after all, is how the First World War could be triggered by as sequestered an incident as the assassination of an Austrian archduke in the streets of Sarajevo.

Critically, we need not be trapped by history. Three bulwarks against state aggression can prevent the current instability from deteriorating into violence.  The first and simplest of these is unity among the global alliance of liberal states. Countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have turned themselves away from their former autocratic inclinations and become sensible liberal democracies that safeguard their citizen’s inalienable human rights, co-operate to strengthen regional security with other liberal democracies such as the USA and Australia, and provide anchors of human progress and peace in all of South-East Asian. Others, such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines are trying hard to follow suit. These countries demand and deserve Western support. NATO must communicate clearly to the Chinese that any unprovoked aggressive endeavours in the South China Sea will meet fierce resistance.

Secondly, existing Sino-Japanese trade relations constitute a web of interdependence that either side would be loth to forfeit – particularly in these straitened global times. Deng Xiaoping, as part of bringing back China into the international fold, commented “we can't solve the South China Sea issue, but we can leave it to the next generation, which will be smarter.” Since then, China has become Japan’s main export destination, accounting for almost a third of its overseas sales. As such, it is to be hoped that rational-headed figures on both sides of the Sea of Japan will prevail. But, as WW1 showed, trade interdependencies do not provide an antidote to the passions of nationalism. Already, trade levels between the two behemoths are falling.

What will ultimately stabilise the situation is responsible leadership in China, and the use of the institutional device already existing to resolve such sea-based territorial disputes. There are two parts to this formula. First off, the Chinese government, lacking as it does any measure of democratic accountability, seeks means to legitimise its rule. As economic growth levels off, Beijing must resist the noxious temptation of rousing the patriotic fervour of its populace in an effort to stave off the inevitable demands for greater political freedom that will burgeon in the future. Secondly, China should turn to the United Nations – specifically, the Law of the Sea Convention and the dispute settlement mechanisms provided by the New Law of the Sea – in order to resolve its territorial claims in a peaceful manner.

The current regional rivalries in the South China Sea do pose a threat to the stability of the region, and could all-too-easily lead to war – an outcome in no-one’s interest, but for which there is ample precedent. Western resolve, moral leadership and the UN’s proven dispute resolution machinery can prevent it from becoming a reality. But above all, the Chinese government needs to show that it is serious about being responsible in its rise power, and does not harbour any aggressive intent. 


  1.  Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book 1, Chapter 23.