• Tue
  • Jul 22, 2014
  • Updated: 6:21pm
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:35am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:35am

Beijing's dangerous arrogance in the South China Sea

Philip Bowring says Beijing's superiority complex and selective reading of Southeast Asian history have become the toxic brew fuelling tensions in the South China Sea


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

China's current behaviour vis-à-vis its South China Sea neighbours is aggressive, arrogant and smacks of Han chauvinism and ethnocentrism. Far from being an expression of national pride, it is giving patriotism a bad name. Patriotic Hongkongers should recognise it for what it is: a dangerous ploy.

Not only has Beijing bared expansionist teeth to Vietnam and the Philippines, it has now succeeded in shifting Indonesia from a position of trying to act as a moderator between China and the other South China Sea states to opponent. Twice in recent months, Indonesia has accused China of claiming part of its Natuna island archipelago. So much for a "peaceful rise" when you rile neighbours with populations of more than 400 million, who you assume to be weak.

All China's sea claims are wrapped up in that nine-dash line which extends more than 1,000 nautical miles from the coasts of Guangdong and Hainan to close to Borneo, the island shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, and includes almost all the sea between Vietnam and the Philippines. This claim encompasses more than 90 per cent of the sea, even though China (including Taiwan) has only about 20 per cent of the coastline.

All this on the basis of claims to history that conveniently ignore the very existence of other peoples and their histories of seafaring and trading going back 2,000 years, and pre-dating China's ventures in the south sea and beyond. Indonesians got to Africa and colonised Madagascar more than 500 years before Zheng He. In turn, the peoples of Southeast Asia absorbed more from India and the Islamic world than China.

In the case of the current issue with Vietnam, brought about by China's movement of a drillship into waters due east of Danang, China has a small case, in that it does now own the Paracel Islands, which are closer to the drill location than to Vietnam. But the islands themselves have long been in dispute between the two, a matter settled for now by China's unprovoked invasion of them in 1974.

But as they have never had permanent settlement, they make a very weak case for enjoying a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone compared with Vietnam. History also tells us that this coast was the heart of the Cham mercantile state, which for 1,000 years was the leading player in regional trade.

There should surely anyway be a case for compromise between China and Vietnam. Malaysia and Thailand managed one over a gas-rich area between them in the Gulf of Thailand. Other regional states - Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia - have put island ownership issues to the International Court of Justice and accepted the result. But China remains unwilling either to compromise or submit to arbitration. Meanwhile, joint development is impossible because China makes it conditional on acceptance of its sovereignty.

In the case of shoals off the Philippines, China's case rests on a mix of invented history and the fact that it filed claims first, a poor basis given that it had no continuous presence there and the Philippines initially inherited a treaty between two Western colonial powers. These shoals and other features claimed by China are so obviously within the Philippine exclusive economic zone and in waters long sailed by the peoples of that country that there should be no argument.

Scarborough Shoal is about 200km from Luzon, 650km from China. The claim to Half Moon Shoal is even more outrageous. That is the reef where the Philippines arrested Chinese fishermen allegedly with a catch of giant turtles, a protected species. Knee-jerk protests have erupted from Beijing. The reef is 110km from Palawan, nearly 1,500km from China.

The fact that the absurd claims go back to the Kuomintang era is neither here nor there. Nor is the fact that previous states may have occasionally paid tribute to Beijing. For these trading states, tribute was a tax, the cost of doing business with China, which did not imply Chinese sovereignty. And if China occasionally acted as an imperial power in the region, that is surely cause for concern, not a basis for overlordship of a predominantly Malay sea. Otherwise, Turkey could claim Egypt and the Russians all of central Asia.

A revived China wants to flex its muscles and show who is boss in the region - just as it tried with Vietnam in 1979 - and remind the US of its own weakness. But there is also a basic reluctance to treat the non-Han neighbours as equals, people with their own history and cultures which, except for Vietnam, have never been subject to major Chinese influence.

China's history of assuming superiority, most especially over those with darker skins, is long. Belief in eugenics and the need to protect and enhance Han genetic characteristics was strong in the Republican era and found echoes in the opinions and social policies of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew. It has long been rejected in the West and was condemned under Mao Zedong . But it has been making a comeback on the mainland, where some academics find it hard to accept that modern man spread out of Africa and that China is thus not a separate and unique source of mankind.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator


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This article is now closed to comments

