Dancing in the dark with a bear

(My personal intervention at the talk on Maintaining International Peace and Security: Visions from the Regions held at the MacMillan Center, Yale University, September 12, 2018. I made that plain; it was equally plain they weren’t interested in what I might have to say in my official capacity. A wonderful exchange followed. Great fun was had by all.)

“THE fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” said Isaiah Berlin.  We know what a fox is: he is the uneatable chased by the unspeakable on horseback. It must, perforce, be dodgy, diving into any cover; turning any which way that presents itself. A hedgehog is a spiny creature that rolls itself in a ball for self-protection. I thought it was a mole; so while it knew one big thing this singular focus came of living in the dark deep in the ground. Well it is not a mole. It lives above ground like the rest of Southeast Asia in full view and easy reach of Chinese avidity.

My subject is Southeast Asia; today defined as tomorrow’s battleground in the struggle for mastery in Asia between China and the, as usual, reluctantly reigning hegemon, the United States.

We weary of America’s perennial hesitation—those of us acclimated to the Long Peace of the Cold War made possible by mutually assured destruction punctuated by arrant displays of hot American wars. Korea, Indochina, the near-run thing with Cuba and the Missile Crisis; and, while still heady with victory in the Cold War, Afghanistan then Iraq and Iraq again. That was power. Confident, unhesitating; its diplomats polished and learned, sporting the indifference to personal risk in personal career and to their very persons characteristic of those who’ve had everything from birth and are therefore indifferent to the prospect of losing it all. The strong silent type of American is gone; among the last of them James Baker; the absolute last John McCain. Not always right, and when wrong catastrophically so; but their bold presence was always clarifying and reassuring. They were there when they were needed and even when not; they were always there. Now we get the 9 to 5’s, as I was told by a retiring officer in the clandestine foreign service.

It all has to do with reefs in the South China Sea. Nobody, not even the Chinese ever thought that the name meant that China owned it. It meant the British named it when they owned China.

As the Chinese Civil War wound down to a Blue defeat by the Reds, in a spasm of hurt pride Chiang Kai-shek—who bled his forces to fight the Japanese while the Communists waited it out in the far North—drew a 9-dash line around the belly of China extending far into the South China Sea; farther out to what would be the surrounding coastal states’ extended economic zones and continental shelves. None of it national territory but exclusive for their respective exploitation and the duty of preservation.

Old Chinese in Manila were taught the 9-dash line in school. But the few Filipinos who cared enough thought of it as merely aspirational metaphor from a dying regime. Only a handful in high places knew its import; but they were discreet because uncertain. And so Philippine presidents sent armed forces quietly to occupy islets and reefs in the South China Sea closest to home.

Unfortunately, closest to one’s home was still proximate if not equally to another’s. The occupations spread without fanfare or much notice. It wasn’t grabbing because you weren’t taking anything from anybody. These were res nullius, said President Marcos then (but Sven Lindqvist uses “terra nullius” in another context). There was no one in those places—or rather “features” as The Hague Tribunal later labeled them. Features yielding 12 nautical miles if they jutted above water at high tide—and none at all if they stayed submerged; in any case not entitled to continental shelf or exclusive economic zone. A more technically precise explanation is in the two copies of Justice Antonio Carpio’s book, which I am leaving behind. [The books went to the MacMillan Center on International and Area Studies and the Yale Library.]

Later the new China we now know took one from us and dredged and dumped sand on it to keep it above water; habitable in a complicated and expensive way, and “weaponizable.” China hopes it will qualify as an island generating a 200-mile exclusive economic zone eating into ours, and a continental shelf that may well include all of us. China claimed it by ancient right. Yeah sure, ancient like the day before yesterday when they dredged it up. Chinese historiography is inextricable from wishful thinking geography.

