Why No One Wins a War over the South China Sea

by John Quiggin on October 18, 2018

That’s the headline for my latest piece in The National Interest. (over the fold)The central point is brilliantly summed up in this clip from Utopia.

A recent near-collision between Chinese and US Navy destroyers has focused new attention on the potential for conflict in the South China Sea and led to the cancellation of a visit to China by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

https://www.stripes.com/news/pacific/mattis-cancels-china-trip-after-chinese-us-navy-destroyers-nearly-collide-1.550089

China’s naval expansion in the South China Sea puts it in a position to control sea lanes used transport trillions of dollars worth of goods per year, accounting for up to a third of world merchandise trade. China has militarized islands and claimed most of the Sea as its own territorial waters, on the basis of flimsy historical claims and routinely denounced US naval operations in the region as illegal provocations.

Unsurprisingly, the response to Chinese assertiveness from much of the foreign policy community has been to demand a similarly assertive response from the United States. For example, Robert Kagan has argued that the US must resist the extension of a Chinese sphere of influence in its immediate vicinity.

Backing Into World War III

A realist perspective suggests a more cautious approach, and a more careful analysis of the economic issues. A rational assessment suggests that China has far more at stake in this issue than the US.

The crucial, but commonly neglected, fact about trade flowing through the South China Sea is that the great majority of this trade flows to and from China. That makes control of the South China Sea a crucial national interest for China, since a hostile power could potentially choke off most imports and exports. But obviously, China has no interest in disrupting its own trade. By contrast, the only direct interest of the US is in the abstract principle of freedom of naval operations.

Moreover, while the US military is far more powerful in global terms, the balance of forces is much more even in regional terms. Conflict between powers of comparable strength will generally be resolved in favor of the side with the greater commitment.

 

The South China Sea is also important to US allies including Japan and Korea, as it is part of the cheapest route for importing oil and other resources. It is not, however, the only route. It has been estimated that diverting imports might cost $600 million a year for Japan, and $270 million a year for South Korea.

https://nationalinterest.org/blog/5-trillion-meltdown-what-if-china-shuts-down-the-south-china-16996

That’s a lot of money. But compared to the potential cost of the Trump Administration’s trade policy, it’s trivial. The US imports $40 billion in cars from Japan and $10 billion from Korea. The 25 per cent tariff now under consideration, would cost Japan $10 billion a year and Korea $2.5 billion.

So, we are in the strange position where the US is deploying massive naval forces to deter a purely hypothetical threat to its Asian partners and allies, while making actual threats to impose much greater economic damage on those some partners and allies.

Similar points may be made about the Trump’s Administration withdrawal from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. From the viewpoint of the Obama Administration, which pushed the deal, the central geopolitical rationale was to set up an economic structure that marginalised China. Trump’s decision to pull out would have made sense as part of a rapprochement with China. However, the Administration’s trade policy has effectively put allies and rivals in the same camp.

A rational policy would dial down threats on both the trade war and naval rivalry and focus on issues of common interest to everyone in the region, most obviously the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Even without the added complications created by the Trump Administration, such a policy seems a long way off.

The gradual expansion of Chinese power in the South China Sea has caused great alarm. However, it should be less alarming than the looming prospect of a trade war, in which the US will be fighting alone.

 

 

{ 43 comments }

1

ironoutofcavalry 10.18.18 at 3:16 am

>Moreover, while the US military is far more powerful in global terms, the balance of forces is much more even in regional terms. Conflict between powers of comparable strength will generally be resolved in favor of the side with the greater commitment.

This is not particularly accurate. chinese ability to project military power is extremely limited. Their Air Force has few tankers and ISR assets. They have almost no maritime aircraft. Their submarine force is largely outdated and their anti-submarine forces are almost non-existent. The balance of forces is much more even in something like a conflict over taiwan, but even the ~450 miles south to the Paracels sees chinese military power drop off shockingly quickly.

2

MFB 10.18.18 at 7:22 am

I’ve always assumed that Chinese interest in the South China sea had much more to do with establishing the right to prospect for submarine oil in the area than with any attempt to restrict trade links. Not only has China, obviously, no interest in restricting trade with itself, it has no real interest in restricting trade with Japan or Korea, which are both important sources of investment for China.

