South China Sea Tense

Reuters reports the protest of Vietnam with the first military flight to an island in the Spratleys. The inaugural post of this blog,  The Nine Dotted Line, suggested 2025 as a due date for exercise of full sovereignty by China in the delineated area. You may wish to look at the Pivot to Asia series:

The time for a showdown is not yet. China has succeeded in a reprise of the ancient policy of surrounding herself by vassal states, which are at least temporarily paralyzed from action by economic ties. Quoting from Historical Background and Henry Kissinger,

Those dynasties were the custodians of a principle well explained in Chapter 6 of Henry Kissinger’s World Order. Quoting,

“In this view, world order reflected a universal hierarchy, not an equilibrium of competing sovereign states. Every known society was conceived of as being in some kind of tributary relationship…”

An actual tributary relationship of all of the other societies in the world is in the realm of fantasy, but the system nevertheless accommodated. Tribute was replaced by honorific. In some cases, vassals were acquired by corrupting them with showers of goods. Since until the Opium Wars, China had a trade surplus, this was easily afforded. Modern comparisons may bear.

Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Fan Changlong is doubtless aware of that history, and adapted it to modern use. He states (Reuters, 10/17/2015), “We will never recklessly resort to the use of force, even on issues of sovereignty, and have done our utmost to avoid unexpected conflicts”.

This does not imply that China will pay other countries to transit the disputed area while flying the Chinese flag from the mast. But it suggests some input of ancient sophistication that contrasts sharply with the hair-trigger posturing of other countries. It also suggests some realization of the novelty of sovereign claims on a sea.

The eventual cost to China of militarization of the region will greatly exceed the value of the oil that lies beneath. The coastline of China proper is 14,500 kilometers, which is not much less that the U.S. But the geography gives a sense of congestion, with (in Chinese eyes) many potentially hostile neighbors. Sadly, the calculus of threats, discussed in Threats to Russia, also applies to China.

The news media, intentionally or not, exaggerate. CNN, in particular, constantly raises the specter of war. It catches the eye, it raises the blood pressure, and it’s good for readership. It exploits the tendency of the inattentive individual to focus on a single point in time.  With perspective, we can do better.

The engineers who design weapons systems, “weaponeers”, have a saying, “Quantity has a quality all it’s own.” Eventually, China’s numerical dominance in the disputed area will become overwhelming. The U.S. has been concerned about the Iranian development of swarm tactics for use in the Strait of Hormuz. Countermeasures have been developed, but the capabilities and potential of China are vastly greater than that of Iran.

The most likely methods of eventual employment by  China are the fire hose, the boarding party, and the tow rope. An unarmed U.S. “Freedom of Navigation” mission, mysteriously damaged by a mine,  could be on the end of the rope. The Chinese might treat the crew well and after a suitable interval of technology piracy, return the vessel, in tiny pieces neatly boxed.

The softest of military posturing,  combined with claims by China, is all that is required to  to deter commercial investment in competing oil ventures. The risk cannot be annulled by the military postures of other states that are party to this spat, even that of Vietnam, which is the most aggressive.

Vietnam  has a formidable submarine fleet. To use it against China would result in an economic disaster. Such action might result in a brief hot war, as inconclusive as the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. But titular “victory” would be hollow, as Vietnam’s economy serves mostly as a subcontractor to China’s.

Thus far, China’s policy has successfully progressed towards annexation of most of the area behind the Nine Dotted Line. Like the theologians of Iran’s holy city of Qom, China has a long time horizon. It would be out of character to make the mistake of any action that has less than the ultimate of sophistication.



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