Gwynne Dyer: Trouble in the South China Sea

If you were running China, and you wanted to distract your own population from economic woes at home by pushing one of your many territorial disputes with your neighbours into open conflict, which one would you choose?

Not Japan, even though most Chinese people really dislike and distrust Japan: it’s allied to the United States, and China is not yet ready for a military confrontation with the U.S. Navy. Not the Philippines, either, for the same reason.

But Vietnam, a Communist state, is all alone with no allies. It’s perfect for the role, and it will play its part well.

Early this month, China moved its Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil-drilling rig into a part of the South China Sea where Vietnam also claims the seabed rights.

Vietnam sent ships to protest the move, China sent more ships to protect the rig— Hanoi accuses accused China of massing 80 vessels in the area, including warships—and the fun and games began: rammings, battles with water cannon, and a great deal of self-righteous indignation on both sides.

The Vietnamese regime has never been afraid to defy China: it even fought a border war with its giant neighbour to the north in 1979. This year, for the first time, Hanoi publicly commemorated a 1974 clash in which Chinese forces seized the Paracel Islands and killed 40 sailors of the old South Vietnamese navy. By last week, there were anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Those were undoubtedly authorized by the Vietnamese regime, which keeps a tight hold on its population. What happened in Binh Duong province in southern Vietnam on Tuesday (May 13) was probably not.

Official reports speak of three factories housing Chinese-owned businesses being set on fire on an industrial estate, but local reports talk of 19,000 workers rampaging through the estate and burning 15 factories.

Hanoi doesn’t want this sort of thing to happen, of course—it scares off much-needed foreign investment— but when you press on the nationalist button, you can never be sure what will come out.

Beijing should also be wary of this, if indeed it is really using its border disputes to stoke nationalist fervour in China. Nationalism is not a precision tool.

We can’t be sure that this is Beijing’s main motive, of course. Maybe it’s just a premature outburst of great-power arrogance that is driving China to push so hard on all its territorial disputes this year. But it’s certainly doing it.

Since January, China has declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands which are also claimed by Japan. It has outraged the Philippines by starting to build an airstrip and/or naval base on Johnson Reef (ownership also in dispute) in the Spratly Islands. It has even provoked Indonesia into openly challenging Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea for the first time.

It is talking about establishing a similar Air Defence Identification Zone over almost all of the South China Sea, a maritime thoroughfare for more than half of the world’s merchant trade.

Since the beginning of this year it has been requiring that foreign fishing vessels ask permission to enter the area it claims as its exclusive economic zone—again, almost all of the South China Sea—although it has not yet tried to enforce this rule very vigorously.

The area China claims, on the basis of its alleged sovereignty over the many uninhabited islands, islets, shoals, and reefs scattered across the South China Sea, extends more than 750 kilometres from its south coast.

According to the “nine-dash line” drawn on Chinese maps which is the only graphic (but very imprecise) guide to Beijing’s claim, its control extends to around 50 to 75 kilometres of the coasts of all the other littoral states.

This huge U-shaped claim, taking in more than 90 percent of the whole South China Sea, is as unsustainable in fact as it is hard to defend in international law.

Nor does China seek to prove it by legal means. Last month, when the Philippines submitted a 4,000-page “memorial” to the judicial body that arbitrates maritime disputes under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China refused to file a counter-claim or respond in any way.

China’s position would appear to be that you don’t need to prove your claim in the courts if you can enforce it on the ground (or rather, on the water). And indeed, the sheer number and range of unilateral Chinese initiatives in recent months suggest that the policy of the new ruling team in Beijing (which will be in power for the next 10 years) is driven by full-spectrum bloody-mindedness.

However, the desirability of a foreign confrontation to distract the Chinese population from the recession that will probably soon hit the country's economy cannot be far from the minds of the regime either.

In either case, if there is shooting, it will probably start off the Vietnamese coast, simply because Vietnam has no defence treaty with the United States.