Of course the Chinese are interested in defending their territorial waters against foreign aggression, and the American attempt to suppress this defense casts them in a useful role as foreign aggressor, thus legitimating the Chinese expansion of its navy and naval air force. But it’s inconceivable that the United States can actually manage to do anything effectual in this regard; they can barge into sea controlled by the Chinese, but it will not cease to be controlled by the Chinese, and short of armed attack, they cannot do anything about Chinese control of the main island groups in the region, or reduce the Chinese naval presence there.

By the way, a war between the United States and China would almost certainly not be restricted to naval operations in the South China sea. It would very probably end up in a nuclear exchange which would be completely apocalyptic. Hence, the U.S. bluster and sabre-rattling is extremely risky; it might be useful to point out that two hundred million American lives are being endangered by the warmongering policies which, as is pointed out here, serve no useful purpose for the United States.

This is all just as stupid as U.S. policy in Syria, but is a great deal more dangerous for the U.S. and the world.

3

Mike Huben 10.18.18 at 12:33 pm

Are you suggesting a policy of appeasement, abandoning essentially all other nations in that region to potential Chinese blockades both for trade and defense?

4

Doug T 10.18.18 at 12:36 pm

I don’t disagree with the general thrust of the article, that the US ought to be very cautious in our dealings with China overall, and in any potential military confrontation over the South China Sea. And we need to be very cognizant of the potential for a Thucydides Trap where we end up provoking the exact open confrontation that we are trying to avoid.

But I think you are minimizing things with the somewhat dismissive comment that “By contrast, the only direct interest of the US is in the abstract principle of freedom of naval operations”. It is an abstract principle, but given the centrality of ocean shipping to the world economy, freedom of navigation in international waters is a principle that is important to defend. If we throw it out the window and turn the oceans into a battleground where might makes right, that could lead to many unpredictable knock on effects, and trigger other conflicts around the world.

It’s also worth pointing out that much of this analysis also applies to China, and that precipitating a war with the US over their claims in the South China Sea is not in their interests, either.

Given these competing interests, and the downside for everyone to a war breaking out, the obvious alternative is some sort of negotiated agreement that would preserve freedom of navigation in the South China Sea while providing some guarantees to China that they will not be bottled up or blockaded by the US and allies. But you can’t get to an agreement without pushing back against China. If you simply fold and decline to contest their claims except via a sternly worded diplomatic cable or two, there’s no reason for them to back off from them.

I guess the problem here is that, at this stage, the warmongering strategy is pretty much indistinguishable from the deterrence to get to a negotiated settlement strategy, necessarily since a credible deterrence requires it.

To make an argument by analogy, at the risk of derailing the thread, national sovereignty is a similar abstract principle–do you think the first gulf war was a mistake? The same sort of narrow economic analysis suggests that it was. Iraq would just as happily have sold us oil as Kuwait, so it was basically irrelevant to US interests who ruled the country. Sure, it would be an abandonment of a few regional allies, but they could have figured out how to survive, right? But setting the precedent that any big country can just swallow up its smaller neighbors is one that would have very large undesirable effects in the future. So you can’t just let a particular case slide because it doesn’t pass a local cost-benefit analysis.

5

Salem 10.18.18 at 12:48 pm

The US imports $40 billion in cars from Japan and $10 billion from Korea. The 25 per cent tariff now under consideration, would cost Japan $10 billion a year and Korea $2.5 billion.

$10bn is the maximum theoretical cost, not a sensible estimation of the actual cost to Japan, which will be much lower. To get to $10bn, you’d have to assume no substitution, and that the entire cost will be borne by producers and not consumers, both of which are extremely unreasonable assumptions.

If we make the simplifying assumptions that the car market is worldwide and fairly fungible, then if price elasticity of demand is high, Japanese manufacturers will be able to sell the cars elsewhere for only slightly less. If the price elasticity of demand is low, then US consumers will pick up the majority of the bill. Either way, Japan doesn’t suffer too much. Now, in reality, market segmentation means Japanese manufacturers will bear some pain, but the basic result is still true – Trump’s tariffs will primarily hurt American consumers, not foreign manufacturers.

