The South China Sea: Decadal Dynamics that Impact on its Geopolitik

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS Web Journal and available in the authors column The Strategist at http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5757

Geopolitical trends are not “pop-up” events, what they represent is an evolved aggregation of implemented policies that manifests themselves as direction in a nation’s world view. And therefore as we set out to identify the critical trends that had an impact on the politico military dynamics of the South China Sea over the last decade, we would do well to note that trends evolve. The impact of Climate Change is a fact that is there for the world to perceive; it has not only set into motion migratory impulses but has compelled world governments to see the elite and the not-so-elite as a part of a shared destiny. While the pandemic, a one-of human event, has exposed the fragility of structures that we have erected that separate nations and societies. The social media on the other hand has democratised access without attaching accountability for actions; to an extent where the role of government is placed on a shaky footing. The events at Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 are a unique point in social media and international relations history.  

These three are no doubt seminal events of the last decade, but they are more in the nature of fractious and uncontrollable developments.

In this frame of reference one may identify three abiding trends that have ripened across decades to set in motion disruptive forces world over and in particular in the South China Sea:

  • The disintegration of Cold War alliances leaving in its wake absence of leadership and a breakdown of the balance of power that provided both context and substance to international relations.
  • Condition of sovereignty of states in the face of globalization of capital, labour and technology. While a surge of migrations has turned existing socio-economic conditions on its head.   All of which exposed the fragility of democracies.
  • The diminishing prospects of order as nations adopt aggressive military postures and doctrines with a view to change geography and existent political norms.

Disintegration of Cold War Alliances Leaving in its Wake a Breakdown of the Balance of Power

Elements that “Balance of Power” stoked were those devices that strengthened mutual forces such that no one State should be able absolutely to predominate and prescribe laws to the rest. And, since all were equally interested in this condition, it was held to be the common interest, the right, and the duty of every power to interfere, even by force of arms when any of the conditions of this settlement were infringed by any other member of the community. The concept grew in Europe as an instrument of survival of State which demanded that military strategy not be freed from political control. It was premised on two realities of the existent international system. First, the system was anarchic with no hegemon to dominate. Second, that nations are principle actors in the international system, as they “set the terms of collaboration” and devise balancing alliances. This theory with all its abstractions and many flaws lay at the heart of the system up to and beyond the Cold War.

Crumbling of the Soviet Union and the attendant power melt-down in Russia left the world in a unipolar condition. The US donned the mantle of the unchallenged global hegemon. It dominated international systems through time-established networks and indeed dispensed order over and including the South China Sea (SCS). The world, from an era of unipolarity and then multipolar uncertainty that dominated the last three decades between the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has moved to what may be termed as “penumbric competition”—conflicts (Shankar, 2019) where lack of definition masks the nature of engagement which is rivalry between major powers over mercantile domination and the ability to tweak the ‘rule book’.

China has made palpably clear that the instruments of influence to further its aspirations are financial inveiglement, military coercion and leveraging instabilities. Since the first decade of the millennium, the international scene, has noted how China’s posture has been turned on its head from the Deng days, gone was the maxim to “hide capacities and bide time, to maintain a low profile and abjure leadership.”

Xi Jinping in his words has sought to strengthen the party’s control over a modernizing society and restore China to what he considers its rightful place as a global power. Further, Xi’s Thought and political theory, “on socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” has, in imperial fashion, been added to the Constitution as the new political doctrine. Central theme is the promise of national glory bound to the nation upholding his absolute leadership.  

But the problem is far more complex; existent international systems have evolved through an acceptance of economic laissez faire, Adam Smith’s views on state control is revealing and should put a dampener on China’s aspirations as he suggested “It is the highest impertinence and presumption in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense.” In such circumstances an extant milieu is most unlikely to adopt a prejudiced revision coming from a society that neither promotes liberal values nor respects an unautocratic approach.

Sovereignty of States

Globalization of capital, labour and technology is redefining the very concept of a sovereign state; while a surge of migrations have turned existing socio-economic conditions topsy-turvy. The economic benefits of this ‘new world’ are there for those willing to embrace the change. Nations that have retreated within are left in a world of denial that fails to recognise what has structurally redefined the modern successor to the overwhelmingly antiquated Westphalian Order. But what of nations such as China that have selectively endorsed and embraced attributes of the globalised world without the ‘messiness’ of socio-economic changes?

