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Monday, June 08, 2015


Peking sitting ducks

by Tom Sullivan

So while most of the press is wondering when ISIS will kill us in our beds with their long, curved knives, or taking bets on how many clowns Republicans can fit into that car, I am watching this dispute over control of the South China Sea. It is the sort of thing that in the 20th century sometimes led to unpleasantness.

China has been rapidly building what is being called the Great Wall of Sand. Engineers and fleets of dredges have descended on the disputed Spratly Islands to construct artificial islands built from sand thrown atop reefs and capped with concrete and imposing buildings of unknown purpose. And a runway. Photos here. Worrisome yes, but militarily? Sitting ducks.

The Washington Post Sunday summarized what is going on:

For generations, the South China Sea was a regional common. Fishing boats from all of the surrounding countries would roam its waters, pausing now and then to trade cigarettes or potatoes or gossip.

But then Vietnam, followed by the Philippines, began staking claims to some of the islands, and now China is moving in, in a big way. Beijing is building up the outposts it has established, enlarging islands that it controls and claiming exclusive rights to fishing grounds.

Filipino fisherman are being run off their fishing grounds by gunmen in Chinese speedboats equipped with water cannons. With increased U.S. patrols and overflights, the Post reports, it seems as if the fishermen are being squeezed in "a geostrategic confrontation between the two great powers."

The Philippines' attempt two years ago to take China to court in The Hague over the fishing grounds came to nothing. China was a no-show.

The governor of Zambales province, Hermogenes E. Ebdane Jr., said he wonders what China’s ultimate goal is. “No one’s going to war over fish,” he said. His constituents, the fishermen, will have to find something else to do. But if this confrontation is about something bigger, Ebdane said, it’s unclear what role the Philippines might have.

China is clearly flexing its Great Power muscles the way the ascendant U.S. did after WWII and, no, it is unlikely anyone is going to war over fish. China is not one of those "crappy little countries" neocon chickenhawks are so eager to show who's boss every ten years. Peter Beinart explains why the South China Sea dispute has not been a stump-speech topic for even the hawkish veteran, Sen. Lindsey Graham. Basically, it's not good television:

Via the catchall of “radical Islam,” American politicians have transferred some of the anxiety sparked by ISIS to Iran: Today they have butcher’s knives; tomorrow, nukes! By contrast, China’s incremental moves to build islands in the South China Sea or even ram the occasional Filipino fishing boat produce far less drama. No matter how serious a challenge they pose to America’s role in the Pacific, they don’t appear to threaten American lives. And they won’t—until a confrontation between the Chinese and American militaries, in disputed ocean or airspace, raises the prospect of war. Until that happens, China’s challenge will remain on Page A17 of the newspaper.

For his part, James Fallows doesn't believe these moves make China America’s “biggest threat,” which is something:

So let’s say that China is more important than the countries U.S. politicians spend the most time declaiming about—and important because of the potential benefits and the potential risks. That’s different from being the “biggest threat.” The United States needs people who think and talk more about China, not “more China hawks.”

Over the weekend, I caught up with what strategist Thomas PM Barnett (The Pentagon's New Map) thinks about China lately. He has maintained that, over the long term, globalization would raise living standards across the world (including China) and reduce tensions, not raise them. We are too economically interdependent. China, for example, would not risk its biggest markets. Barnett still seems to believe that.[timestamp: 48:00 to 1:16:00]

Still, accidents happen, especially between great powers and on the high seas. The Enlightened-Self-Interested-Rational-Actors on Wall Street were not supposed to bring the economy that sustains them down on their heads and ours either. Sometimes it's the lizard brain that makes the choices and the history. In the short term, never count out the lizard brain.