6

Glen Tomkins 10.18.18 at 1:57 pm

Oh, so now wars have to make sense. Spoilsport!

No disrespect intended, but if this potential war with China were anywhere near the stupidest in history, we’ld be in great shape. Sure, maybe there is some point in setting out before the fact a discussion of the particular stupid this war would be, how it really doesn’t serve our interests to egg it on. But I’m not sure that any of the countless really stupid wars of the past have lacked similar dissections of their utter folly before the fact.

A brewing war seems to be judged by the same rules that Trump poses for crown princes and his nominees to the Supreme Court. Innocent until proven guilty! All the facts aren’t in on war with China, we haven’t seen any dire consequences, so let’s not act like some lynch mob and rush to judgment. Give war a chance!

7

Stephen 10.18.18 at 4:41 pm

Not sure I follow the argument that China needs to control the South China Sea to stop it being used by enemies (USA, mostly) to blockade Chinese trade. Quick look at map suggests that there are enough distant choke points (Malacca Straits, gaps in the Indonesian island chain, around the Philippines) for the USA to make the SCS inaccessible to Chinese trade, with not much the Chinese could do about it save nuking the US: but they could equally do that if the US annexed the SCS. It’s not as if distant blockade is a new idea: see the German problems with it in Big Mistakes I and II.

None of which is intended to imply in the least that the unique President Trump is behaving wisely in this or related matters.

8

Neville Morley 10.18.18 at 4:50 pm

Any chance of a mutual agreement that the so-called Thucydides Trap is warmed over power transition theory with a lot of silly marketing, so we just don’t mention it?

The alternative is that I become very, very boring and pedantic on the subject…

9

John Quiggin 10.18.18 at 7:51 pm

In Australian parlance, the supposed importance of oil reserves is a furphy. People have been going on about the oil under the Spratleys for decades. If anyone really believed it, they’d be keen to cut a deal instead of the endless posturing we’ve seen.

In this context, it’s worth noting that claims like this are always made in disputes of this kind. There was lots of talk about oil in the Falklands/Malvinas, but nothing ever came of it AFAIK.

10

floopmeister 10.18.18 at 10:26 pm

In Australian parlance, the supposed importance of oil reserves is a furphy.

Really?

https://theconversation.com/australia-imports-almost-all-of-its-oil-and-there-are-pitfalls-all-over-the-globe-97070

11

John Quiggin 10.18.18 at 11:47 pm

Really. Read to the end of the article and the author admits that the only real choke point Australia faces is the potential failure of our own ports. The fact that we don’t hold large stocks reflects a sound commercial judgement that any disruption of supply from one source, or along one route, could easily be made up by another source/route.

12

floopmeister 10.18.18 at 11:56 pm

Read to the end of the article and the author admits that the only real choke point Australia faces is the potential failure of our own ports.

Nope – I’d guess that this is the only choke point that can be described in a 800 word Conversation article :)

The fact that we don’t hold large stocks reflects a sound commercial judgement

I agree with you here – it’s a sound commercial judgement. It’s not a sound judgement in terms of systems resilience.

13

Faustusnotes 10.19.18 at 12:45 am

I think of these islands as the Chinese making an investment to alleviate their lack of carriers. It’s a stop gap until their navy is up to speed, to defend their regional shipping routes if things go south in the next 20 years with North Korea or Taiwan. All this chatter about Chinese imperialism and belligerence is really weird to me because they transparently, obviously are constantly trying to avoid wars and extra territorial aggression, and their path to great power status has been almost entirely based on trade, just like Japan in the early 20th century. This is in marked contrast to the way the Europeans got there. This European insecurity about Asian ambitions ended very badly when it was applied to Japan and it should be treated with the same caution when applied to China.

14

hix 10.19.18 at 1:21 am

The most plausible reason for chinas military games over eaningless empty islands is mindless jingoism. Ofc i got a c- when i wrote the same in more complicated words as an undergraduate (the right a+ answer would have been OIL OIL OIL with that Prof).

