All Not So Quiet On the Far Eastern Front – Part III

Continuing our story about the dispute over the South China Sea involving, on the one side, China; and on the other – the U.S. and its allies.  We left off with the thought that the major geo-political prize is control over the Strait of Malacca; this is the main thoroughfare of naval trade in that region.  The major part of Chinese imports-exports sails through that strait.  Major energy resources from Africa and the Middle East sail through that strait.  He who controls the naval shipping lanes, controls the world.  Especially in time of war.

Chinese investments in building the Port of Gwadar, in Pakistan

Analyst Petr Akopov goes on to write, that China understands these geo-political realities quite well, and has a strategic plan to resurrect the old Silk Road trade routes of medieval times.  The Silk Road is mainly a land route, but requires a series of ports as part of its infrastructure.  China is busy building ports in Pakistan.  The dispute between China and Japan over a handful of islands in the South China Sea, is all part of this master chess game.  Japan, along with other rival nations of China, is watching intently how this will all turn out; and hoping that the U.S. will be able to counter Chinese ambitions to control these naval lanes.

American boats patrol the South China Sea

Egged on by their allies, the U.S. is raising the stakes.  Threatening China with “consequences” for their actions, the Americans proceeded with a series of naval exercises in the South China Sea.  Australia and New Zealand participated, along with a few token Japanese sailors.

It’s hard to have 2 good friends both at the same time.

What is Russian reaction to these development?  Russia expresses solidarity with China.  With the caveat that Russia does not (formally) take sides in the Spratly Islands dispute, but merely points out that “external forces” (i.e., the U.S.) should not intervene in a dispute between immediate neighbors.  In essence, though, Russia would love nothing better than to see China shove the Americans out of the South China Sea.  An American spanking here would meet Russian long-term geopolitical plans and is in Russia’s national interest.  The only caveat here is that Russia is also friends with Vietnam and does not wish to see a quarrel between  its two friends, Vietnam and China.  To this point, Russia hopes that the government in Hanoi will not perceive the Han-ization of the South China Sea as a threat to Vietnam.  Especially if that would drive Vietnam into the arms of the Americans.

Vietnam’s beef against China goes back a long ways, and there is not time to go into that here.  Akopov makes a brief mention of the Paracel Islands which is a sore point between the two nations.  According to wiki, this archipelago has been in dispute since the beginning of the 20th century.  China claims these islands, which they call Xisha.  France took the islands away from China and incorporated them into their Indo-China colonial empire.  (Sino-French war of 1884-85.)   This set the foundation for America’s puppet, South Vietnam to claim the islands.  Even after the defeat of that puppet government at the hands of the Vietnamese Communists; even after the expulsion of the American imperialists from their soil, the two erstwhile Communist allies (Vietnam and China) continued to bicker over several issues, including the Paracels.  It’s like a wound that won’t heal.  Bottom line, though:  even with the help of its former enemy, the U.S., Vietnam has zero chance of returning the Paracels or of increasing its presence on the Spratly Islands.

Crimea, Russia

What Vietnam mostly needs now is a hug, some reassurance and a feeling of safety in its own space.  Here is where Russia can help.  Because Russia, being good friends with both countries, can act as an impartial go-between and help to soothe tensions in these territorial disputes.  Russia’s main idea in this, is that the region will be a whole lot calmer and safer without the Americans there to stir things up.  Therefore it is best for everybody in the long run, including Vietnam, to support China against the U.S.   And also because the expansion of Chinese influence is a legitimate, and inevitable, historical process, whether one likes it or not.

Crimea Led The Russian Fleet Into The South China Sea

And in his final paragraph, Akopov for the first time mentions the word “Crimea”, which was, enigmatically, in the headline of this piece.  What does Crimea have to do with the South China Sea?

Well, as the English say, “One good turn deserves another.”  Fact is, that China was one of the few nations of the world which backed Russia against Ukraine when the Crimean Autonomy voted to re-integrate with the Russian motherland.  And Russia owes China for that.  Even though Russia cannot officially take China’s side, what Russia can, and did, do was to plan joint naval exercises with China in the South China Sea.  This symbolic gesture, as the Chinese would say, speaks more than a thousand words.

