Nations, it would seem, can have neuroses as deep as those of any individual. Take China, for example. One of the world’s true superpowers, with the world’s biggest military and an economy only exceeded by those of America and the combined nations of the European Union: yet China is a nation very much troubled by its history. It harbours deep injustices about its borders, its neighbours, and its role in the world. In psychological terms, you might say it has a problem of overcompensation and it’s a problem that with growing regularity is threatening the world’s stability.
Yesterday, the US guided-missile destroyer, USS Lassen, sailed off the coast of a man-made island build on top of Subi Reef, previously one of the many submerged reefs spotted among the Spartly Island in the China Sea. China had claimed rights to the artificial island, making the USS Lassen’s approach within 20km a violation of Chinese territorial waters. Or it would be a violation if Article 60 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea did not state that ‘artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.’
The Chinese response has been measured, thus far, with the Foreign Ministry issuing a statement on its website. ‘The actions of the U.S. warship have threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, jeopardized the safety of personnel and facilities on the reefs, and damaged regional peace and stability’. Notice they say ‘reefs’ and not ‘islands’. Perhaps the Chinese accept the rule of international law more than they outwardly profess. Certainly America does and has a growing need to have their belief recognized by China.
America didn’t really have much choice other than the call China’s bluff over the South China Sea. Because behind the American action is a point of law which it could no longer continue to ignore. To allow China an inch they would have allowed it hundreds of miles, most of which happen to lie in one of the world’s most important sea lanes.
The name South China Sea belies its true nature. Though China has a historic claim to the territory and, more importantly, many of the 250 islands and reefs, there are other nations with equal if not more valid claims. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Bruinei, and Taiwan all variously claim or occupy islands and claim maritime rights.
The latest escalation is part of the longer narrative of Chinese power, the compulsion it seems to feel to reclaim things it claims to have lost or had taken from it. China has turned from one of the world’s most insular nations to a nation buoyed by its economy to address long standing geopolitical grievances. Western nations have largely abandoned their imperialist tendencies but that’s not true of China who cite the precedence of Western imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth century. This, so the Chinese would claim, is going to be China’s century and Western criticism is merely a symptom of the West’s diminishing influence.
Their almost pathological need to expand their influence has seen them pour billions of dollars into Africa. The Financial Times reported in 2013 that ‘in much of Africa, [the Chinese] have set up huge mining operations. They have also built infrastructure. But, with exceptions, they have done so using equipment and labour imported from home, without transferring skills to local communities.’ In Ghana, a gold rush started around 2005, with an estimated 50,000 Chinese immigrants who began to strip mine in the country, often without permits or any consideration for local land owners. The operations were heavily armed and violence common.
Everywhere you look, China can been found using the softest of powers to slowly absorb the world, out-manoeuvring Western powers through aggressive trade policies whilst at the same time exerting influence in poorer nations. China’s space programme is also increasing and had a significant success landing its Jade Rabbit rover on the Moon in 2013. China is increasingly seen as the world’s major source of cyber crimes, though it’s yet to be seen if the UK’s recent ‘truce’ will see any noticeable effect. China has even expanded its interests in Antarctica in order to be well positioned to exploit future economic opportunities in the region.
The American action yesterday was a long time in coming but only the first step in what looks like it will be a long running dispute with undetermined ends. George Washington one said that ‘to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace’. America, we have to assume, is very much prepared for war because the stakes in the South China Sea are the stuff that can define a century. America’s military reach is still significant and it is not without allies in the region who have equal, if not stronger claims, to the disputed waters. Anything less than a show of strength implies appeasement and this is no time for nations to misread each other’s intentions. Certainly not when one of those nations is trying to define its future by resolving the psychological trauma of its not too distant past.