Senator Yuen Pau Woo raises thoughtful concerns about motion on China's aggressive moves in South China Sea

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      B.C.'s newest senator, Yuen Pau Woo, has ignited controversy with his first speech in the chamber.

      According to a Vancouver Sun article, Conservative MP Peter Kent has criticized Woo because he opposes a Senate motion, which criticizes China’s “escalating and hostile behaviour” in the South China Sea.

      The motion urges China to "cease all activities that would complicate or escalate the disputes, such as the construction of artificial islands, land reclamation, and further militarization of the region".

      The government representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, supports the motion.

      Earlier this year, an international tribunal rejected China's claim to a broad swath of territory in the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan all maintain that they have sovereignty in the area.

      Woo pointed out in his first speech in the Senate that "there have been dramatic political developments" since the tribunal issued its ruling. 

      "The most immediate is the May 2016 election of Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines and his subsequent rapprochement with China to the extent of essentially setting aside the arbitration ruling and pursuing instead a bilateral solution to his country's boundary dispute with Beijing," Woo said. "In effect, the country that 'won' the ruling has chosen to not push for its implementation and is instead seeking a political resolution to the problem."

      Woo is the former head of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. And for his comments, Woo is being accused of being an "apologist for the Chinese dictatorship".

      Sovereignty over large areas of the South China Sea remains in dispute.

      Xi Jinping is trying to keep hardliners at bay

      Chinese president Xi Jinping is often viewed in the West as a ruthless dictator. In fact, the Beijing government's top officials, including Xi, are actually less militant than hardliners in the military and law-enforcement communities, according to an article earlier this year in Foreign Policy.

      The article's author, Feng Zhang, divided Chinese elite opinions over the South China Sea into three camps: realists (which include top government officials), hardliners, and moderates.

      "Realists think they are safeguarding China’s national interests by enhancing its material presence in the South China Sea," Feng Zhang wrote. "But they are uncertain about what to do with the newly constructed islands. Should Beijing push for a new round of military installations including placing offensive weapons systems, or are defensive equipments really sufficient for the status quo? Realists want power in the South China Sea, yet are unsure how much power is enough."

      The hypernationalistic hardliners want to expand China's presence in the South China Sea, possibly through the addition of military bases.

      "The good news is that this view does not yet dominate high-level decision-making," the author wrote.

      He added that moderates among China's elites question the value of treating the demarcation map in the South China Sea as a boundary. That's because it makes it harder to reach compromise with China's neighbours in Southeast Asia.

      "The moderates differ much from the realists and the hardliners," Feng Zhang noted. "But the three share an extremely important area of agreement: the necessity of island-building."

      Problems could come to a head next year

      The next national congress of the Communist Party of China will be held in the fall of 2017.

      This will be a crucial test for Xi Jinping in trying to consolidate control.

      His biggest risk is being replaced by  hypernationalistic, inward-looking hardliners. Think of them as Communist fascists—the Chinese equivalent of Donald Trump or France's Marine Le Pen.

      That wing of the Communist party wants to turn back the clock and reverse many of the outward-looking economic reforms Xi has supported over the years.

      To gain greater insights into Xi, compare him to a former Chinese premier Li Peng, who was a major player in the late 1980s and 1990s.

      Whereas Li Peng was eager to dispatch tanks against student demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Xi has not thwarted student protesters from being elected to the legislative chamber in Hong Kong.

      Whereas Li Peng opposed economic liberalization, Xi has encouraged it, first as the governor of Fujian province and later as president of China.

      In 2015, then Taiwanese president Ma ying-jeou met Chinese president Xi Jinping in Singapore.

      Xi's father was also an economic liberalizer. He spurred major reforms in Guangdong as a close lieutenant of former leader Deng Xiaoping.

      During the Cultural Revolution, Xi's father was purged and thrown in jail. And  when the West criticizes China for its human-rights abuses, Xi is well aware that few expressed any concern for his family and millions of others who suffered as a result of some of the greatest human-rights abuses of the 20th century. This, in part, explains his dismissive attitude nowadays.

      Woo didn't say in his Senate speech that the motion might strengthen China's hardliners who want to send Xi sent packing at the next party congress. But you can be sure that an old Asia hand like Woo is aware of many of the subtleties that escape most media commentators.

      The world already has enough problems with the rise of Trump. Does Peter Kent really want to give support to his Chinese equivalents? Does Kent believe the world would be safer with a 21st-century version of Li Peng in charge of China?

      Here's the long game. If Xi is replaced by the more inward-looking fascists in his own party, it elevates the risk of the Chinese government making more aggressive moves against Taiwan.

      That's a recipe for far bigger international trouble than what is likely to occur in the South China Sea with the apparent de-escalation of tension taking place between China and the Philippines.

      While Xi often talks tough internationally to keep the hardliners at bay, he's actually facilitated warmer relations between Taiwan and China as governor of Fujian (which is across the strait) and as president of China. He even had a widely heralded meeting with the former president of Taiwan, which was the first time the two countries' leaders had been in the same room since the Chinese Civil War.

      Canada is lucky to have someone with Yuen Pau Woo's deep understanding of Asia in the Senate. Let's hope that his peers pay attention to what he has to say in the future.