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13 Responses to All Not So Quiet On the Far Eastern Front – Part III

  1. Ryan Ward says:

    There seems to be two main claims in the article. The first is that China’s dominance of the South China Sea is legitimate, and the second is that, legitimate or not, it is inevitable. I disagree with both claims, so I’ll take them in order.
    The first claim seems to derive from a sort of reflexive anti-Americanism that leads the author both to misrepresent the details of America’s involvement in the region, and to inaccurately normalize China’s behaviour. In connection with America, the article suggests to things that are not accurate. The first is that America’s activities in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea are coercive and bullying. Whatever America’s sins in other parts of the world, America’s involvement in this part of the world (at least since the end of the Cold War) has been faultlessly multilateral. For example, the assertion that the Philippines has been “forced” to accept an American base is demonstrably false. When the Filipino government decided to cancel their basing treaty with the US in 1992, the US accepted the decision and vacated the base. America returned in 2012 at the invitation of the Filipino government, which had been pushed to renew its ties with America by Chinese aggressiveness. America’s friendly ties with Vietnam, similarly, are the result of concerted Vietnamese diplomacy over the past 5 years or so. In response, America has been very hesitant, only lifting its restrictions on the sale of arms to Vietnam this year. Meanwhile, friendly relations with America have been central elements of the diplomacy of Thailand and Singapore for decades. If there’s anywhere in the world where the description of American influence as an “empire by invitation” is accurate, it’s Southeast Asia.
    As an aside, I think the inability of Chinese (and Russian) commentators to understand this point is a curious mirror image of some of the worse sort of Western analysis of Eastern Europe. Just as any popular movement in favour of Russian interests can’t be genuine, and therefore must be the result of Russian propaganda or “information warfare” or whatever else, it seems that reflexively anti-American commentators can’t understand, or at least can’t accept, that Southeast Asians may genuinely, and for good reason, decide that American influence is the lesser of two evils if it provides a counterweight to Chinese domination.
    Another important point to keep in mind is that America is not the only external power being invited into the South China Sea to counter China. India has also been extending its influence in the region, and has developed particularly warm ties with Vietnam. So it’s inaccurate to depict the conflict in the South China Sea as being just between China and America. The Southeast Asian states themselves are genuinely independent actors, a number of which have, for the moment at least, decided that their interests lie more with America and India than with China, and India itself can’t be ignored as a factor in the region.
    It’s also important to understand the nature of America’s involvement in the South China Sea. America officially takes no position on the ownership of the islands, but defends the principle of free navigation in an international waterway. America’s actions have been consistent with these aims. America has never impeded the free navigation of any vessel in the South China Sea (including Chinese vessels), and has never been party to or complicit in any sort of militarization of the Spratly or Paracel Islands. Instead, America has defended demilitarization of the islands and free navigation by ignoring Chinese attempts to claim waters in contravention of international law. In practical terms, America’s involvement essentially consists of sailing warships through international waters in the region, hardly a provocative or aggressive act.
    China, meanwhile, has repeatedly threatened the principle of free navigation. China has repeatedly published its infamous “ox tongue” maps, which show China possessing not only the islands of the South China Sea, but also of most of its water, while refusing to disclaim offshore (and therefore international) waters. It has repeatedly laid claim to territorial waters in excess of those recognized by international maritime law, even were the claim to the islands to be recognized. In doing so, it has threatened free navigation in the international straits of the sea. In regard to the islands themselves, China has absolutely refused any sort of bilateral negotiations over them, preferring to bully its smaller neighbours one at a time Meanwhile it has pursued its claims to the islands by provocative measures like building artificial militarized islands, seizing fishing vessels, declaring air notification zones, drilling for oil in disputed areas, etc. some of which actions could even be interpreted as acts of war (particularly the seizing of fishing vessels).
    Finally, it should be noted that, on any conceivable legal principles, the Chinese claim to the Spratly Islands (as opposed to the Paracels, where it at least has a reasonable case) is positively absurd. That’s the real reason why China won’t submit its claims to any international court. It’s not because the courts are stacked against China. It’s because China has no legitimate case, and is itself quite aware of that fact. There’s no principle here other than the lowest kind of national amour-propre and chest-thumping.