15

Peter T 10.19.18 at 2:32 am

In International Relations, as in many other fields, analysis that does not start from a detailed understanding of the various parties’ priors ends up as vacuous hand-waving, these days usually about supposed resources. Since this does not lend itself to theorising, it is deeply unfashionable. But there it is.

In this case, the Chinese government is sensitive to public opinion, deeply sensitive to the most nationalist currents of that opinion, and rests its legitimacy on recovery of Chinese territory and maintenance of unity. Hence the fusses about the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Sinkiang. There is no reason to believe that it will claim the world beyond this.

As JQ’ link mordantly illustrates, claims about freedom of navigation and security of oil are mostly more resort to abstractions drive, at bottom, by fear of China and dislike of Muslims.

16

J-D 10.19.18 at 5:27 am

Mike Huben

Are you suggesting a policy of appeasement, abandoning essentially all other nations in that region to potential Chinese blockades both for trade and defense?

To me it is obvious that John Quiggin is not making that suggestion and that therefore the answer to your question is ‘No’. That makes me puzzle over why you are asking the question. I guess what is obvious to me is not obvious to you and you think it at least possible that John Quiggin is making such a suggestion. What is the chain of reasoning linking what he has written to that suggestion?

17

MFB 10.19.18 at 7:15 am

I take Quiggin’s point that the occupation of the islands in question may not be directly about oil. However, since the International Law of the Sea permits the exclusive exploitation of a radius of nearly 400 kilometres from your territory, that basically gives the Chinese access to an enormous swathe of territory; if there isn’t any currently-exploitable mineral resource there, there could be in fifty years and it would be foolish for the Chinese to ignore the opportunity. This is, of course, in addition to strategic considerations about the need to set up a long-range warning system against foreign attack, and prestige considerations which also give force to Chinese diplomacy with regard to Vietnam and the Philippines — both countries with which China has had poor relations in the past and needs to watch closely.

The main point is that the recent US operations were not about promoting legal activities such as the movement of shipping. The US warships sailed within 20 kilometres of Chinese territory. That’s a direct violation of the Law of the Sea, which states that all countries have the right to control the sea within that radius of their territory (the US claims about 40 kilometres radius, incidentally) and the Chinese have made it absolutely clear that they exercise that right. By the way, this doesn’t mean that the Chinese are excluding shipping from the region; they are instead insisting that they have the right to refuse a ship access if they so choose (in which case the ship would have to sail further away, which is inconvenient but nothing more).

So the US is picking a fight, illegally and without justification, under the spurious pretext of standing up for rights which are not actually being violated. That isn’t a practice which is going to impress anybody, least of all the Chinese.

I think it is possible to over-estimate Chinese military power, although it is increasing almost exponentially at the moment. However, the disputed area is about 600 kilometres from Hainan, an island stiff with military bases. If a conflict were to break out, the immediate consequence would be a Chinese victory over any military forces in the region. Longer term it is difficult to predict what the consequences would be, but the balance of forces is not favourable to any aggressor against China.

So the article is basically correct, but underestimates the depth of stupidity of U.S. policy in the region. Furthermore, the people blaming this on Trump fail to notice how consistently this policy has been pursued, and also how disastrously it has turned out, since at least the days of Clinton.

18

Z 10.19.18 at 7:16 am

they transparently, obviously are constantly trying to avoid wars and extra territorial aggression, and their path to great power status has been almost entirely based on trade, just like Japan in the early 20th century.

Almost entirely based on trade with notably rare exceptions I guess, or maybe the early 20th century is a really short historical period, because between the Sino-Japanese war, the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese war, the annexation of Korea, WWI and the Siberian campaign, one cannot find five consecutive years between 1890 and 1925 without Japan conducting a large scale military intervention outside of its borders with the direct aim (generally successful) of gaining dominions over large and valuable parts of East Asia.

