This article may not be for everyone: it is about one of the issues you probably don’t read about in the newspaper, and certainly won’t see covered on the television, so it comes across as a bit of lesson, rather than an opinion piece. But it deals with big, important issues you need to know about.
You have been warned.
Things are getting more interesting in the South China Sea. And considering its one of the world’s most politically interesting places to begin with, that’s saying something.
First, some context. The South China Sea is comprised of lots, and lots, of reefs, islets and islands. The most well-known of these is the ‘Spratly Islands’ – which themselves consist of several hundred specks of land. These islands are all uninhabited. But, they are resting atop prodigious oil and gas reserves and straddle one of the world’s most valuable sea lanes, and it is for this reason, some claim, that China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan all lay claim to vast tracts of the largely empty water, punctuated by the occasional bit of land. What is complicating this issue is the nationalistic hue of this region’s leaders, the association of acquiring these islands with concepts of ‘territorial integrity’, and growing dissatisfaction with lack of agreement.
The islands are often subject to somewhat ridiculous tit-for-tat posturing. A diplomatic scandal erupted in 1999 when it became clear a few years ago that the People’s Republic were building military facilities in the area, upon the aptly named ‘Mischief Reef’ – China’s claims that these were ‘stations’ built by ‘fishermen’ did not wash. More recently, a few weeks ago, Philippine Parliamentarians flew by aircraft to the Spratly Islands, where they supposedly planted a Philippine flag. This resulted in an angry statement by the Chinese foreign ministry, with large protests outside both the Chinese and Philippine embassies in Vietnam.
The United States, which has no great interest in the region’s oil and gas reserves (no, really), has intervened into this situation, with Hilary Clinton stating that the resolution of the impasse is ‘the number one diplomatic priority for the United States’ – resulting in itself from an unhappy rebuttal from the PRC.
“The United States throwing its weight around,” one might think. “thinking it’s the world’s policeman, sticking its nose in where it doesn’t belong,” one might add.
This is a common criticism of US policy. That it is only making things worse, and for no good reason; that it has misconceived its own global role. Iraq is one example of this; Libya is another, Afghanistan a third – but these are just the examples we are familiar with. Someone somewhere views every aspect of US foreign policy in such terms. This is particularly the case in Asia: since 1945, the United States has exercised massive power – and control – over the region, acting as a veritable hegemon. Even during the Cold War, Soviet influence was limited, and China became a – temporary – US ally. Put simply, US authority has been absolute and its interventions wide-ranging and comprehensive, and in some instances, seared into the American psyche.
But there is, in this instance and all of those others, an explanation for current US policy beyond ‘interventionism writ large’. This explanation can be found in the timeless relevance of geostrategy.
Geostrategy is a very misunderstood concept. It is recognition of the role geography plays on political discourse, and how it can explain the grand strategy of great powers: it was popular in the Cold War and, according to some, has since fallen into obscurity – but it still largely defines the driving forces of US foreign policy; after all, the State Department bureaucracy of 2011 is pretty similar to the bureaucracy of 1989. It is a little simplistic to imagine that bureaucracy dropping the tenants and rules it had lived by for the past fifty years just because some wall fell down in Europe.
So, in order to understand US policy in Asia, let’s briefly look at a map of Asia. The first thing we see is China, and Russia. These countries have two similarities; both are traditionally land powers, in an area defined by the ocean. This is good for the United States, which, whilst possessing considerable territory in North America, is actually more of a sea-power than a land power – we can thank the perpetual and reliable benignity of Mexico and Canada for that.
After that, we see a collection of territories not controlled by China, in Southeast Asia and Korea, and various islands in the Pacific. Let’s consider the political outlook of these territories: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and, more recently, Indonesia, Vietnam and India: all of which are fundamentally pro-American. Now let’s imagine we have the US Navy in the blue bits between those territories, and draw a line between them.
That line, beginning in the hot sands of Afghanistan in the West, looping around China through mainland Asia, then up north, through Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, to the tip of the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, is no accident. It is the product of fifty years of US geostrategic thinking, physically containing China in the Pacific – and it is now under threat.
The reason for this is certainly related to China’s growing military strength, but that is itself but a symptom of a wider problem for the United States: China expanding its horizons. At one time, Taiwan served to define China’s existential debate with itself, soaking up all the nationalist fervour within China in the process. The presence of the United States in the western Pacific was built on defending Taiwan – and, with it, halting China’s expansionist tendencies some 120 miles off the coast of mainland China.
China, however, for the first time since the proclamation of the People’s Republic in 1949, is looking beyond Taiwan. It is developing longer range missiles, about to commission its first aircraft carrier, developing increased amphibious and logistic train capability – and looking at the South China Sea. And, wherever Chinese ambitions go, the United States follows: hence the direct involvement of Secretary Clinton, and the unhappy response of the People’s Republic.
Of course, there are added, complicating factors to this, which help make it extra interesting. China is in the midst of a charm offensive in the traditional US sphere of influence of Southeast Asia. This charm offensive is an attempt to mitigate the widely held regional view of China as a threat to the region’s autonomy. So, the United States has an interest in emphasising disagreement in the South China Sea between China and Southeast Asia, and thereby lessen the odds of its numerous, but all geostrategically critical allies splitting away from the US regional order after being co-opted by an economically buoyant, militarily strong China – something successive State Department and DoD reports have highlighted as the strategy of choice for the People’s Republic, in an effort to reduce American influence and power in the Pacific.
For its part, Southeast Asia actually welcomes US involvement: whilst it is happy to accept China’s trade, and establish the world’s largest free-trade area (China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA)), it fears Chinese hegemony which, unlike the US hegemony it is well-acquainted with and receives extensive military aid for acquiescing with, could impact negatively on their own independence (a view reinforced by the thousand year occupation of Vietnam by Imperial China, and not helped by the name of China’s first aircraft carrier – Shi Lang – in honour of the Qing-era general who conquered Taiwan for the mainland).
So, bearing in mind I said initially how this article would read more like a lesson than a comment-piece (a warning which I’m sure all of you still reading will agree was justified), the obvious question is – what is the lesson? Well, the lesson is twofold; if you want to understand a particular aspect of US foreign policy, but feel you don’t, look at a map – it will more likely than not contain the answer. And secondly, keep an eye on the South China Sea: it’s quite interesting, and could very well prove to be as critical to the preservation of the existing global order as Serbia was to the global order of 1914.