Monday, August 09, 2010


"For all its slick modernity, there are plenty of 19th-century echoes about contemporary China with the new railroads that are opening up the hinterland and all those Dickensian factories. Amid the mountainous production of steel, a confident new national identity is being forged in a country that wants to stake its claim in the world.

The same echoes can be felt across other parts of Asia where not just China, but India, South Korea and Australia are all investing heavily in their navies, building new blue-water fleets to take to the oceans. And so it is with the region’s diplomacy, where the postwar era of US dominance is being replaced with a more uneasy balance of power.

This emerging geopolitical drama was underlined by a fascinating statement in Hanoi at the end of last month by Hillary Clinton. En route to her daughter’s wedding, the US secretary of state told a regional meeting that the US was willing to act as a mediator in talks over the islands in the South China Sea disputed by, among others, China.

Many of the islands in question might be little more than rocks, but given that they are close to the sea lanes for a significant chunk of world trade, they have huge strategic importance. As such, Mrs Clinton’s speech is one of the most striking symbols of the diplomatic battle that will define Asia for the next few decades – a tussle between the US and China to be the dominant voice.

The Clinton statement had two goals. One was to emphasise that in Asian diplomacy, the US is back. During the presidency of George W. Bush, some Asian governments felt that the US had lost interest in the region. Whether this impression was justified or not, she was telling Asia’s leaders that the US is not packing its bags any time soon.

Most of all, the speech was a message to the region about China and its seemingly inevitable rise. Since the sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan warship in March, Washington has taken advantage of Beijing’s reluctance to criticise North Korea to boost its ties with Seoul and drive a wedge between China and South Korea. As suspicions grow in south-east Asia about China’s intentions in the South China Sea, the US is presenting itself as the natural honest broker....

But the Obama administration also has to make up for lost time. Over the last decade or so, China has stolen  a  march  on  the  US  in Asia. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be a strategic gift for Beijing. While the US was chasing al-Qaeda and hunting for WMD, China settled border disputes with a string of once suspicious neighbours – from Russia in the north to Vietnam in the south (although not India). As a decade of double-digit growth in China helped shift the axis of the Asian economy, Beijing drove pipelines into central Asia, invested in natural resources projects in Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines, and financed new ports in the Indian Ocean....

Yet in the last year or so, China’s charm offensive in Asia has run into trouble – not least in the South China Sea, which for many Asian countries is a barometer of how a powerful China might treat them. The Paracel and Spratly islands are claimed in full or in part by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei. On China’s maps, however, the islands are inside a U-shaped line of its territorial waters, which stretches down to cover most of the South China Sea.

Amid rising tensions, China has reportedly told other Asian countries not to discuss the issue among themselves. According to US officials, Beijing also now says it considers the area a “core interest”, alongside Taiwan and Tibet. Some push-back was inevitable. Sure enough, Vietnam – the one country in the region with a Leninist political system comparable to China’s – lobbied its old nemesis in Washington to get involved. (The USS George Washington aircraft carrier visited Vietnam at the weekend.) Even Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who has spent much of the past decade praising Beijing, called last year on the US to remain the Pacific’s “superior power”.

In Asia’s new diplomatic contest, the momentum is still very much with Beijing. While the US faces debts and deficits, China could easily grow by 8 per cent a year for one if not two more decades and its naval power will also inexorably expand.

Yet Mrs Clinton has laid a trap for Beijing in the South China Sea. If China stands up to US interference in its backyard and presents itself as the regional power, it risks pushing wary neighbours into the US camp. Indeed, this is the broader diplomatic test that China faces in Asia over the coming decades. The more dependent Asian countries become on China’s economy, the more uneasy they will be about its power. The ball is very much now in Beijing’s court".

Geoff Dwyer, "Power Play in the South China Sea," 9 August 2010, in

"The English geographer Sir Halford Mackinder ended his famous 1904 article, "The Geographical Pivot of History," with a disturbing reference to China. After explaining why Eurasia was the geostrategic fulcrum of world power, he posited that the Chinese, should they expand their power well beyond their borders, "might constitute the yellow peril to the world's freedom just because they would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent, an advantage as yet denied to the Russian tenant of the pivot region." Leaving aside the sentiment's racism, which was common for the era, as well as the hysterics sparked by the rise of a non-Western power at any time, Mackinder had a point: whereas Russia, that other Eurasian giant, basically was, and is still, a land power with an oceanic front blocked by ice, China, owing to a 9,000-mile temperate coastline with many good natural harbors, is both a land power and a sea power. (Mackinder actually feared that China might one day conquer Russia.) China's virtual reach extends from Central Asia, with all its mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, to the main shipping lanes of the Pacific Ocean. Later, in Democratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder predicted that along with the United States and the United Kingdom, China would eventually guide the world by "building for a quarter of humanity a new civilization, neither quite Eastern nor quite Western."

