Gwynne Dyer: War in the South China Sea?

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      “If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a U.S.-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea,” said an editorial in the Global Times last week.

      The Global Times is an English-language daily paper specializing in international affairs that is published by the People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s official newspaper. So we should presumably take what it says seriously.

      But really, a U.S.-Chinese war in the South China Sea? Over a bunch of reefs that barely clear the water at high tide, and some fishing rights and mineral rights that might belong to China if it can bully, persuade, or bribe the other claimants into renouncing their claims?

      The GDP of the United States is $16.8 trillion each year, and China’s GDP is $9.2 trillion. All the resources of the South China Sea would not amount to $1 trillion over 50 years.

      Great powers end up fighting great wars. Counting a prewar arms race, the losses during the war (even assuming it doesn’t go nuclear), and a resumed arms race after the war, the long-term cost of a U.S.-Chinese war over the South China Sea could easily be $5 trillion. Are you sure this is a good idea?

      Yet stupid things do happen. Consider the Falklands War. In 1982, Britain and Argentina fought a quite serious little war (more than 900 people were killed, ships were sunk, et cetera) over a couple of islands in the South Atlantic that had no strategic and little economic value.

      Maybe that’s not relevant. After all, Argentina had never been a great power, and by 1982 Britain was no longer really one either. The war in the Falklands was, said Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “a fight between two bald men over a comb”.

      Yet it is a bit worrisome, isn’t it? It didn’t make strategic or economic sense, but they did it anyway.

      Let’s look at the question from another angle. Who is the messenger that bears such alarming news about a U.S.-Chinese war? The Global Times, although published by the Chinese Communist government, is a tabloid newspaper in the style of the New York Post or the Daily Mail in Britain: downmarket, sensationalist, and not necessarily accurate.

      But it has never published anything that the Chinese authorities did not want published. So the question becomes: why did the Chinese authorities want this story published? Presumably to frighten the United States enough to make it stop challenging the Chinese claims in the South China Sea. This is turning into a game of chicken, and China has just thrown out the brakes.

      Would Beijing really go to war if the United States doesn’t stop overflying the reefs in question and carrying out other activities that treat the Chinese claim as unproven? Probably even the bosses in Beijing don’t know the answer to that. But they really do intend to control the South China Sea, and the United States and its local friends and allies (the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan) really will not accept that.

      The Chinese claim truly is astonishingly brazen. The “nine-dash line”, an official map published by the Beijing government in 1949, claims practically all the uninhabited reefs and tiny islands in the shallow sea as Chinese territory, even ones that are 700 kilometres from the Chinese coast and 150 kilometres from the Philippines or Vietnam.

      Since the islands might all generate Exclusive Economic Zones of 300 kilometres, China may be planning to claim rights over the entire sea up to an average of about 100 kilometres off the coasts of the other countries that surround the sea. It hasn’t actually stated the details of that claim yet, but it is investing a lot in laying the foundations for such a claim.

      It’s as if the United States built some reefs in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, claimed them as sovereign territory, and then said that the whole sea belonged to the U.S. except for narrow coastal strips for Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, et cetera.

      China is actually building islands as part of this strategy: taking low-lying reefs and building them up with enormous quantities of sand, rock, and cement to turn them into (marginally) habitable places. Then it acts astonished and offended when other countries challenge this behaviour, or even send reconnaissance flights to see what the Chinese are up to.

      The veiled threats and the bluster that accompany this are intended to warn all the other claimants off. It’s been going on for years, but it’s getting much more intense as the Chinese project for building military bases all over the South China Sea (it denies that that’s what they are, of course) nears completion. So now the rhetoric steps up to actual warning of a Chinese-U.S. war.

      The Global Times is right, whether its writers know it or not. If China keeps acting as if its claims were universally accepted and unilaterally expanding the reefs to create large bases with airstrips and ports, and the U.S. and local powers go on challenging China’s claims, then there really could be a war. Later, not now, and not necessarily ever, but it could happen.   



      Greg G.

      May 29, 2015 at 11:04am

      Isn't their some interntional 3rd party body that decides on cases like this, I think there is one going on between Canada, the USA, Denmark, and Russia over which pieces of the sea are above the extensions of each nations continental shelf. Does anyone know more about that legal process, and whether China is a signatory to any of the treaties recognizing the standard rules of how far out exclusive rights extend from a nation's shoreline?

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      May 29, 2015 at 11:30am


      Yes, there are United Nations tribunals. China refuses to acknowledge them, and won't defend itself. China shares a border with 14 other nations, and currently has territorial disputes with 20 of its neighbours, not counting Tibet.

