Stoking up great-power rivalry only fuels South China Sea tensions

Tom Plate says a peaceful and more secure South China Sea depends on clear-eyed Sino-US relations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 June, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 1:59pm

Regarding the scary swirl in the South China Sea: whatever happened to our peace-loving, consensus-driven East Asia? Why did Washington cry itself a river over China's infrastructure bank idea? And what's going on with roiling Sino-US relations?

Let's play the blame game, it's so much fun. For starters, Chinese diplomacy has been anything but suave. The Japanese had to re-elect a nationalist prime minister. And a bunch of Asian nations sweating over their mineral and fishing rights just have to rush into the waiting arms of Mother America. Then, the US has to don its superman cape and jump in to make even bigger waves. And so it goes.

The current scramble for resources and their control is being played out as a proxy game. Shabby shoals, flimsy sandbars, erector-set lighthouses and uninviting outcrops of seaweed and coral are being - in effect - Botoxed up like an ageing actor to simulate fresh faces of sovereignty justifying exclusivity claims. The Chinese are by far the most proactive of the geopolitical plastic surgeons, but almost everyone else is playing some game or other. But it's all China's fault, don't you just know?

With something like 1.4 billion mouths to feed, China's lunge to beat others to resources is hardly a sign of irrationality - it might even be a symptom of a massive survival instinct. Consider that China has to feed, house and keep employed more people than Indonesia by a factor of five. This cannot be the easiest task in the history of governance. This is certainly not a case of Russia grabbing Crimea. This is a nation with 22 per cent of the global population trying to grab three meals a day.

The tensions between China and its neighbours are substantive enough. One is the issue of who should have access to what oceanic resources - and by what reasonable process. Another is who owns what shoal or what cluster of sand or dumb rock so as to claim sovereign undersea rights in the area.

And a third factor is the role of the US, which is starting to surface like some great white whale. It has no real territory to speak of, but operates many bases in the Pacific, has a small school of treaty partners, and harbours the growing suspicion that China's rise looks to be less peaceful, as famously bannered by Beijing, than potent. (Superpowers worry about others' potency.) It worries that China's tactical shoring up of shoals has the strategic aim of blocking vital shipping lanes.

Let's look at these issues one by one. First, we accept that the sovereignty issues will not be resolved in the near future. Too many lines have been drawn in the sand and around the shoals; too many publics have been riled. After all, China dredged up that nine-dash line of sovereignty that, at first glance, looks to take in almost everything under the South China Sea sun.

At some point, control issues will have to be negotiated; other nations have too much stake in the outcome for China, however enormous its needs, to have everything it wants. Were a few of its nine dashes somehow to fade into irrelevance, as a calming potion for others, the basis of a serious regional negotiation might materialise.

Still relevant is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which more than 160 member states have ratified. But Beijing is adamant about not appearing to be negotiating the status of what it views as historically sovereign territories. So that, for now, is that.

In the meantime, we face immediate access issues - to seafood, oil and minerals, vital needs for all Pacific countries, not just China. Will China swallow hard and accept the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the sole negotiator for the "smaller" countries? This is where Chinese diplomacy needs to take a deep breath, raise its game, and unleash its best and brightest diplomats to take on the daunting challenges of Asean. John F. Kennedy once said: "Never negotiate out of fear; but never fear to negotiate."

As for the US: officially, it says it is not taking sides in any of the disputes. No? But it is taking orders for new arms, is flying surveillance planes, and so on. Of course it is taking Asean's side. And it is here that you worry: further high-profile American involvement could push the South China Sea quarrel into that dreaded superpower showdown that no one wants.

Rather than raise its South China Sea profile, the US should bob and weave out there with the utmost care, no matter how allegedly saintly its intentions. Asia watcher Bill Hayton, in his invaluable book The South China Sea, quotes a well-regarded Asian diplomat as warning: "If you bring in one superpower to oppose the other, then superpower dynamics begins to push the issue and marginalises a peaceful settlement."

To be sure, rivalry between great powers doesn't always have to portend foul weather. Competition can produce excellence - even an occasional new idea. A prime example is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. While almost everyone liked the general idea from the start, Washington sulkily opposed it, badgering allies not to. It wasn't, after all, its idea - it was China's. So what? Maybe other good ideas will come from China - maybe even an idea for taming the South China Sea tempest. Then reason could rule the waves and the mad struggle for resources funnelled into channels of diplomacy.

Why always view China as some giant shark of evil and the US as some Moby Dick of goodness? It's a jungle out there; real life is just not that binary-simple. China - we note with some embarrassment - formally ratified the UN convention a long time ago but guess which nation still has not? Pardon, if you can, the clunky imagery, but Moby Dick had better be careful not to fall off its high seahorse.

Tom Plate, a former editor of the editorial pages of the LA Times and founder of Asia Media International, is Loyola Marymount University's Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies and the author of Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew in the Giants of Asia series. This begins a series of fortnightly essays on China