19

Stephen 10.19.18 at 8:17 am

Faustusnotes@13: I do hope you are right that China will continue “constantly trying to avoid wars and extra territorial aggression”, though one might say that they have not entirely succeeded in this (see wars with Vietnam, India, Tibet) unless you define extra-territorial aggression as invading places where the Chinese thought they had no right to go.

But I’m not convinced by your analogy that “their path to great power status has been almost entirely based on trade, just like Japan in the early 20th century”. I suppose you could exclude the Sino-Japanese War, 1894-5, as being before that period: though it did involve the invasion of Korea, parts of Manchuria and Weihaiwei in Shandong, and the capture and retention of Taiwan and the Pescadores islands, and the uninhabited islands in the South China Sea that are the cause of trouble nowadays. But you can hardly exclude the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5, with the subsequent annexation of Korea in 1910; the seizure of German possessions in China and the Pacific, 1914; the invasion of Manchuria, 1931; and the second Sino-Japanese War, 1937 on.

I’m not disputing that Japan’s rise, like China’s, depended to a great extent on industrialisation and trade. And it is true that in the 1920s they attacked nobody.

20

Doug T 10.19.18 at 11:44 am

” The US warships sailed within 20 kilometres of Chinese territory.”

That’s simply not true, at least not from the US perspective. The question is whether it’s legitimate for China to build up formerly unclaimed reefs into artificial islands, plop a military base on them, and then claim territorial rights surrounding them. So the exact point of disagreement regarding freedom of navigation is whether the paths US ships take in these cruises are within Chinese controlled waters around these islands (as China claims), or whether they are within international waters (as the US claims) because those newly built up islands/reefs don’t count as sovereign territory in the same way.

For what it’s worth, an international court convened under the auspices of the UN Convention on Law of the Sea agreed that the broader Chinese territorial claims here were illegitimate, although China (and Taiwan, which has their own local claims) rejected the ruling.

As far as the Chinese expansionist aims being peaceful, I doubt the Uighurs and Tibetans would agree. Or the Filipino fisherman who have been run off of and barred from disputed areas by Chinese forces. They have a lot of power, and realism dictates that their demands will need to be accommodated in some way. But let’s not pretend they are any less militaristic or willing to use force than anyone else. They are peaceful and accommodating exactly so far as it serves their immediate interest. And if they think it serves their interest, they also will intern a million Muslims in re-education camps.

21

stephen 10.19.18 at 7:12 pm

Another point that bothers me. Chinese creation of military bases in the South China Sea is presented as a response to US aggression, actual or potential. But as I understand it, these bases were begun in the time of President Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Were the Chinese government so far-sighted as to predict the election of the unique President Trump?

22

Glen Tomkins 10.19.18 at 9:21 pm

Peter T,

“…analysis that does not start from a detailed understanding of the various parties’ priors ends up as vacuous hand-waving, these days usually about supposed resources. Since this does not lend itself to theorising, it is deeply unfashionable.”

This is driven by a bit more than fashion. Man isn’t actually Home sapiens, but Homo theoreticus. We theorize because we have to, more insistently than we need to breathe. The less we know about a given part of the world we live in, the more we have to cover the gap with theorizing. Correspondence of the theory to reality is a secondary consideration, with the first priority to get the bald patches covered with some theory or other.

23

maidhc 10.20.18 at 1:55 am

Were the Chinese government so far-sighted as to predict the election of the unique President Trump?

I think they could have extrapolated from the previous president that something along the same lines might turn up in the future. They might have even asked “I wonder if John Bolton is through or is he’s going to pop up again?”

I’m pretty sure the Chinese government has a whole lot of experts studying US government, and they probably game out all kinds of scenarios.

24

John Quiggin 10.20.18 at 2:11 am

@20 As regards international courts,the US has never been willing to be bound by them. For example, the US is not a party to UNCLOS.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaragua_v._United_States
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Convention_on_the_Law_of_the_Sea

The fact that US leaders are upset when China follows their example reflects their view that the US, and only the US, should be above the law in international matters. That’s unsurprising, but from a realist point of view it’s a position that can’t be sustained globally without an overwhelming imbalance of power, which no longer exists.

