The South China Sea: Reposts

by John Quiggin on May 24, 2018

That’s partly because I’m trying really hard to focus on finishing my Two Lessons book, but also because so many of the debates that come up have been had many times before, and I don’t feel like repeating myself. So, I’m going to try reposting older material. The risk is that it will be out of date, but on an early sample, it’s surprising how little I would change if I were rewriting.

I’m going to start with the current topic of hyperventilation in the Australian media: China and the South China Sea

Here are a couple of posts

Feel free to comment, but, unless you have something new to say, try not to reopen topics that have already been done to death in the comments on earlier posts.



MFB 05.25.18 at 7:54 am

What is the Australian “hyperventilation” about? Is it something real, or an attempt to distract the Australian public from examining the corruption and incompetence of their current government (as per usual)?

In the last year, however, China has become much more economically powerful and much more significant as a naval power, and the steady decline of U.S. influence in the Pacific Rim has accelerated (and will accelerate further with the collapse of its Korean policy). So it’s hard to see why any of this needs to be taken seriously on a factual or logical basis.


Doug T 05.25.18 at 12:21 pm

I’m partially sympathetic to some of your previous arguments about the economic benefits of navies, although I don’t buy into them completely. Military forces (certainly the US’s, at least) are designed and built to maximize capabilities in large scale war. Both in case one happens, and to try to prevent that through deterrence. So attempts to justify that cost from some sort of secondary economic analysis of sea lanes or piracy or whatever are probably not going to be very good, and certainly not strong enough to carry the whole argument in favor of naval power. (They remind me a bit of arguments for marijuana legalization because hemp makes really good rope. Well, maybe, but everyone knows that’s not why anyone cares about the issue.)

However, rather than going back over the same old arguments, I’d suggest approaching the issue from a different viewpoint. Why do you think China is going to all this effort to create islands and build bases on them, massively expanding its own navy, increasingly trying to assert control over the China Sea, and all the other things that have western politicians and militaries getting worried? Because it seems like a direct corollary to your argument that the US is wasting its money having a big navy is that China is also wasting a huge amount of its own money countering the US’s Navy. And given that their government and politics are radically different from those in the US and other democratic countries, the fact that they also have come to the conclusion that spending all this money is a good idea is a data point in favor of the idea that there is value there, and it’s not just groupthink and the military-industrial complex hoodwinking people.


John Quiggin 05.25.18 at 2:24 pm

@1 Hyperventilation is partly about Chinese money/influence in Australian politics (real, but minimal compared to global corporates, and part about the South China Sea

@2 I don’t think dictatorships are immune to spurious beliefs about the benefits of military power, rather the opposite. So, a lot of it is nationalist tubthumping.

But, to be fair to China, the “sea lanes” argument holds more weight for them than for just about anybody else. All their seaborne trade goes through a limited set of routes, mostly through the South China Sea, which the US regularly patrols under the doctrine of “Freedom of Naval Operations”. Plus, they don’t have any real land transport options, something they are busy trying to fix with road and rail links to Europe.


Kyle Staude 05.26.18 at 7:39 am

How much money can china spend on a bunch of islands compared to the cost of 11 Aircraft carrier fleets. Rather the opposite fort he measly cost of a few missile batteries and a sub fleet China can nullify the US navy.

Reality the US needs to accept is regardless of US decisions China will have area denial capability in its own backyard. Hubris and incompetence are what prevent this from happening.


Ikonoclast 05.26.18 at 10:02 pm

Australia is in a difficult international position these days. We are a military client state of the USA and an economic client state of China. More conventionally, Australia might be termed a military ally of the USA and a trading partner of China. However, I think the power and trade imbalances move the relationships to towards the client state end of the spectrum.

China is now a serious geostrategic competitor with the USA. Economic power is the basis of all power in the modern world system. China’s GDP surpassed that of the USA in 2016 based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). On the PPP measure China is now about 25% of the world economy. On other measures, China will overall the USA between now and about 2028.

The Thucydides Trap thesis is advanced by Graham Allison in his book “Destined for War”. When one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result. Allison presents this as a high probability not a certainty. Of course, with the nuclear MAD (mutual assured destruction) issue, one would think that rational actors would avoid outright war.

