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,, 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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