25

John Quiggin 10.20.18 at 2:39 am

@21 These disputes have been going on for at least 50 years. We need a better quality of snark here.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spratly_Islands_dispute

26

Hidari 10.20.18 at 6:41 am

‘Are you suggesting a policy of appeasement, abandoning essentially all other nations in that region to potential Chinese blockades both for trade and defense?’

Yes.

27

J-D 10.20.18 at 8:18 am

One of the effects of operations by warships and naval aircraft (just as it is also one of the effects of land-based military operations) is the channelling of government funds to defence industries to pay for supplies, equipment, repairs, refurbishment, refitting, and ultimately replacements. It seems reasonable to ask whether this channelling of government funds to defence industries produces benefits for the people who make the decisions to conduct the operations; if it does, it seems reasonable to ask whether those benefits are all the explanation the decisions require.

Those considerations are general ones, which apply in particular both to the naval operations in the South China Sea that are actually being conducted by China and to the ones that are actually being conducted by the US.

It would be possible for US operations in the South China Sea or for Chinese operations there to disrupt trade; however, the operations they have actually been conducting have had, apparently, no such effect. It seems reasonable to consider the possibility that neither China nor the US has any intention of actually disrupting trade.

If the people who make the decisions in the US are interested in the benefits they derive from channelling government funds into defence industries, that’s probably something they want to draw attention away from, and that’s probably true of the people who make the decisions in China as well. They’d probably rather people were talking about other things, such as strategic interests, legal claims and principles, and national sovereignty and prestige. The more abstract and vague the discussion, the better it would serve as a distraction. That’s exactly what I observe in John Quiggin’s clip from Utopia.

28

steven t johnson 10.20.18 at 2:17 pm

With so many people familiar with John Locke, it’s a little surprising that no one has commented that the Chinese property really is a gift of nature developed by their labor. There are no pesky previous inhabitants with competing claims which probably makes the the best example of a valid claim.

29

stephen 10.20.18 at 6:19 pm

JQ@25: you complain of “snark”. Obviously, I’ve touched a nerve, but I can’t see how.

You point out that the dispute over ownership of islets in the South China Sea has been going on for decades. Who could disagree? But surely, disputes over ownership can go on for centuries (the oldest example that comes to mind is that between Spain and Morocco over the North African port of Ceuta, running since the late fifteenth century) without causing an immediate probability of war. Can you deny that the present alarm over the SCS only began in 2014, when the Chinese began to expand those islets and convert them into military bases?

And equally, can we not agree that at the time the US President was Obama, a man of peaceful instincts rivaled only by Jimmy Carter among his immediate predecessors? Why is it snark to describe him as very unlikely to invade or blockade China? Does not the timing of the Chinese expansion imply that they were not acting in response to a threat from the US?

I would not like to think that you are annoyed by my description of President Trump as “unique”. So he is; I cannot think of a US president like him, and devoutly hope there will never be another. Can we agree on that also? I had thought better of you than to suppose that you would agree with the Trump-is-Hitler people.

So if we do disagree, in your opinion what are our disagreements?

30

Peter T 10.20.18 at 10:23 pm

Glen @ 22

Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. Theorising is certainly a pervasive pastime, but in personal interactions we find close attention to particulars more useful. If I wished to predict how Glen Tomkins would react to, say, an invitation to view a film, it helps a lot to know Glen Tomkins; theory on the film-viewing propensities of average blog-commenters not so much. A great deal of modern life is devoted to discussing the latter as if it could be applied to decisions more suited to the former.

31

Layman 10.20.18 at 11:17 pm

stephen: “Another point that bothers me. Chinese creation of military bases in the South China Sea is presented as a response to US aggression, actual or potential. But as I understand it, these bases were begun in the time of President Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.”

I’m with JQ on this. If you intend this as snark, it’s pretty weak. If you meant it seriously, it’s even weaker.