China says one type as one another. They bullying its neighbors, which is stupid because they need peace with its neighbors than as aesthetic peace with mexico, canada ... so learning to become a powerhouse cosmetics firm. All the neighboring land are both on the sea and the country's conflict prevention and fight coalition.
Claims from all countries involved are still under scrutiny. However, China is already acting like the issue is already resolved, and continue to act like the disputed area has been resolved as their territory. I think that's the point in the article, and the point that people keep forgetting. What gives them the right to fishing (and illegally poaching protected species at that), oil drilling, etc? Claims that only they can support. Other countries have their own claims. Should they then be allowed to carry on and do what they will along the shoal too?
Bowring certainly knows his regional history. However, the fact that Manila inherited the outcome of a treaty signed by two Western colonial powers, does not logically or automatically address the questions of claims by non-colonial regional claimants, such as China. Vietnam's inheritance of colonial France's claims similarly raises questions about the purist authority of Hanoi's claims. The question he appears to skirt around is, how far into the past does one have to go to assert, define and authenticate the soundness of one set of claims relative to another's - and who should determine that temporal limit.
Leaving history aside for a moment - if that were practicable in this region - geography, too, features in Bowring's commentary. For instance, he says, "Scarborough Shoal is about 200km from Luzon, 650km from China. The claim to Half Moon Shoal is even more outrageous. That is the reef where the Philippines arrested Chinese fishermen allegedly with a catch of giant turtles, a protected species. Knee-jerk protests have erupted from Beijing. The reef is 110km from Palawan, nearly 1,500km from China." If physical distance from the "metropolitan centre" alone defined legitimacy, then Bowring would have to question America's claim to Guam, or even Hawaii, no?
I agree with the questions in your first paragraph. Unfortunately, there are probably no "legit" answers, since each country will propose self-serving "temporal limits" that accentuate their own claims while minimizing those of others. For similar reasons, it seems unlikely that any binding arbitration will fly, simply because it is unlikely the parties will agree to any particular set of rules to govern said arbitration. Add to that the uniquely Asian need to save face among all the parties involved, and I think it will be extremely unlikely for there to be any resolution on the "ownership" issues in the foreseeable future. And that's too bad, since what these countries should be doing is cooperating to explore and exploit the resources, rather than worry about who "owns" otherwise meaningless and uninhabitable rock piles.
Obviously, physical distance alone does not define legitimacy. But it does factor in. If a disputed territory is closer to one claimant than another, I think a greater burden should lie with the claimant from farther afield to justify their claims as being more reasonable than the more proximate claimant. On the other hand, Hawaii has no place in this discussion, since it is not "disputed territory".
We have many in the world calling for redistribution of wealth world wide and others that we need a one world government to manage affairs. We have Russia and China, calling to remove the American from the petrodollar. We have Russia in it’s greed taking the Crimea and stirring the pot of rebellion in the Ukraine, while China with it’s new found wealth is leveraging their military power against the nations of the eastern Pacific. We have gained a great deal of technological knowledge and see more earth quakes of 5.0 or higher occurring all over the world today as well as weird weather and nations going to war with nations and internal national powers going to war with themselves(Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, etc). These are the problems described in the Bible as ALL happening in the end times, in the SAME time frame. These are the end times! Events are rapidly approaching the tribulation period. I wrote a booklet that talks about some of what the Bible says will happen in the end times as well as what will happen during the period known as the seven (360 day) year tribulation and other soon to take place events. I don’t accept donations and it’s free. It’s about 6 or 7 pages, so it’s a short read. I encourage you to have a look: ****www.booksie.com/religion_and_spirituality/book/richard_b_barnes/after-the-rapture-whats-next
Yes, and you are going to Hell
"Patriotic Hongkongers should recognise it for what it is: a dangerous ploy"
I do not understand you logic, patriotic to whom? To the former colonial rulers, i.e. UK?
I thought UK handed over Hongkong back to China in 1997 :-).
IMO, we already have too many "hands" in the south China Sea disputes (US, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines) and we do not need another voice to incite more chaos in the situation.
In your opinion, do you think what the Vietnamese Government did (incite riots) is not arrogant and dangerous?
Now they have to backtrack because their economic lifeline is compromised. The Vietnam Government also "blinked" by Phung Quang Thanh saying that Vietnam values its friendship with China highly and promised that the armed forces would not take any action that would complicate the situation.
If you are so patriotic, then I would urge you to persuade the UK Government (I presume you are British) to send their "Armada" to Vietnam and fight the Chinese, like what they did in the Falkland Islands.
If you consider China arrogant, then you should take a close look at US even in the present time and UK during the colonial days.
Eric Holder had the audacity to name names in accusing China of cyber espionage, when NSA was spying on Chinese government, citizens and companies including Huawei. NSA spared no one and was spying on everyone, domestic, friendly nations and foes.
I would consider than arrogant. Maybe you should do a piece on the "arrogant US".
The Anglos have a massive spying destabilising effort against the rest of the world in order to spread violence and rob and loot the others while lying all the time. Whenever the International stands in the way, they will just bypass them. All the double standards and they want to be leaders. What leaders? War on Muslims, containment of China, support for a fascist Japan. C R A P.
Masako Owada
Asia have more to fear and loath Washington's dangerous arrogance in the pivot to Asia. The US pivot to the Middle East didn't go very well as all the peoples in the Middle East hates the US.
A Matsui
The US spent decades destabilising the Middle East and supporting repressive regimes. 911 was pay back time.




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