  2. Ryan Ward says:

    However, it might be that none of that is particularly relevant, if it’s true that China’s “rise” in general, and its dominance of the South China Sea in particular, is inevitable. It might be that, however regrettable, it’s simply the fate of the small southeast Asian nations to end up as “little Finlands”, with circumscribed independence and a restricting sphere for manoeuvre, along with economies thoroughly dominated by the extractive mercantilism of China. For this to be the case, however, it would have to be the case that China will inevitably become stronger not only than the Southeast Asian states themselves, but also than America and India. There’s no sign of that happening in the foreseeable future. Predictions of inevitable Chinese ascent are based on the fallacy of extrapolating from current trends, without considering how likely it is that current trends will continue. In China’s case, it’s almost certain that current trends will not continue, due to the simple fact of demography.
    Military strength is based on economic strength, and economic strength is based (among other things) on demographic strength. If a state is demographically weak, it will be economically weak, and won’t be able to support a large military force, or to establish economic dominance over other states. China is headed inevitably for one of the most severe demographic collapses faced by any country in the world. Because of a mixture of social factors and the one-child policy, China has had an extremely low birthrate for more than twenty years. Furthermore, it has suffered from an extreme imbalance in the male/female ratio of the population. As a result, China has already reached the stage where its working-age population is declining. Every year, there are fewer and fewer Chinese workers to sustain the national economy. Meanwhile, the ranks of dependent retirees grow as the population of workers to support them shrinks. This has already had a direct effect on Chinese military manpower, as the army was forced to cut hundreds of thousands of soldiers. The PLA is a pretty flabby force, and for now can probably afford the cuts in manpower with little ill effect. However, these cuts will have to continue, as the economy weakens and the social problems created by legions of retirees that probably won’t be particularly well cared-for will grow.
    Neither is this some short-term problem that China can just ride out for a couple years. More than twenty years of extremely low birthrates would create problems that would take decades to sort out under the best of conditions, and China will most certainly not be experiencing the best of conditions. For one thing, there’s no sign of its birthrate recovering in the near or middle-term future. Social and cultural expectations have shifted to such an extent in China that, when the one-child policy was finally partly lifted, there was no significant effect on birthrates, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon. This will extend China’s demographic troubles more decades into the future. Furthermore, birthrates (or more technically, total fertility rates) are usually calculated per woman. This means that China’s problems are actually worse than they appear, since the tens of millions of Chinese men that will never have children, because they won’t be able to find partners, aren’t factored into the equation.
    Because of demographics alone, it’s almost certain that China has either already reached its apogee of power, or will reach it soon. Already severe stresses are starting to show in China’s economy (which has experienced a massive slow-down), social structure and military capability. These problems are going to get worse rather than better with time. China now isn’t on the verge of becoming the hegemon of Asia. It’s Japan in the 1990’s, at the tail end of an impressive, but temporary, rise, and about to fall over the cliff.


    • yalensis says:

      Dear Ryan: Thank you for your extensive comments, you make some extremely interesting points.
      Working backwards:
      On your demographic point:
      I have no training in sociology, but my gut tells me that you are right. I think everybody admits that the “one-child” policy was a disaster, as well as being morally wrong. No state has the right to manipulate people’s biology to that degree. When you do something wrong, bad things will ensue, not to mention unforeseen consequences. I have read about the number of young Chinese men who cannot find a bride. Basically, they have two choices (well, three, if they want to remain a bachelor): They can emigrate, or they can marry someone outside of their ethnic group. Either way entails demographic consequences. There is actually a fourth solution which I proposed in some comments once, mostly but not completely in jest: China can change their marriage laws to allow polyandry – one woman having two husbands, for example. That way, a lonely guy could get at least a slice of quality time with a wife.


      • Jen says:

        The other option available to young Chinese men is mail order brides from the Philippines and Indonesia. As long as they continue the family line – and Chinese families traditionally are patriarchal, so sons having male children matter more than daughters having children, male or female – the bride’s ethnic origins are not such a great deal.

        The really big problem facing China because of the one-child policy is that the population will age so fast and the number of workers is dropping equally as fast, that the taxation base needed for the social services required to support a large aged population won’t be enough, and the Chinese govt will either have to hike up income and corporate tax rates to support these services (and this would encourage emigration or tax cheating) or require everyone to keep working, even if part-time, until they literally drop dead from old age. The other option is to redesign the taxation system so that it relies less on income-based taxation and more on land value taxation.