China approaches geostrategy in different manner compared to the West. One should add this is simply China still approaching geostrategy in its traditional way. The West’s historical approach to geostrategy from the opening of the Age of Imperialism (Spain in the Americas) has been expeditionary. The nation goes abroad to conquer and loot resources. This approach in historical context made power sense though it was not moral in any sense. Europe was relatively undeveloped and backward in 1492, at least compared to China. In 1492, China’s economy was about 25% of the world economy just as it is again today.

The expeditionary-imperial approach to wealth accumulation makes power sense in a world not well integrated and with large, relatively backward continents (and a sub-continent) open to piecemeal conquests, with the pieces being joined up later. Grasping middle powers (middle with respect to China at the time) and with serviceable navies, such as Spain, Portugal, England, Netherlands and others considered this potential route to geostrategic power to be workable. In the long run, it worked fully only for England and then Britain. Two very costly world wars, a relatively small homeland and quite possibly the strategic decline of naval power as pointed out by J.Q. (missiles are greater than navies) put paid to the British Empire.

“From the middle of the 15th century, China stopped sending naval and “treasure” fleets abroad; thereafter its trade policy varied, but was officially far less open, even autarkic.” – The Economist – “1492 and all that.” China took this official stance perhaps partly due to its large continental base as a nation and perhaps partly due to Chinese Imperial Court and even Confucian arrogance and insularity. There may have been an element of realpolitik to it. The nation was more controllable if kept autarkic and its resources were diverse and sufficient to makes autarky quite feasible even if not the best path to total national wealth. There may have been another element. China was so vast and advanced, relatively speaking, that it needed few resources and less manufactures from abroad.

The silver trade across the Pacific become the exception when the Spaniards discovered the mountain of silver near Potosi in what is now Bolivia. The mountain, Cerro Rico, produced an estimated 60% of all silver mined in the world during the second half of the 16th century. China had experienced recurrent problems with managing money supply, trying various iterations of brass, copper and iron coins monies and also paper money. Eventually silver as commodity money was settled upon as it made its way into China through smugglers and warlords in Fujian province. Chinese junks met Spanish silver galleons in a bay near modern Manila.

But in a lot of ways, the Chinese elites felt self-sufficient and China pursued what really was its age-old policy of incremental expansion around its borders rather than expeditionary conquest and imperialism. The Chinese mindset to this day is one of incremental expansion and consolidation before another round of incremental expansion. This is how and why they took Tibet. We can see this happening today in the South China Sea where it has a military defensive rationale and a economic defensive rationale. It wants to push out the aggressively postured US-Japanese-Nato containment line.

China’s age-old incremental expansion policy is more suited to this new modern age. Expeditionary imperialism of the type of the USA in the Middle East now costs far in blood and treasure than it returns. It’s a losing proposition. China strategically sits back and watches the USA bleed itself dry in the wrong places while it (China) incrementally expands homeland borders and immediate power only so far as it needs to give itself more wriggle room.

With MAD, total war or even any war between superpowers, except proxy wars, is off the table for all rational planners. This makes economic competition and differential growth (or degrowth) of more strategic weight in the geostrategic struggle. Walk quietly and grow the biggest economy while making a MAD stick just big enough to dissuade total war. The current geostrategic situation suits China’s deepest strategic habits and the patient instincts of an old civilization. The USA by comparison is a brash, new and impatient civilization and it is now making a lot of strategically incorrect moves.

The strategic situation could change again. I assess that China is more vulnerable to limits to growth in general and especially climate change and sea level rise. That, as I say these days, is another post.


dilbert dogbert 05.26.18 at 10:23 pm

Me thinks it is more about control of what ever resources that lie under the South China Sea than projecting power to keep sea lanes open. Sand islands are good for planting the flag but I wonder what a good sized typhoon would do to them. Japan found out what her unsinkable aircraft carriers were worth.


Robespierre 05.27.18 at 6:19 am

You know, if you unilaterally declare victory in an argument, and act like those that bring it up are pre-refuted, what’s the point of others engaging? Or of you bringing the conversation up again?


AH 05.29.18 at 3:30 pm

Looking at the map of the new Range of Chinese bombers, The most likely location for the Chinese to bomb is Muslim Separatists in South Philippines.

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