Robert Kaplan, The Geography of Chinese Power: How far can Beijing Reach on Land and Sea? Foreign Affairs, May/June 2010.

"Hundreds of German merchants will rejoice at the realisation that the German Empire has at last won a firm footing in Asia. Hundreds of thousands of Chinamen will tremble when they feel the iron fist of the German Empire heavy on their necks."

The Emperor William II to Bernhard von Bulow [Foreign Minister], 7 November 1897, describing the seizure of the Chinese port of Kiao-Chau, in German Diplomatic Documents, 1871-1914, Vol. III, Edited, E.T.S. Dugdale, p. 16.

The balance of forces in International Politics are rarely as deterministic and reductionist as journalists and others of similarly limited points of view are inclined to view them as being. Hence, the idea that because say the PRC will soon have the world's second largest economy, it will soon enough endeavor to challenge the USA, in the same manner that Kaiserreich challenged Edwardian England in the years before the outbreak of the Great War. In point of fact, while there are certainly aspects of the current PRC which makes for this comparison to be apt, there are others which make it less so. First, and perhaps the most important, is that unlike say the England of Lords Castlereagh, Palmerston and Salisbury, the current-day USA is a far superior machtpolitik in strict military terms. As the eminent grise of the Wilhelmstrasse, Friedrich von Holstein, once pointed out, the UK at the peak of its power in the early to mid-19th century (1815-1870), was "the paramount Power in every part of the world outside of Europe" ("Memorandum by Baron von Holstein," 31 October 1901, in German Diplomatic Documents, op. cit., p.148). Whereas the United States has been militarily supreme for the past twenty years, on every continent. And, by the beginning of the twentieth century, that was no longer true in either the Far East (hence the Anglo-Japanese Alliance) or the Western Hemisphere (hence the 'great rapprochement' between the US and the UK from 1895 onwards). Hence, the road that the PRC has to climb vis-`a-vis the USA is infinitely higher and harder. Especially, when as the always learned if irascible Edward Luttwak points out in the current issue of the Times of London Literary Supplement (in reference to both the PRC and to India):

"For This essential reason - internal problems too overwhelming to be set aside, and which cannot these days be usefully vented with successful little wars - it is a category error to see China or India as classic risen powers, ready to joust with other powers, including each other, for more control of the world around them....Along with rather severe and pervasive operational shortcomings revealed only by the rare episodes that breach the facade of high competence (the atrociously bungled response to the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, the equally pathetic performance of the Chinese army in the Sichuan earthquake earlier this year), the character of their military-industrial endeavors tell us why China and India are much less capable of generating real military strength then the vastness of their forces would suggest. Their scant ability to project power beyond their borders is much better known."

Edward Luttwak, "Back to the Task," The Times of London Literary Supplement (TLS), 6 August 2010, pp. 9-10.

A state of affairs that is even more pronounced by the fact that unlike say the USA at the turn of the twentieth century, who within a few years if not already, had established itself as being a regional hegemon, the PRC, is still very far indeed from this position. One may well ask of course: will this state of affairs remain the same? Who knows? It is as likely to do so, as not. Again, unlike say the USA, at the turn of the twentieth century, which for all its social problems, was for the most part a cohesive and peaceable society, contemporary China (not to speak of India), suffers from pervasive social and ethnic unrest. Often of a very violent nature. That and the fact that both are still in per capita income terms, poor if not dirt poor societies, make the transition to becoming a military great-power less than automatic or very clear cut. As the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Selbourne pointed out at the turn of the twentieth century, it was not necessarily dollars and cents which governs such things, and, the example below shows that a rather long time-lag can come between what is economically feasible and what is politically possible:

'It has not dawned on our countrymen yet, but doubtless it has on you as it has on me, that, if the Americans chose to pay for what they can easily afford, they can gradually build up a Navy, firstly as large and then larger than ours and I am not
sure why they will not do it...' [punctuation as in the original].

Lord Selbourne to Lord Curzon [Viceroy of India], 19 April 1901, in George Boyce, edited, The Crisis of British Power: the Imperial and Naval Papers of the Second Earl of Selbourne, 1895-1910, (1990) p.115.


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