        Polyandry is not a great option: Tibetans traditionally practised polyandry as a way of preserving scarce arable land in families (because in a mountainous country where flat fertile land is scarce, splitting up property among sons so each son ends up with a 3-metre strip doesn’t make sense) and they still didn’t have much to show in the way of prosperity in 1949.


        • yalensis says:

          In which case, the mail-order bride option sounds reasonable.
          Either way, the Chinese people and statehood will, doubtless, survive, like they always do.


    • yalensis says:

      Ryan, I also agree, mostly, with your argument that it is not right to extrapolate linearly from current to future realities. I think that the author of the piece I analyzed did precisely that, in implying that China’s hegemony over this entire region is an inevitable historical process. Like, almost predetermined from the dawn of time. This is a fallacy, mostly based on the fact that nobody can see into the future.
      But by the same token, Ryan, I see you making bold and audacious predictions about China’s imminent economic collapse. Well, you are trained analyst, naturally it’s part of your job to study economics, demographics, draw up a lot of graphs and computer models and so on, and make these predictions. Once you finish your degree, people will pay you to do that, so I reckon you have to do the best job you can and tell them what you honestly think, based on all the facts at your disposal. In this matter about China’s demise, you could be right, you could be wrong. All I know about the future is from the exquisitely accurate predictions of Baba Vanga. She predicted the Twin Towers – yeh!

      The point I am making, not so subtlely: Just as Akopov may have been indulging in wishful thinking about China pushing nasty America out of the region; so you too may be indulging in wishful thinking about China collapsing and losing all her moxie.
      But as Sophocles used to say, “Only time will tell….”


    • yalensis says:

      Which brings me to:

      3. Your points about how wonderful America is in this arena, and have conducted themselves flawlessly like le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. Well, I could go on an anti-American rant about the Vietnam War and the bombing of Cambodia and so on. But I will put that aside and, for argument’s sake, concede your point that the Americans have a legitimate national interest in this arena and that the other nations look to them to police this region, mostly against the Chinese. Akopov did make that point, and I think I conveyed that accurately in my translation, namely that the smaller nations, far from fearing American bullying, actually see America as the protector of their interests against China. To them, China is the big gorilla, not America. This was a very interesting point, and reality is complicated, as always. Which is precisely why Russia needs to be very careful in navigating through these ancient feuds. These narrows are littered with underwater rocks that could sink the largest boat. Akopov did point out that Russia strives to be somewhat “neutral”, as they also are friends with, or try to be friends with, the other countries in the region such as Vietnam and India.
      But Akopov’s main point, and indeed his headline point, was that Russia has been – well, “forced” is too strong a word – “urged” into the arms of China, due to American bad behavior in Russia’s backyard. Russia may not care very much about the Paracel Islands, but she does care very much about Crimea. If the Chinese have been indulgent towards Russian claims on Crimea, then by the same token, as an equal exchange, Russia must be indulgent towards Chinese actions in the South China Sea. All part of the barter system, which is the world of international diplomacy


    • marknesop says:

      “Because of a mixture of social factors and the one-child policy, China has had an extremely low birthrate for more than twenty years.”

      According to China, that reality is deliberate and has the goal of achieving zero population growth. This is not expected, assuming it is successful, until about 2045, by which time China’s population will have grown by another 300 million – nearly the entire population of the United States. I don’t pretend to be an expert on China or Chinese policy, but it seems to me wrong to attribute a decrease in population growth (which should not be confused with a decrease in population) to mismanagement and inevitability when it is just as likely to result from deliberate planning.


      • yalensis says:

        From what I understand, the government planning was deliberate and was more or less scientifically done, in order to achieve the goal of zero population growth by a certain year.
        This was achieved.
        However, the unintended consequence was the skewing of genders, and a generation with too many boys, and not enough girls.
        Factors include the horrible reality (as I understand it), that families where a girl was born first, since this could be their only child, would kill the baby girl and try again, because what they really wanted was a boy.
        Result (again, as I understand it, and I don’t have the facts or numbers in front of me): Chinese boys who grew up and wanted to get married, but could not find a bride.
        Well, I suppose this WILL reduce the population growth, so maybe mission accomplished.
        Ryan, like every sociologist that I know of, seems to regard population growth as a positive economic factor. I think this is how they are trained in graduate school.
        I don’t know if they are right or wrong.
        I do believe that (morally) it is wrong for a government to interfere in people’s biological rights, especially the most sacred right of all, which is to procreate and have a family.


