The spectacular photographs of China’s progress in creating artificial islands in the South China Sea have deservedly generated a flurry of attention in the media and punditry in the past week or so.
The pictures show the amazing transformation, over the past year or so, of submerged atolls into sizeable islands with harbours, roads, container depots, workers’ dormitories and even cement plants. The reclamation activities have been documented periodically since early 2014 by Vietnamese bloggers, the Philippines foreign ministry, defense publisher IHS Janes, and, most recently, the Washington-based CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
These images seem to have a special ability to catch people’s eyes and draw attention to the issue. On my own humble Twitter feed, where most posts are lucky to be noticed by anyone, when i’ve attached images of China’s artificial Spratlys, the stats suddenly light up with dozens of retweets, many from strangers.
With this viral quality, and visual impact, they could well become iconic images that define the South China Sea issue as a whole. So amidst the surge of interest, it’s worthwhile reflecting on what’s not in the pictures. Here’s my stocktake, together with a collection of less widely-circulated photos:
- The scoreboard: China is still well behind
- The company: reclamation is part of most claimants’ Spratly strategies
- The history: it’s not new, and that does matter for policy responses
- The regional context: easing tensions
- The environment: an unfolding tragedy
Additions, omissions and arguments most welcome!
Japan upholding the “path of peaceful development”? China’s complimentary criticism of Abe’s collective self-defensePosted: July 2, 2014
On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that his cabinet had passed a new resolution on the interpretation of Article 9 of the post-war constitution, such that the Self-Defense Forces can now be used to defend Japan’s allies. Coverage of China’s official comments on the matter has typically focused on the “concern” it expressed, but there was also a curiously timed compliment contained within the PRC’s response.
East Asia Forum was yesterday kind enough to publish a piece called ‘Can the US tone down to ASEAN’s tune?’. I was asked to write about how the region should respond to crises like the Sino-Vietnamese standoff in the South China Sea, and the following is just my attempt at contributing something vaguely original to the discussion. I’m ready to be told it’s naive, silly or completely nuts; my only request is that if you think so, please say so!
As Bill Bishop suggested in the Sinocism Newsletter a couple of weeks back, the region at this point appears unable to impose costs on Beijing for the kind of escalatory conduct exemplified by its unilateral placement of the oil drilling rig HYSY-981 in disputed waters this month. This is definitely worth thinking long and hard about. We also need to consider the incentives that the international situation may be creating for this kind of assertiveness, and work to reduce these.
The following article’s bold proclamation about “what is needed” isn’t meant literally; although that wording suggests otherwise, i really am not claiming to know what is needed or tell the real experts that they don’t. It’s just a suggestion, a case to be made, which is based on:
- My reading of how China sees these issues and its strategic interests (relatively sensitive to the possibility of ASEANization of the issue, relatively insensitive to US grandstanding);
- What hasn’t worked to deter Beijing from assertive behaviour thus far (the US leading the criticism of China’s provocative actions and strengthening ties with China’s rival claimants); and
- Discussions with some friends and experts, whose feedback was vital to refining the idea (i’d name them but i’m not sure they wouldn’t prefer to remain nameless).
EAF allowed me a generous 1200-odd words, and i ought to thank the editors for their excellent job of compressing it. Nonetheless, a few other clarifications had to be left out for space reasons, so i’m adding them after the end of this post, mainly for my own benefit i imagine.
Anyway, here’s my crackpot idea, which which i put out there to be critiqued, so please don’t hold back . . .
The introduction to Phoenix TV host and international affairs commentator Qiu Zhenhai’s book, excerpted in Southern Weekend a couple of weeks back, reprises an important issue for everyone studying nationalism in China: to what extent should we really understand the phenomena that get labelled “Chinese nationalism” in those terms?
Peking University Professor Wang Yizhou, one of China’s top foreign policy scholars, did an interview for the excellent new Carnegie-Tsinghua podcast last month (Part 1 and Part 2), covering a very broad sweep of China’s emerging foreign policy, regional strategy, territorial disputes, global role, and bilateral relations with the US.
His main points are noted below, starting with regional strategy and China’s maritime territorial disputes. I’ve just done this as an exercise to try to better grasp the significance of what Wang says; for most people it’s probably better to just go listen to the podcast. The italicized blockquote bits are a mix of direct quotes and paraphrasing.
Xi’s task: a “soft landing” for the South China Sea dispute
To those people who subscribe to this blog via email, thankyou and i’m sorry — you guys always miss out on various additions and clarifications (e.g. headings, signpost & summary sentences) to the shoddy initial versions i post. If you’re interested in the topics but find my chaotic writing confusing, i’d always recommend waiting a few hours and then viewing via the web, rather than email.
If it wasn’t clear, the point of yesterday’s typically unwieldy post was actually quite simple: Luo Yuan, and the other “hawks”, are probably in the game of military political work, rather than policy competition.
With impeccable timing, Luo Yuan has provided a lovely example to illustrate this. [UPDATE JULY 8: Not really an example at all, it turns out.]
On Thursday, only hours before AK Antony arrived in Beijing for the first visit by an Indian Defense Minister for seven years, Luo held a press briefing and told India to be “very cautious in what it does and what it says.” [UPDATE: The briefing was not about India, and Luo only commented on India when asked by a journalist to do so. I have been told Luo made no attempt to raise the topic of India. Thus, the working hypothesis this piece was written under — that this was a carefully timed piece of strategic communication aimed at India — is invalid. It was almost certainly just a coincidence that Luo commented on India just before the Defense Minister’s visit. However, this doesn’t diminish the likelihood that Luo Yuan is in the business of political communication, only that this particular action was targeted at India.]