Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The true clash in the South China Sea

China is sending more “white hulls” to the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Two months after an arbitration by The Hague said China’s territorial claims are invalid, Beijing continues to defy the decision. What does this tell us?

“White hulls” refer to the Chinese Coast Guard, as opposed to the “grey hulls” of its military vessels. When it comes to sea disputes, a less aggressive move is to send coast guard cutters to intercept Philippine or Thai fishing boats – especially when camera lenses monitor the scene and no Chinese Admiral really wants to fight an enraged US Navy.

China perceives these territorial disputes. Beijing starts from a similar position to the rest of the international community by recognising the concepts of nation states, international legal decisions (getting angry is not as dangerous as ignoring decisions), the system of trade and even structures its government on a Western idea (Communism). China is deep in the status quo, but not deep enough.

Most of these are perfectly compatible with the international community yet there is encountering friction and that’s not good. Friction exists whenever two people want the same thing, but only one can have it. And in the modern world, if there is uncertainty around ownership, the two parties often settle it with a lawsuit, which takes friction into the realm of politics. But politics is simply limited warfare, and now the outlines of the dispute become clear.

China thinks it is up to Asian people to sort out Asian affairs. From this perspective, the US, Australia and New Zealand are not actually in Asia, so China pushes back when those countries intervene, no matter how altruistic their reasoning.

Of course, if the US was removed China would be the strongest regional power and would renege on its own sovereignty rules. After all, the country has been infected by a form of democracy (Communism), so without a power to check its ambitions, it would spread this form of government throughout Asia to attain peace. The history of the 20th century warns of all this.

But here is something interesting in the Chinese rhetoric. Beijing appears to know the game it plays. The infection of revolutionary government is deeply rooted in Chinese DNA. The sea clash is actually a skirmish of war for psychological control of the minds of Asia’s people. The friction emerges because the power with status quo control – the US – also plays this game. And it has been playing for 200 years.

Although it’s not a Chinese idea, Communism is a large part of China’s “soft power” image. The fundamentals of the idea compels Beijing to spread outwards. Joseph Stalin said “socialism in one country” was a foundation only. The ideology couldn’t survive without spreading to all countries eventually.

The friction arises as it abuts the dominant form of democracy – the US model. The US model is not so different to the Chinese – democracy always ends in socialism eventually. What causes the clash is the US model’s excellent soft power. In 2016, a critical mass of people think the US model is a righteous government structure. While too few people believe China’s model.

This is simply a failure to convince, not a reflection of a failure of a particular model. If China could grasp how to use the tools of soft power, there would be no question which ideology was “at fault” in the disputed waters. Yet China thinks it can buy its way to hegemony. It doesn’t realise money is the trappings of soft power, not actual power.

The US model of progressivism is assumed as default because Washington’s soft power captured the psychologies of Asia through the internet and other forms of media. It uses its riches only after the step of psychological capture is attained, or in conjunction. Never before. Beijing thinks money is power, and that is why it fails.

At this level, the victor in this present dispute is obvious. Without a coherent process to capture psychology – in fact, not just coherent, but better than the US – Chinese Communism will sooner or later morph into the US progressive model with Chinese characteristics. Consider Japan, Germany and (mostly) Russia. What are these but US progressivist countries with Japanese, German and Russian characteristics? Indeed, what is New Zealand?

But it is worth pondering China’s rhetoric about “Asian people dealing with Asian affairs.” This position is known as classical international law. The entire tradition of classical international law can be condensed down to two Latin words: uti possidetis ("as you possess"). The principle is that every government is de facto, legitimate and sovereign. Their borders are defined by the power of their military. And if two states disagree on borders, it is up to them to settle the dispute.

Classical international law, while never perfect, was a beautiful piece of engineering. It effectively solved a problem that today appears unsolvable: enforcing good behaviour among sovereign nations, without a central enforcer. You might call it a peer-to-peer architecture for world peace.

Its rules are designed for a world of genuinely independent states – as opposed to US protectorates. Something deep within China’s rationality knows this system is probably much better for eliminating friction. Will it encourage the older system? Of course not. China is operating a virulent model of Western revolutionary, world-eating government. All this rhetoric is only meant to undermine and replace the US project in Asia.

This concept of classical international law sounds strange to modern readers because terms such as independence, sovereignty, and international law no longer mean what they once did. Internationalists talk of international law, but what they mean is modern international law which is a recipe for more friction, not less.

For classical international law to work, all democratic states would have to recognise the true and actual independence and sovereignty of other states. Unfortunately, that’s not part of the ideological plan. The world took the long way towards world peace rather than the shortest route. China is trapped into playing the rules of the world-eating game, but it’s good to hear it knows there’s an alternative.

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