Power and deference in the South China Sea

Even if a homemade algorithm crafted by an amateur programmer were used, it would be easy to determine the most common word in Chinese diplomatic documents: power.  The concept is entirely political.  It fact, it refers to the government’s ability to garner respect within the country and overseas.  A government is strong and authoritative in a cause and effect relationship.  It frequently needs to instill fear; this happens when authority turns into authoritarianism.  The translation of this last concept to the South China Sea explains its recent evolution.  Why is China following a caustic foreign policy approach at the limits of aggressiveness in maritime regions thousands of kilometers from its coast?  Why is China now remembering boundaries that had never been recognized and never impeded good relationships with neighbors, who its now ready to go to war with?

Obviously, an analyst cannot limit himself to propaganda.  It’s up to Beijing and other capitals to demonstrate “historic continuity and sovereignty,” evidenced by the most imaginative observations: from the presence of fishermen to the construction of lighthouses, and dynastic marriages to oil drilling.  These events are insufficient to interpret history.  Rather than establishing who’s right in those contested seas, it’s more useful to understand why the dominant power—China—is now extending its tentacles over its dominion.  A series of convincing yet insufficient explanations exist.  China is certainly stronger and can afford to make claims based solely on relations of power.  For Japan and other ASEAN countries (with whom China registers various levels of dangerous friction), China is irreplaceable when it comes to trade and investments.  China won that role in globalization, and it’s impossible to imagine the country denying this role in the next few years.  Imbued with power from this position, Beijing doesn’t seem very inclined to negotiate and internationalize the disputes.  Beijing prefers bilateral comparisons (or confrontations) where it can make its weight felt best.  The construction of the latest oil-drilling platform in the Paracel Islands contested with Vietnam can be explained by this method.  Furthermore, flexing its muscles is an instrument for demonstrating Xi Jin Ping’s strength and his leadership.  It’s the best way—in the most immediate and elementary sense—to tickle nationalist instincts, distracting the population’s attention from numerous internal problems.  Instead, military action aimed at controlling fishing and oil resources in the contested zones appears less convincing.  The reserves still need to be quantified and eventually protected.  Their use is still uncertain, and from an economic standpoint, building infrastructure in faraway and hostile territories could be inconvenient.  It’s much wiser to increase fish and energy supplies using the international market, which it can dominate without military tensions.  Therefore, it’s opportune to return to the concept of power if we want to find an explanation that recapitulates the others and places them in a cohesive framework.  China is trying to recover that hegemonic role it held for centuries in Asia.  Motivated by its dimensions, justified by the splendor of its culture, and innervated by a poorly concealed cultural arrogance, this self-consideration has been expressed in two ways.  The first was the great Chinese diaspora that still controls a good part of the Southeast Asian economic sphere.  The second took shape in the reduction of other countries to “tributaries” of the Chinese empire.  Direct rule was not necessary, and resorting to colonialism like the European nations was not convenient.  Recognizing Beijing’s authority and symbolically recognizing its superiority was enough, gratifying it with tributes of submission.  The cases of Vietnam and South Korea are only the most well known.  This conception was never forgotten; actually, it was recaptured (without great effort) to justify claims that had been dormant for decades.  If the contested territories were Chinese tributaries, they would automatically recognize its sovereignty.  The consequences are logical for China but unacceptable for its neighbors, who are based on the nation-state and respect of international law.