The principal motive force underlying globalisation is the progressive integration of economies and societies. Driven by new technologies, new economic and financial relationships, international policies and the urge for wealth creation; globalisation provides the ultimate amalgamation that can potentially free societies from the constraints of autocratic control. These exchanges have led to interdependencies at all levels. It has also precipitated a conflict between markets and governments that tends to weaken and tear the very fabric that binds nations together.

But is this a condition that China’s authoritarian system can tolerate? And if it cannot, will it not result in unendurable stresses within society that may eventually bring about the dissolution of the regime?

Diminishing Prospects of Order

One of the awkward ironies of recent history is the ephemeral nature of American domination over global affairs. Uni-polarity was not only short-lived, but the US was actually instrumental in encouraging the rise of competing powers. China was catapulted to the forefront of world economic development to a great extent as a consequence of American actions to integrate the PRC into the larger global capitalist system. The result was the creation of a competitor and a threat to existing order.

It is not simply the rise of China’s comprehensive power that has given notice to the status-quoists, but also its determination to re-write the ‘rule book’ on its terms as apparent from its claims in the SCS and its flouting of international norms. The loss of confidence that the US has been confronted with by the stalemate in Iraq, the Levant, Afghanistan and the past inability to come to grips with the financial crisis of 2008 can hardly have helped to steel its geopolitical poise.

Even if China’s efforts to gain strategic  dominance in the region does not achieve the desired results, clearly, their efforts are symptomatic of defiance of existing international order. China’s vision of domination leans heavily on its grandiose ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative and the financial clout of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) created in 2016 as a counter to the US dominated World Bank and the IMF. The growing apprehension is that in the absence of a set of conditionality and a consensus that underwrites fiscal discipline, tax reform, deregulation of market dynamics and secure property rights; loans transforms to territorial lease or trade concessions as the Chinese have done in Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Pakistan or in Kenya where the port of Mombasa serves as collateral for the loss making  Nairobi-to-Mombasa rail corridor; in another ‘debt-for-equity’ swap.   

                  On the security front the Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) aims to balance the revisionist ambitions of China. While it has neither announced itself as a military alliance, it would need to define purpose and should take the next step of enhancing military cooperation to signal intent to deter future Chinese attempts to further alter the status quo. This would take the form of improvements in interoperability, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and access to logistics and infrastructure for power projection. A Charter and a Fund to define mandates and develop strategic Indo-Pacific infrastructure are subsequent logical steps.

In the South China Sea, in the meantime, claims defined by China’s 9-dash line have been judicially de-bunked by an International Tribunal at The Hague in 2016. The Quad has the opening to institute measures that serve to contain China’s revisionist policies and aggressive territorial grab. The opportunity must be seized lest globalism be held to ransom by Chinese nationalism.  

An Improbable Prognosis

The three trends have seemingly opened the SCS to the arrival of a new hegemon. The apparent imbalance caused by the receding influence of the US and the absence of an alternative would appear to throw an invitation to China to fill the vacuum; and yet there remains a body of distrust. If domination of the region remains the aim then what becomes of the slackening terms of sovereignty one wonders? There is a discernable movement against an autocratic regimen, its imperial methods and its territorial ambitions whether in Taiwan, Ladakh, the South China Sea or elsewhere.

We have noted the Indo-Pacific presents an awkward anomaly to strategic thinkers. The question is, are there any basis for China’s quest for a reset to the status-quo other than a quest for power and glory in the colonial mode?

1 thought on “The South China Sea: Decadal Dynamics that Impact on its Geopolitik

  1. Re: “We have noted the Indo-Pacific presents an awkward anomaly to strategic thinkers. The question is, are there any basis for China’s quest for a reset to the status-quo other than a quest for power and glory in the colonial mode?”

    China’s quest for “power and glory” is not primarily in the colonial mould. It is is in the “[Entitled, expected, self-evidently deserved]Tribute to Middle Kingdom” mould, adjusted to 21st Century technology; i.e. “light not bright enough for you to see? We will increase the lumens till the glare hurts”

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