Reuters: Freedom of navigation patrols may end ‘in disaster’: Chinese admiral. Quoting, “‘This kind of military freedom of navigation is damaging to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and it could even play out in a disastrous way,’ he added, without elaborating.” Googling “South China Sea” brings up pages of links on the various contentions. Any list of reasonable length would be too selective. Readers may wish to review the series, “Pivot to Asia” series.
The visible part of U.S. strategy, force projection, has elements of risk absent from previous initiatives. This is discussed in Pivot To Asia; Force Projection, Part 3. A sample of the tone of official analysis is the pdf titled ADIZ Update: Enforcement in the East China Sea, Prospects for the South China Sea, and Implications for the United States. Another sample in the same vein is China’s Potential for Economic Coercion in the South China Sea Disputes: A Comparative Study of the Philippines and Vietnam, published by the Journal of Southeast Asian Affairs. These are excellent, analytic compilations, but they are not projective. This has been a failing of U.S. analysis for decades.
To project, it’s useful to analogize with the behaviors and strategies of individuals and organizations that plan and execute well. Some conflicts, occurring within an established framework of conflict, have results with outcomes that are known to high certainty.
- Domestic law provides a conflict framework. Operating within this framework, the F.B.I. almost never brings a case to prosecution they cannot win.
- Unlike militaries of the Third World, those of the First World win their wars, and since Vietnam, they don’t start wars they cannot win. The conflict framework is established by the First World power as a prerequisite to military action.
Others are examples of conflict-within-a-framework that have uncertain results.
- Patent litigation frequently ends in failure or a draw.
- Governmental paralysis is frequent in democracies.
But a framework cannot be assumed. A symmetric military conflict need not have one. Nor does international law provide one, unless the parties to conflict consent to international methods of adjudication.
China is the current case of note. But the South China and East China seas are both hostage to myriad conflicting claims. Some of these, except for smaller scope, are almost as outrageous as China’s. Is this symptomatic of a broader breakdown in “world order?” In the aptly titled World Order, Henry Kissinger writes (p21), “Today the Westphalian order is in systemic crisis. Its principles are being challenged, though an agreed alternative has yet to emerge.” Noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states has been abandoned in favor of a concept of universal humanitarian intervention or universal jurisdiction…”
The development of international law precedes the above, though the background of flux may contribute to the general unease. But the China signatory to the Hague Conventions was the Qing dynasty. Post-imperial China has not signed the convention that establishes the scope of the Permanent Court of Arbitration decision.
One could theorize that the regional confusion is due to the breakdown of international law. But it’s always been an ephemeral thing. To some, the extension of law to the international domain is the foundation of decency. Another viewpoint has it honored mainly in the breach. International law was forged mainly in the West, by states with recent memories of regrettable conflicts. A nation without those memories, full of the hubris of “new”, might not have the collective memory that gives body to the ephemerality.
China is a newborn nation. When the last of the revolutionary leaders of China passed from the scene, the Eight Elders, of whom Deng Xiaoping was paramount, the collective memory was erased. It was erased not from the historical record, but as a habit of thought.
The current situation has one similarity with the precursors of total war. It lacks a framework to constrain, shape, and limit conflict. Perhaps this is why some of the media flaunt the “war-question-mark” headline so indiscriminately on their websites. But the Asia defense agreements are not written with the interlocking doom of those that caused World War I. Compared to the strict mutual defense obligations of NATO, the wording of the Asian treaties is a step less. Quoting from the State Department synopsis of the U.S. – Japan treaty, “…declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes. “
The current status of the U.S. – China relationship could be described as a zero-intensity conflict. Next: Is China expansionist, and if so, why?