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      May 29, 2015 at 11:51am

      While their might be an international dispute mechanism to resolve such claims by diplomacy and negotiation the time honored way of resolving territorial claims is through war. The Chinese are no doubt building "facts on the sea" to bolster their historical claim to the South China sea. These may also act as a military buttress, although a vulnerable one, to patrol the seas and not rely on mainland bases. I had read that the likely economic value of the sea is in excess of 3.5 trillion dollars over 50 years but that in it's self, as Dyer says, is not a rational reason to fight a war over it. I suspect China wants to build a marine buffer zone to keep the mainland safe from American and Japanese mischief [Aggression].This is a "coming out" signal that China is a major power and is going to actively counter any American "pivot" into China's new found sphere of influence. So yes, China has thrown "down the gauntlet" to the Americans, who have ruled the oceans since WW2 and is prepared to fight them over this issue.
      Don't forget the American have forced a Sino-Russian economic and military alliance and the Americans will have to decide if want to start a war with the up and coming Asian hegemon.

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      May 29, 2015 at 12:53pm

      What China failed to understand is : this issue is broader than just territorial claim. It's the issue of world order, the issue of international legal basis between nations which our civilized world was based on during the last 500 years or so.
      Defying and insulting its neighbouring countries (even to the point of belittleing them by calling them "small countries") by claiming ownership of 90% of the SCS (East Sea), China in fact overthrew the whole world order, and international norms governing relationship between countries that mankind worked so hard to establish during the last 500 years. By doing so, China basically replaced it with its Law of the Jungle.
      If China could get away with this, who would stop Russia to claim ownership of the entire Sea of Okhotsk, India with the Bay of Bengal, Iran with the Persian Gulf, Egypt with the Red Sea...? Other large countries would do the same and the final conflict would eventually happen anyway.
      So, it's the whole world choice to deal with it now, or later, but sooner or later this issue would need to be resolved.

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      May 29, 2015 at 1:01pm

      The other thing to keep in mind is that China's economy is a powder keg waiting for a match. Their real estate bubble is popping, and it was responsible for something like 1/3 of their GDP. The government is trying to redirect people into a stock market bubble as a distraction, but that's already looking pretty iffy.

      The leadership class of China believes not just their jobs and status but possibly their lives are at stake if China's economy fails to keep growing quickly.

      So distraction via nationalism is the emergency button. It works for the USA, right?


      May 29, 2015 at 1:05pm

      "I suspect China wants to build a marine buffer zone to keep the mainland safe from American and Japanese mischief "

      What kind of mischief would a marine buffer zone prevent? It would have no effect of spies and PSYOPs. As you point out it would do little to stop a full scale invasion as these outposts would easily wiped out in the first hour of a war.

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      May 29, 2015 at 2:48pm

      My,my what righteous indignation, jay jay. Since when has respect for rule of law and territorial sovereignty played any role in the wars waged in the last hundred years ,never mind 500 years?
      Yes, Bruce your argument applies especially to the US today but less so to China, the US is actually indebted to China and the long sought economic recovery has not materialized . Also Bruce, this column is patrolled by many pro-American and Israeli "Trolls" or brainwashed simpletons with whom I do battle weekly! NO offence.
      As I said, the dispute over the SCS islands is more symbolic than real, Anonymous, it's a "trip wire", you've got to take them out before attacking the mainland, by that time the Chinese military will be ready and waiting. In the age of missilery, any ship or plane that can be seen by radar will be sunk and downed. The traditional weapons of WW2 are obsolete except as missile platforms. I doubt the US will wish to engage in a war of missiles.

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      Michael D.

      May 29, 2015 at 6:32pm

      Next china will claim Luzon and Manila. china is a communist pig looking to bully small poor countries. Pig because they will not even agree to arbitration to their absurd land grab. They learne this from putin who stole Crimea. I hope America kicks their asses all the way back to beijing .. And sooner rather than later ..

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      I Chandler

      May 29, 2015 at 7:49pm

      Dyer:"the US & local powers go on challenging China’s claims, then there really could be war. "

      That American one-party democracy(and local power ), appears to want to get in on this war:

      Haven’t Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines all engaged in similar “land reclamation” activities without raising hackles in DC? The US is challenging China under the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a document the US has stubbornly refused to ratify:
      "China has never blocked shipping lanes or seized boats sailing in international waters. Never. The same cannot be said of the United States"

      Dyer: "It’s as if the US built some reefs in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, claimed them as sovereign territory, and then said that the whole sea belonged to the U.S."

      One need not be a swami to see that China’s surging power will soon clash with that of the American hegemon. The battle lines are already drawn: China’s aggressive claims to the South China Sea – viewed by the US Navy as an American lake. Taiwan. Tensions over Burma. Korea. China’s access to the open seas:

      Dyer: "Maybe that’s not relevant. After all, Argentina had never been a great power, and by 1982 Britain was no longer really one either."

      "History is replete with examples of rising powers eventually going to war with the status quo powers resisting their rival’s economic and military growth. The Franco-British-Russian alliance against Germany prior to World War I is a perfect example."

      Dyer:"the US & local powers go on challenging China’s claims, then there really could be war. "

      A propaganda campaign by the China Lobby convinced most Americans that there would No war with an oil embargo:

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