The greatest geopolitical concern that I have, as an Australian, is the Chinese government’s militant assertion of its entitlement to the entirety of the South China Sea.
No one wins from this. China is upsetting all its neighbours, causing alarm in regional capitals such as ours, and risking a shoving match, and possible conflict, with the Americans, to whom they will have to back down or have their arses handed to them on a plate.
It’s dumb and counterproductive behaviour in every way.
When I’ve thought about it, I’ve had trouble articulating in my mind exactly how the Chinese have arrived at this situation, where they have convinced themselves that they are the aggrieved party, to the extent that they use this conviction as justification for their behaviour. Thankfully, an article on page 14 of the Weekend Australian of May 30-31, ‘China painting itself into a corner with defence of Great Wall of Sand’, contains a quotation which I think sums it up well:
Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, believes China’s strategy to play on nationalism by claiming outright ownership of the islands could backfire.
“I fear China has painted themselves into a corner,” Dr Bitzinger told The Weekend Australian.
“Nationalism seems to be the only thing that they have to defend their regime. China does not seem to know when to pull back on issues like this. We never see a lot of evidence of China retreating, the Chinese say ‘we are being provoked’ but it seems they fly off the handle a lot more than the other sides ever seem to do.”
Dr Bitzinger said Beijing’s aggressive stance, especially towards Washington, raised the risk of a damaging showdown in the region, especially with both sides refusing to back down.
“China has done more to raise tensions in the South China Sea than the other countries combined,” he said.
“The story for the past 15 years with China has been the story of the echo chamber of its victimisation and China saying it’s been consistently picked on. It was a strategy that was started to be manipulated [sic] by the Communist Party in the late 1990s, but the problem with nationalism is that is can be like pushing a slow boat down the hill, it can build momentum and get away on itself.
“I would say China has backed itself into a corner and convinced itself of the rightness of the course it’s currently on.”
He said the rest of the world, especially the US, needed to stand its ground if it wanted to maintain pressure of [sic] the Chinese regime.
Not a good situation. The Chinese are talking themselves into a frenzy. And they are using moral arguments to justify their behaviour, which is always a problem because it is difficult to back down from a position taken for moral reasons. For political or strategic reasons? No problem! It happens every day. But for moral reasons? That’s much more difficult.
Of course, there is hope. Bitzinger is wrong in one respect: the Chinese did indeed back down once, after the Vietnamese went nuts in response to the Chinese placing a drilling rig within what the Vietnamese consider to be their waters. But the Chinese aren’t backing down with the Philippinos. I think that’s a mistake, and I hope they can find a way to improve the situation while saving face.