32

faustusnotes 10.21.18 at 3:10 am

Oops! Yes I was thinking of the late 19th-century era, when Japan was building up its industrial sector and getting more assertive on the world stage. It subsequently descended into fascism, which I really hope that China won’t. The western reaction to Japan’s ascendancy was openly racist, and although what Japan was doing after 1910 was nasty it was standard great power practice at the time, and western belligerence towards them was simply a case of not wanting to let a non-white power join the game. I see echoes of the same thing in the response to China now and hope it doesn’t go the same way. For example, what China is doing in the South China Sea is nothing compared to what the US did on the Chagos islands; China wasn’t involved in the Iraq fiasco and doesn’t have any responsibility for the terrible fallout of that little exercise in late-stage imperialism. Yet to listen to commentators speculating about China’s motives with this land grab, you’d think they were behaving as badly as the USA, or as Russia in Crimea. There’s nothing in China’s behavior over the past 30 years to suggest it has serious imperialist or expansionist goals, and to react to the South China Sea behavior as if it reflects such goals is dangerous. Even with regards to Taiwan, suggesting it is a sign of some imperialist ideology is overdoing it. In fact most commentators doing so are writing within countries that support the One China Policy.

The main determinant of Japanese aggression after 1910 was Japanese fascist ideology, but western overreaction and double standards led to a cycle of escalation that ended in disaster. I hope we won’t see the same thing with China.

33

Glen Tomkins 10.21.18 at 3:44 pm

Peter T @30

We evolved our theorizing abilities and propensities as members of rather small hunter-gatherer tribes. We haven’t adjusted to civilization and literacy and everything else that presents our theorizing with wider vistas, so those abilities often don’t serve us well these days. It’s a lot easier to pay attention to Rotten Tomatoes than friends and family, so that’s what we tend to do. Path of least resistance.

I would say give it a few million years for evolution to catch up, but there is no selection pressure moving biological evolution forward. We’re going to have to do this with cultural evolution, God help us. Moving the culture takes wide-vista theorizing!

34

J-D 10.22.18 at 4:48 am

Glen Tomkins

Evolutionary change has taken place in the period of time since all human beings lived in hunter-gatherer bands: for example, a general reduction in the size of human teeth, and the emergence in multiple human populations of adult lactase persistence. It doesn’t require millions of years but can take place in tens of thousands of years, and there’s no justification for your conclusion that selection pressures have ceased to operate.

35

Faustusnotes 10.22.18 at 11:10 am

Rotten tomatoes is way more reliable than friends and family, it’s a kind of meta analysis. How is this an argument for a failure to evolve decision making patterns?

36

Doug T 10.22.18 at 12:25 pm

@24, I agree. China is very much acting the same way the US often has in the past, accepting international laws and norms insofar as they serve their needs and goals, and rejecting them when inconvenient. I only referenced the ruling since the post I was responding to had framed the issue as the US violation of international law. To the extent that there is international law on the issue, China is the one violating it, while the US is trying to enforce it.

Looking more broadly at the comparative behavior, certainly the US efforts at establishing a sphere of influence in our own neighborhood had plenty of shameful episodes, never mind our interventions around the world. But if the standard is “let he who has no sin cast the first stone”, that would rule out almost every country from taking action.

So what we’re left with is to evaluate the situation on its own merits. And in this case, no matter how bad the US has been in the past, or how unwise you think their current actions against China are, it’s clear that China is the aggressive party that has been violating international norms and rules. China is the expansionist power, seeking to “privatize” the public resource of international waters and shipping lanes, enforcing their questionable claims through military force. And the US’s actions pushing back are very much on the side of the international public good.

That doesn’t mean the US ought to do what it’s doing–there’s a strong realist case to be made for accepting China’s local sphere of influence and just making the best of it, rather than trying to directly confront them, risking a spiraling conflict and a potential war. But I think the attempts to frame a moral case for China and their claiming of territorial rights to the South China Sea, casting the US as the villains in this particular drama, are just completely off target.

37

Stephen 10.22.18 at 7:00 pm

Faustusnotes@32

Full credit to you for admitting that your earlier post was not exactly congruent with historical reality (which is not entirely a social construct).

But if I may raise a few more queries: when you mention “the late 19th-century era, when Japan was building up its industrial sector” I’m not sure you realise how far behind Japan was at the start of the Meiji era, after some centuries of almost complete self-willed seclusion from the new Western technologies; or how quickly, by the late 19th-century Sino-Japanese war, they had become assertive.