Comments (13) Add New Comment
S H
China does over-reach its territorial waters, but it's also the biggest kid on the block. The other countries will have to ally together to negotiate with China. When that fails and they look to the US for help - what will that mean?

My family fought in the Pacific in WWII, and the US is allies with our former enemies. To me, this stuff was already settled. Is China the new Japan in that regard?

It looks like Manifest Destiny to me (Not that that's a good thing!) I don't see any way we're going to engage in a hot war over someone else's tentative 'jurisdiction' of the islets. Maybe when pollution from the oil-projects destroys fishing grounds, but otherwise, isn't it just foolish to think that it matter to us.

***

"— but when you press on the nationalist button, you can never be sure what will come out."

That's a keeper.
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CerebrusMaximus
With respect to the nine dash line, China has never owned, or conquered the South China Sea. Any tribute that other kingdoms paid to China hundreds of years ago, were meant to solidify trade deals; not to acknowledge a strong China. The CCP knows this, but thay insist on cherry picking historical events, and telling lies to change the actual facts. The CCP views history as a political tool to manipulate the population of China, and the people of other countries; as such the CCP will always rewrite history to reflect whatever their "core interests" are at that particular moment in time. The Nazis did the same thing during the 1930's, and Xi Jinping is just copying Hitler. Both the Nazis and the CCP are brutal, anti-freedom, inhuman regimes. One has already been destroyed, at great cost to humanity. The other, the CCP, still has an opportunity to become a law abiding, international citizen, rather than continue down their outlaw path to destruction. Time, and real history, will record what the final outcome will be.
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I Chandler
"shooting will probably start off the Vietnamese coast, simply because Vietnam has no defence treaty with the US.

Don't tell Victoria FU Nuland... She might give them the green light. See the Gulf War -
On July 31, 1990, a State Department Official Confirmed US had No Defense Treaty with Kuwait:
http://www.historycommons.org/context.jsp?item=a073190kellynotreaty

" China is not yet ready for a military confrontation with the U.S. Navy."

The US Navy is vulnerable to China's anti-satellite weapons, hypersonic glide vehicles and
anti-ship ballistic missiles:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-ship_ballistic_missile
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AC
For each item we buy that is 'made-in-China' that money basically finances China's military toys used in their bullying behavior in that region. Sad thing is, there's almost nothing left in stores, that is not 'made-in-fricken-China' anymore. Because of this, we are basically enabling them to become the next Russia.
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@I Chandler
The US Navy is not vulnerable to China. The US Navy has this thing called the "US Airforce" to back it up. The US outspends China by about 7:1 on military stuff. Nobody can challenge the US Armed Forces, thankfully.
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I Chandler
"The US outspends China...The US Navy has this thing called the "US Airforce" to back it up. "

Will the US Airforce be also flying the F35? Aircraft designer, defense analyst and fighter mobster, Pierre Sprey calls the F35 a kludge turkey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxDSiwqM2nw

The RAND Corporation analysis says the F35 has inferior in acceleration, climb,sustain turn capability. In simulated war game exercises, called Pacific vision, the red force dominated the exercise -It was described as "clubbing baby seals":
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27qdB1D0s9M#t=52

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McRetso
Chandler, the F-35 isn't even in service yet, and might never be. The US Navy's superhornets have comparable performance to anything China has, and much better avionics. US pilot training is also much better, while China's air force is generally thought to be less capable than Russia's.

Also you confuse being vulnerable to certain Chinese weapon systems with being at a disadvantage. A SWAT team is "vulnerable" to a couple of bank robbers with small arms, but that doesn't mean bank robbers are ever going to beat paramilitary troops in a firefight. China's antiship missiles would probably inflict a few losses on the US navy in a confrontation, but the outcome would still be a Chinese defeat.

Make no mistake, a US land invasion of China would be completely impossible, but at sea the US would win any confrontation. And this is completely to be expected; the US military is primarily designed to project its power overseas, while China still emphasizes traditional capabilities, such as infantry, ground vehicles, and tactical air power. Long-range air and sea power are America's areas of focus.
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BIG WIG
Good work McRetso . Clear headed and well informed analysis as usual .
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@McRetso
"but at sea the US would win any confrontation."

