War or Peace?
On the Possibility of Territorial Disputes Emerging into War and Ways to Manage Them
The South China Sea, being the world’s second-busiest sea-lane, is one of the major flashpoints around the world. The rise of China in 21st century has believed to spell trouble to the neighbors, who suspect a mighty China may pose a threat to the regional stability. The appearance of the new aircraft carrier owned by PLA navy has been considered as a sign of China expanding military power and device of China for frequent intervenes into regional affairs. Those countries, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, have claimed sovereignty over several islands but no one can place effective control on all islands they desire. To show off military power and defend national interests, the armies of several countries along the coast of the South China Sea have been doing saber-rattling and gun-polishing in recent years. One typical incident is the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012, in which the Philippine navy stood against Chinese maritime surveillance ships. Tensions were brought to high level. Bilateral relations were deteriorated. In the same year, China has founded its newest city Sansha in the South China Sea. This raised threat of conflict between China and Vietnam, which claimed sovereignty over the region Sansha sits in, inevitably leading to protest by Vietnam, with which India is building a strategic partnership to prevent dominance of China in the region. In the meantime, the United States officially declared its re-engagement into Asia, throwing itself into the geo-political maelstrom and making things more complicated.
The possible threat to stability posed by a conflict does not become significant until this conflict triggers a full-scale war. To examine threat to stability in the Asia-Pacific region posed by territorial disputes one has to examine the possibility of disputes sparking off wars. To start a war, the countries involved have to get general support from its people and prominent officials. Plus, the South Asian countries have to obtain support, and possibly backup from their giant ally, the United States.
From assassination of Franz Ferdinand in World War I to Marco Polo Bridge Incident in Second Sino-Japanese War, to look for an excuse to start a war has never been difficult. The former conflicts in the South China Sea, such as Scarborough Shoal standoff, could have led to a war if the parties did not control themselves. Causes of a war are always ample. Therefore, they are not the deciding factor of possibility of starting a war.
One deciding factor is whether the opinion in a country supports a war. No countries in the regional disputes are autocrats. Instead, most of them are moving towards soft authoritarianism. In the past the government could start the propaganda machine and led the public opinion to turn for a war. However, the propaganda machine is no longer as effective as it was due to the popularity of internet social networking.
Therefore, the public opinion mainly depends on the majority. In China, patriotism has become popular among the young generation. The violent protests against Japan in 2012 illustrated the situation well. Protestors not only attacked on Japanese embassies and consulates, but also Japanese stores and restaurants. Even Chinese driving Japan-made vehicles were assaulted. Beijing made a lot of effort to calm the tense situation when it became critical. From this incident, two key points can be drawn. First, more young people in China are becoming supportive of strong measures against Japan, including a war. Second, the government is becoming powerless against strong opinion.
These together may give rise to a possible scenario: when the public anger grows beyond control, the government responds by starting a limited war. This happened in Johnson South Reef Skirmish between China and Vietnam. However, the prerequisite is that the leaders in Chin are willing to start a war, a limited one if not a total one, which is sufficient for intervening normal traffic in the region.
Chinese leaders have given strong opinion on the territorial disputes. President Xi told the army to prepare for a war in 2013 and beware that being able to fight and win a war is important. Recently it was reported that a Chinese warship pointed missile radar onto a Japanese vessel. These actions are probably a threat but they deliver what attitude on a war the leaders possess to some extent. When an aggressive foreign policy is matched with an aggressive public opinion, it becomes more possible for a limited war to take place. However, Chinese leaders know clearly that a war is not beneficial to China in terms of international cooperation, which is crucial for ongoing economic development in China, for it provides evidence for China Threat Theory Beijing often denies.
Another key factor is the attitude of the United States. The States officially declared that it has a national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, freedom of navigation and lawful commerce in the South China Sea. To maintain peace and possibly watch moves of China in the South China Sea, the States is running military bases in the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Guam. It is also developing partnership with Vietnam. The Obama administration decided to deploy more troops and engage more frequently in the region. A former Pentagon official opines that it maintains the balance of power in the region and prevents dominance of China. For a limited war, the States probably adopt a wait-and-see attitude. However, when a total war is about to happen, inevitably disturbing traffic in the crucial sea-lane, the States will take a more active measure to stop this. Examples include the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in which the States deployed two aircraft carrier battlegroups into the Strait to prevent PLA attacking Taiwan. If history repeats itself, it will not be possible for China to start a war against any Southeast Asia countries, as the States will intervene and stop both sides.
In conclusion, in foreseeable future, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea will be only war of words, and nothing more. Closer economic cooperation and the present military equilibrium will hinder the start of a war. To small extent the disputes in the South China Sea will constitute a significant threat to stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
The best attitude to manage the rivalries has been suggested by Deng Xiaoping. The key is to keep a low profile and focus on economic development, rather than a military one. Any military conflict would be dangerous since the public anger can be easily sparked off, leaving the government no leeway to negotiate but to fight only. Beijing should consider setting aside the territorial disputes and leading the public focus out of the issue with propaganda machine. This does not mean China is giving up its claims on the territories. Instead, this means that disputes exist but it is not urgent to solve them. Military ships should not be deployed into regions in dispute.
The importance of maintaining the status quo should be stressed on to prevent aggressive opinion. Nationalism, leading to irrational acts and disastrous consequences should be prevented.
The second step is to establish and finalize a code of conduct. This should provide proper means for countries to communicate and solve conflicts. Disagreements should be addressed through telephone lines without resort to naval forces. Parties involved should adhere closely to international law and diplomatic rules. Through peaceful means like joint development, win-win can be achieved. This is illustrated by Malaysia and Thailand jointly developing a region in the Gulf of Thailand in 1979. Another example would be Malaysia and Vietnam, which cooperated to explore mineral resources in a similar situation. Without taking territorial disputes for litigation in international court, which leads to a zero-sum result, joint development is a good way out.
To resort to violence is never a good idea for solving territorial disputes. Disputes will not be solved but only remain after war. Staying away from nationalism, adhering to a code of conduct and seeking for opportunities for joint development are always the best solution.
- Patriotic education distorts China world view, Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times, 2012
- Xi Jinping calls for PLA 'real combat' awareness, CNTV, December 13, 2012
- South China Sea, U.S. Department of State, August 3, 2012
- Work With China, Don’t Contain It, Joseph S. Nye Jr., New York Times January 29, 2013