  3. Jen says:

    One ought to mention here too that Taiwan aka the Republic of China makes the same claims on the Spratly islands as does Mainland China for the same reasons that the People’s Republic does: that China, in one form or another, has a long-standing historical association with these islands dating back almost 2,000 years and says that archaeological evidence exists to support its claim.

    So the problem of ownership of the Spratlys will not go away even if a regime more friendly to the US were to replace the current government in Beijing.


    • yalensis says:

      In which case, will Taiwan abide by the ruling of the Hague Arbitration Court and renounce its claim to Spratly? After all, both Taiwan and the Philippines are allies of the U.S.


  4. Ryan Ward says:

    Sorry for the long delay in responding, but I had a few more points about the article. Firstly, I agree with the point that America largely pushed Russia into supporting China, which was a massive strategic error. Interestingly in that connection, Edward Luttwak warned about this in his book The Rise of China vs the Logic of Strategy, which was mainly dedicated to exploring China’s weaknesses. The one thing that could improve China’s chances of establishing regional hegemony was an alliance, even if only de facto, with Russia. That this seems to be happening is a particularly bad failure of American diplomacy, since, if my reading of the situation is correct, Russia would much rather have had good relations with the West, even at the cost of friction with China. But, when it became clear that that wasn’t an option in any case, Russia settled for the second-best option.
    In regard to the One-Child Policy, it’s a bit of a red herring to talk about population as such. That’s what the original framers of the policy were thinking about, but most of the problems caused by the policy have been in other areas. According to most analysts, the policy has over-fulfilled its targets, and China will reach zero population growth a fair bit sooner than originally forecast. Furthermore, the original plan seemed to assume that birth rates would naturally rise when the policy was either weakened or abandoned, but it’s now clear that that’s not the case, so China’s population growth will almost certainly fall well into negative territory in the mid-term future. Over enough time, this is simple math. Any country that has little immigration and a fertility rate of less than about 2.1 (more in China’s case, because of the gender imbalance), will eventually experience population decline. It won’t happen for a while, especially when life expectancy rises considerably (as it has in China), but eventually, unless something changes, it becomes inevitable. But again, this isn’t the real issue.
    The real issue is not population growth or decline, but rather population aging, and the resulting distortions of the population period. China’s future declining population is a projection (although one that seems fairly inevitable). The decline in China’s working age population is a present fact, which began a few years ago. This isn’t some prediction about the future. It’s what’s already happening. Furthermore, it’s a process that’s not reversible in the short or medium term. Even if China’s birthrate suddenly shot up again, it would take almost 20 years for this to have any effect whatsoever on the working age population. So that means, in the absolute best-case scenario, China would have to deal with the severe economic problems caused by a falling number of workers and an increase in the dependency ratio for the next twenty years. And this best-case scenario is, in practical terms, pretty much 100% sure not to come about. The process of reversing this trend will likely only occur decades in the future.
    That leaves China in a situation where every year, it has more and more retirees, and fewer and fewer workers to fuel the economy. An economy simply cannot maintain robust growth under those sorts of conditions. And without robust growth, all the elements necessary for China’s continued “rise” will be lacking. This doesn’t mean that China will become an insignificant backwater, much less that the Chinese people will simply “disappear”, any more than the similar process that Japan experienced 20 years ago meant either of those things. It just means that China will most likely not (at least in any of our lifetimes) have the resources and strength needed to establish real hegemony in East and Southeast Asia, especially since its two strongest rivals, America and India, both seem to have much brighter demographic and economic futures ahead of them than China does. Furthermore, China’s two most determined rivals in Southeast Asia, Vietnam and the Philippines, seem fated to become more rather than less formidable opponents in the coming decades.
    As to why I feel fairly confident in these predictions, the reason is that they’re founded on demographics. Predictions based on present economic growth or success on the international stage are always very shaky, because these things come and go very quickly. Demographics is not like that. Demographic patterns change, but only over the course of decades, or sometimes even centuries. This makes them a much more firm basis for predictions.


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks for the discussion, Ryan. This is very interesting.
      I wonder though if China’s situation can be alleviated by better healthcare and helping older people to stay healthier and work longer.
      If people can stay alert and work longer, then maybe the retirement age can be moved up, and the elderly need not be a burden to the young.
      Just speculating, I don’t know if this is practical or not….


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