The Nine-Dotted Line

This is based upon a line of reasoning dating to 1994, when Bill Clinton granted China Most Favored Nation trade status.  I am an admirer of Bill Clinton.  Perhaps, in the years the followed, and in the subsequent administration, trade policy should have received periodic, significant modifications.

Let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of China’s claims of the East and South China Seas, denoted by the Nine Dotted Line.

1. By 2020, China will have thoroughly encroached upon the claimed maritime exclusive economic zones, “EEZs” of neighboring states.

2. By 2025, China will exercise full sovereignty  over the area, in the form of seizures of assets of other nations that attempt economic exploitation,  with ship seizures used as an instrument of foreign policy.

3. The Senkaku Islands will border this zone, and their fate constitutes an instability, a  “tipping zone” into a new regime of thought by the nations of the area.

The output of papers within the defense/ intelligence communities must be enormous, with detailed analysis of trade and military balances. But  this is not the key to the problem. Here is a rule for dissecting complex problems that seems particularly useful in this case:

*Rule: Try to transform a complex problem into an equivalent problem that is simpler to think about.*

There’s an analogy from formal logic, of equivalence classes. If the two outcomes are tied inextricably, they are equivalent. One dictates the other. The proposed equivalent problem is:

“Do the nationalities of Southeast Asia like each other?” Or, more formally, “Is there a pan-Southeast Asian identity?”

The answer is, no. In the West, multiculturalism is a good thing. In Southeast Asia, it is a bad thing. As Westerners, we are mainly acquainted with the attitudes of Asians toward us, and us towards them. But we are unacquainted with how they regard each other. The IARPA “Metaphors” program may address this area, but it is unclear whether policymakers really understand how it impacts the possible paths of U.S. policy.

The consequence for U.S. strategies to glue East Asia into a counterbalance to China are severe. Each of the involved countries, which China has historically regarded as vassal states, have more trade with China than the U.S.

The odd-man-out, with a strong cultural affinity, is Australia. But it is at the end of a very long string. China is their largest trade partner. The result may be a “stiff-but-weak” alignment with the U.S.

Perhaps the U.S. should attempt to draw the line of influence further back. The backing off of U.S. power, in the form of naval assertion, has been a reactive process. For example, the Zumwalt class destroyer was originally intended to be survivable in China’s littoral zone. Occasionally, the phrase “control China” surfaced. It’s embarrassing that it could have been part of the plan. Backing off should not be reactive. It should be strategic.

As Henry Kissinger remarked, no one expected China to rise so fast. There seems to be a blindness of recent memory that augers a blindness of the near future.




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