Sea battles are unlikely & thus the Navy changed the name of 'battle groups' to 'Strike Groups' .
The navy's carrier groups, are only as effective as the carriers and planes they carry.

"The US Navy's superhornets have comparable performance to anything China has... a couple of bank robbers with small arms."

Unfortunately, superhornets were also on the seal team ( the Baby seal team ) during the Pacific vision war game exercises: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27qdB1D0s9M

"China still emphasizes traditional capabilities, such as infantry"

Unfortunately, these planes are also vulnerable to infantry small arms - Fighter mafia member, Pierre Sprey:
"if you have a $350 million dollar plane, I don't think you'd wanna put it up where a .50-caliber machine gun might shoot it down."

"US pilot training is much better"

Sprey has also described how US pilot training is suffering because of the cost of keeping these planes flying.

"being vulnerable to certain Chinese weapon systems"

A navy mafia needs to perform some Billy Mitchell anti-carrier demonstrations,
with hypersonic weapons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Mitchell#Project_B:_Anti-ship_bombing...

BTW - UK,AU and Canada are also F35 customers.
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McRetso
Oh, I remember that video. It was by an Australian lobby group looking to support the purchase of another plane over the F-35. In any case, it was compiled and uploaded by a Russian nationalist who pretty clearly was looking to promote the SU-27. Chandler (I assume it's still you), you are absolutely terrible at picking sources.

You're also the master of non-sequiturs and inaccurate information; Canada at least has put its F-35 procurement on hold. Besides, this is about the US Navy.

It may also be true that US pilot training has suffered, it may not. But again, so what? If they're slightly less better, but still better, then it makes little difference. Also, if you think that surface-based .50 calibre machine guns are any use against high-altitude aircraft, then I have a fucking bridge to sell you.

In any case, I still don't even know what you're trying to say, because you seem incapable of forming a coherent argument. I can only conclude you're trolling and deliberately wasting the time of anyone who tried to respond to your useless, incoherent ramblings.
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David English
These comments are neglecting MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction. At least for now, those in power in both China and the US appear to be rational actors. Thus, neither will do anything that obviously leads to total annihilation. Hopefully, they will also avoid things that demand serious escalation, like sinking a carrier or conducting a strike from said carrier, that would lead to MAD. It is chess-like manoeuvring and posturing that is going on, and a relative few will likely die from it. I would not want to be one of the pawns sent out to sea. Sooner or later, some of them will not return.

As Dyer points out, China has internal issues that require a refocusing of their population to external events. As well as dealing with massive bubbles and failing banks, they need to transition their economy from export to local consumption. Doing so will also require they keep out imported stuff, at least for a while. A lot of Chinese people will have their livelihoods destroyed in the process. In regular times, no government (totalitarian or not) could survive this. The government needs someone to blame. They will keep pushing these disputes until something happens. It does not matter if they win or lose, they will get their distraction either way. Most likely, they will not stop at Vietnam. I expect Japan is the target of choice. Big and proud enough to not ask the US for help, yet small enough to not risk extended war.

When all is said and done, we will have an angry China that has turned its back on the world, excepting resource suppliers such as Russia. You will not be able to buy "made in China" stuff at Walmart and the inflation this will cause will be staggering, but manageable. Production will move to other nations (or robots) and you will eventually get your cheap stuff again. China has 1.3 billion customers within its own borders. They don't really need you either.
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@McRetso
"if you think that surface-based .50 calibre machine guns are any use against high-altitude aircraft"

Someone missed the exaggerated sarcasm in Sprey's remarks. Spray was just drawing attention to the high cost of these planes. The F-35 might fly at lower altitudes when performing surface attacks.
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@ @McRetso
"Someone missed the exaggerated sarcasm in Sprey's remarks" ... are you stupid? Sprey was being wholly sincere and fully clueless lol
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