When you say “The western reaction to Japan’s ascendancy was openly racist” I’m not sure how far you realise that the Western powers approved of, and did their best to assist, Japan’s ascendancy. At the decisive battle of Tsushima, 1905, every one of the Japanese battleships that brought catastrophe to the Russian fleet had been built in Britain; also most of the destroyers, and a large portion of the cruisers. (The others were built in Italy, the USA, France and Germany.)

And when you say “The main determinant of Japanese aggression after 1910 was Japanese fascist ideology” you are following an idiosyncratic interpretation of Japanese history. Do look up “Taisho democracy, 1912-1926”.

That Japan subsequently became a xenophobic, illiberal, extremely authoritarian state, hostile to its neighbours and with a rapidly expanding military, is alas only too true. China is at present vastly improved from the days when it was subservient to a megalomaniac mass-murderer. But it does seem to be reverting to its former state: and how much of that description of late Imperial Japan do you think does not apply to the China of President-for-life Xi Jinping?

38

John Quiggin 10.22.18 at 10:53 pm

@36 “there’s a strong realist case to be made for accepting China’s local sphere of influence and just making the best of it,”

That’s exactly the case I was making, which is why the article ran in the National Interest, which is the main realist outlet.

Making a moral case for the current Chinese government would be absurd. Unfortunately that is true of the US and Russia also.

39

John Quiggin 10.22.18 at 10:55 pm

A minor point about the rules is that, for the past three centuries or so, they’ve been made for a world dominated by maritime powers, to suit their interests. UNCLOS was an exception, which is why the US rejected it.

40

J-D 10.23.18 at 12:15 am

If we start from the assumption that the US is going to continue to advance pretexts to justify its defence budget, are there pretexts they could adopt with less damaging side-effects than this one?

41

faustusnotes 10.23.18 at 3:18 am

Stephen, there is an interesting essay by Basil Chamberlain on the growth of fascist ideology in Japan around 1905, and the development of Emperor worship as a precursor to fascism. Obviously in 1905 that political ideology wasn’t really well understood, but his predictions about the path Japan would follow in the next 30 years and the eventual clash of east and west were sadly prescient. After 1905 the west became suddenly very worried about Japan’s rapid military and industrial growth, and I think put in lots of efforts to restrain them (e.g. treaties on naval size, manoeuvring in the league of nations, and ultimately US efforts to stymie Japanese colonialism). By WW2 this manifested as a deeply racist and openly exterminationist ideology in America. I see lots of parallels in the behavior of the west towards Japan between 1905 and 1930 and the crazed dreamings of some of the more radical anti-China thinkers in the USA today. Fortunately so far politicians have been happy not to return to that form of stifling policy, but in the reactions to the South China Sea islands I see a lot of those old ideas rearing their ugly head. It’s particularly depressing coming from the architects of the Iraq war.

42

TM 10.23.18 at 1:10 pm

“I see lots of parallels in the behavior of the west towards Japan between 1905 and 1930 and the crazed dreamings of some of the more radical anti-China thinkers in the USA today.”

That reminds me of the thesis of
The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia
by James D. Bradley

Any knowledgeable opinions on that book?

43

stephen 10.23.18 at 4:42 pm

JQ@38: dead right, making a moral case for the current Chinese or Russian governments would be absurd. The best that could be said for the Trump administration is that there have been, and are, worse and sometimes much worse governments in other parts of the world: not an argument I have much time for, nor I should think you either.

But I’m left wondering. How far would you be happy to make a moral case for earlier US governments? Obama: but if you could there, doesn’t that reinforce the argument that the Chinese starting to fortify the South China Sea in Obama’s time shows they were not in fact concerned with American aggression? Earlier: G Bush, Reagan, Carter, LBJ (internally at least), FDR, Lincoln? I realise this is straying off topic, but seriously, which US governments have deserved your moral approval?

I only ask because it would be useful, given your many serious and interesting posts here, where the limits of your moral approval are.

Comments on this entry are closed.