Will China bung its WOD?
The conclusive Hague Tribunal Judgment on the South China Sea dispute of fishing, oil, gas, access and militarization faces Xi Jinping with a tricky choice. Predictably so far he has dismissed the court’s decision as irrelevant. But it is not irrelevant to Filipinos who need to fish to eat and who perceive China’s encroachment as thieving, hostile and threatening.
President Rodrigo Duterte is a strong man but he has been democratically elected and his room for appeasement is limited. So far his response, through the sensible words of his Foreign Minister, has been moderate, with offers of talks. China has also used some moderate but very firm words about its position. All know jaw-jaw is preferable to war-war.
The US has put itself in the position of South China Sea policeman. Be grateful for this, it is a vital role for all members of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) as well as the rest of the world. A country as big as China – too big to manage? – with a growth rate that frightens us all is going to have to be contained on many fronts. Nobody has an appetite for war – or does China, at least potentially? A slowing economy, with internal troubles may be a cause for seeking distraction. As the Chilcot Report on Iraq so ably and moderately, though not briefly, demonstrates, distraction is an important tool for politicians in distress.
We do not know much about China’s internal politics. The gag on reporting and the use of the internet is effective in keeping us largely in the dark. Such messages as we do get are not reassuring. Expectations have been raised beyond deliverables. Disparity of wealth between rich and poor is as bad as anywhere else in the world. If the whole world is VUCCA, China is more VUCCA than most. Managing something like that is pretty daunting. A War of Distraction (WOD) could easily be seen to fill the bill.
But I do not think China wants a war over the South China Sea. First, it wants to demonstrate its political clout before its military might. A war would stretch China managerially probably too much. Second, the battle for the South China Sea will be won by attrition not atomics. A new landing strip here, a gunboat incident there and the wear and tear of persistence will probably get China what it wants. There may be agreements though whether they will be worth the ink with which they are signed remains to be seen.
The world, and the US as vital policeman, must remain vigilant. Man is a territorial animal like every other species. ‘What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own’ is a living cliché. China is bound to be territorially aggressive in the next twenty years. As with all international issues the first attempts at control will be containment. But the world is getting more assertive. Xi Jinping is no Trump but his successor may be. We, including Trump if he is elected, will have to use all the diplomatic skills of the agreeable but immovable.
‘Pray for peace but prepare for war’ sounds wrong.
I am fearful that it may be the right thing to do.