Tensions between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea dominated the issues at the now-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. However, anyone expecting to see any signs of capitulation from China were sorely disappointed.
With respect to South China Sea tensions, China’s tone was even louder and more unapologetic than at the previous year’s Shangri-La Dialogue. This was particularly evident to attendees as China’s Admiral Sun Jianguo gave plenary session addresses at both events. This reflects China’s annoyance at what it interprets as overt attempts by the U.S. to extend its hegemony in Asia at China’s expense.
From the Chinese perspective, the U.S. revealed its true intentions to contain China when it first announced its “pivot”, and later “re-balance” to Asia, while simultaneously proclaiming that it was not directed against China. This reflected American hypocrisy as many in China, the rest of Asia, and in the U.S. itself saw no other reason to devote as many military resources to the region now, when that was clearly not the case earlier.
Even U.S. officials who actually admit to trying to “manage” China’s rise are complicit from the Chinese standpoint. Primarily, the goal of “managing” another country’s development smacks of condescension and paternalism. It also ignores the historical fact that China is not rising, but is in fact re-rising, along with India, to reacquire its status as the center of the global economy. Both of these powers long held this position until the advent of Western imperialism.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue, the U.S. unveiled its “Principled Security Network” concept, in which regional powers with shared values would provide security through enhanced burden-sharing efforts. Whenever U.S. officials use words such as “principles”, “norms”, and especially “values” to describe the regional security architecture, their Chinese counterparts grow increasingly anxious.
This is because they interpret these words as evidence that the U.S. will never be satisfied until China acknowledges its subservience to its “rules of the road”, like everyone else in Asia. This also forms the impetus behind China’s seeking a more equitable “New Model of Great Power Relations” with the U.S.
The problem is multi-fold. First, China is not like everyone else in the region. In Chinese minds, the country’s own brand of exceptionalism harkens back millennia and was primarily confined to Asia. U.S. exceptionalism, on the other hand, is a relatively recent phenomenon and survives only through its promotion abroad.
China would also argue that the U.S.’s reliance on “rules” is contradicted by its own refusal to ratify UNCLOS and follow the rules itself. This is eerily similar to the U.S.’ refusal to modify the voting rights architecture of the IMF, which was a mitigating factor in China’s formation of its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Therefore, U.S. legislative intransigence can potentially have far-reaching, unforeseen effects.
In addition to continued economic growth, nationalism forms the core of the Chinese government’s claim to legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. This is because Communism no longer fills this role and is no longer exported abroad ideologically as it was initially following the 1949 Communist Revolution. In turn, the legacy of China’s “century of humiliation” forms a strong undercurrent in this nationalism as Chinese historical memory is quite long, unlike the U.S.
In some Chinese’ eyes, it is not China who is “revisionist,” but rather the Western powers themselves: repeated Western incursions undermined regional order under Chinese suzerainty, culminating in the Opium Wars.
This long history explains China’s lukewarm reception to the idea, proposed at the Shangri-La Dialogue, that France contribute militarily to upholding security in the South China Sea. It also explains China’s antipathy towards any upcoming ruling by The Hague regarding the Philippines’ arbitration case, as the Netherlands’ own rapaciousness towards China predates even the “century of humiliation.”
As the military machinery on both sides inexorably moves forward, there is an overriding sense in the region that the need for diplomacy is stronger now than ever before. While U.S. partners India and Vietnam and ally Japan all have been eager to see an enhanced American presence in the region to counterbalance China, all are also careful not to damage their respective economic relationships with Beijing.
In fact, one of the U.S.’s allies, Australia, has actually proposed that the U.S. and China agree on a power-sharing arrangement in the region, reflective of the world’s growing multi-polarity. Additionally, some in the U.S. and China have proposed this as well in order to guarantee long-term security in the region.
What is increasingly clear to all parties, however, is that the current South China Sea situation is both highly fluid and highly dangerous. With moves and counter-moves such as continued U.S. freedom of navigation (FONOP) maneuvers and China’s recent militarization of Woody Island, the situation is highly combustible as well. A possible South China Sea ADIZ declaration or a probable collision as a result of yet another air intercept or sea mishap could well be the spark which finally sets fire to the sea.