Putting the ‘China’ back into the South China Sea?

A few fishing boats and navy gunboats go eyeball-to-eyeball around a few rocky islands; fiery words exchanged about the defense of national sovereignty – plus ca change in the South China Sea? The overlapping territorial claims between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei (i.e. just about everyone in the region…have I missed anyone out?) over the various island groups in the area have intensified in recent months, including a public bust-up at this year’s ASEAN summit.

Territorial claims in the South China Sea – The Economist, 6 August 2012

At centre stage of whether tension might degenerate into armed conflict (‘going hot’) is disagreement and uncertainty over what China’s goals over the islands are, especially among its Southeast Asian neighbours. In its regional neighbourhood, disputes over the Spratlys provide the counterpoint to China’s efforts at reassuring its neighbours of its peaceful intentions. Accordingly, the US interest in the region (defined by Hilary Clinton as a US ‘national interest’) is not unwelcome by China’s neighbours, happy to hedge their bets and retain a little bit of a pushback option.

And for all the natural resources that might lie under the South China Sea, China’s ambitions are at least guided too by reclaiming that area identified as being centrally ‘Chinese’. The Spratlys are perhaps not Taiwan or Tibet, and lack the uncompromising centrality to Chinese nationalism of the latter. But they nonetheless fall within the realm of being part of ‘historic’ China – the Chinese point to post-World War II maps that include the Spratlys and Paracels as a basis for justifying their claims (over 1,000km from the Chinese mainland), unlike other claimants, who justify their claims based on the terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and conventional ways of demarcating exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Claims rooted in historical identity (rather than a matter of international law) are, by their nature, not terribly susceptible to negotiation, and The Economist puts it that “China’s neighbours have reason to worry China sees their sea as its lake.”

Claiming its lake, however, is fraught with considerable danger for China, because of the larger normative shifts over the past century that have rendered violent conflict an unacceptable means of resolving territorial disputes. Using its coercive muscle would simply trigger balancing reactions among its neighbours (and it is far from clear that the benefits of territorial control would outweigh the costs – see Taylor Fravel) that it has long sought to avoid. And in dividing ASEAN members at its summit, it will have simply pushed some closer towards the US.

But China hopes that it is playing the long game and has time on its side. As its relative strength continues to increase vis-a-vis those of its neighbours, it waits for the day when, perhaps, its assertive efforts will go unchallenged. The South China Sea may one day be truly ‘Chinese’ again, satisfying its nationalist ambitions – but the trouble may be whether this comes at the cost of regional amity.

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