Shortly before the US invasion, Vietnam seized features once taken by France and never abandoned. Maybe it is still French. Vietnam did it again after the last US chopper took off from the embassy then turning around to knock out a Chinese army in the North. Both Vietnam and the Philippines kept it up on a vague notion of strategic and economic value—thus far unrealized. I was a member of the board of an aggressive oil exploration company. We found nothing of value; in the stock market we traded in hope. I hope there isn’t anything there so we won’t be bound by honor to fight for it. The curse of oil.

And so it went on, Taiwan and Malaysia joined. Then the Bamboo Curtain erected around itself by Red China—and reinforced by the US 7th Fleet—began to crumble from pressures of enlarging economic opportunities; largely supplied, say some writers, by the US to counterbalance Soviet power with a strong albeit still incarnadine China in the Far East—or Far West, depending on where you are looking out from.

The rest you know; China overtook Japan as the 2nd largest economy; and very soon it will overtake the United States. This still doesn’t say much in terms of military power for as long as the projection of US power from the American mainland stays strong. China’s proximate advantage—of itself being in a war theater in the South and East China seas—is also its gross disadvantage. The US can hit it from a safe distance across the Pacific, as well as quite close from its Asian allies if they will allow it. China will be in the thick of the fight, subject to withering fire from its distant and moving enemy and its closer allies.

Nonetheless, China has kept taking features belonging to Vietnam and the Philippines. Indonesian power checked its advance in its direction. The tally for now: China had no presence in the Spratlys until 1988 when it clashed with Vietnam, killing 84 Vietnamese civilians and then took six more maritime features which China has developed into artificial islands. China took Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1995. And in 2012 poached Scarborough.

One day, Chinese coast guard surrounded a feature belonging to the Philippines and excluded its fishermen. Philippine coast guard should have responded. But our only warship was already in the area, picking up part of a North Korean missile; so it went to the rescue and China called it a belligerent act. The US intervened and said both sides should back off. The Philippines did. China did not. Without being asked to explain its own uselessness the US said it is only interested in defending freedom of navigation. This encouraged China. But then Obama was mostly pro-Chinese unlike the Republicans before him. Hillary did better. Asked by China with the usual oriental indirection how the US would respond if China’s spat with its Philippine ally continued, Hillary said: Go ask the CINCPAC commander (who doesn’t listen or answer but simply sends out the fleet and launches fighters and missiles—or not.) China stood down but only briefly.

Freedom of navigation is nothing.  When the US exercised it by sending part of the US 7th Fleet, a Chinese flotilla welcomed it at the entrance of the South China and escorted it all the way out its backside: thereby proving two things: it is a polite host and the South China Sea is part of its home: the swimming pool.

Freedom of navigation is nothing if it is not wedded to the proposition that a predominantly naval power must be committed to the independence of nations, keeping them free from imperial threat. (Gaddis, On Grand Strategy, citing the 1907 Crowe Memorandum, “…England, more than any other non-insular Power, has a direct and positive interest in the maintenance of the independence of nations, and therefore must be the natural enemy of any country threatening the independence of others, and the natural protector of the weaker communities.”) Otherwise freedom of navigation is just the privilege of passing by the animal cages in a zoo; which is essentially what US freedom of navigation and nothing more amounts to in a region under threat from a continental power.

We were outraged; what was the use of our Mutual Defense Treaty. Later Obama told the Japanese the US would go to war with China over the Senkaku islands, which are uninhabited. Asked by the Philippines press if he would do the same for the Philippines, he said no. This was further encouragement he gave China.

We were not entirely powerless. We had international law on our side. Since both China and the Philippines had signed up to UNCLOS, we went to The Hague. China refused to participate. We had verbal US support which is of course worthless, not least because it was qualified—the US is only interested in freedom of navigation, which as I explained is nothing. And the US won’t sign onto UNCLOS.

We won a tightly crafted claim: what are the reefs in the South China Sea that we possess—one or two of which were stolen by China which now excludes us from resources well within our exclusive economic zone. The Hague said they are features at best; generating in some narrow cases if they’re high tide elevations 12 nautical miles of territorial sea and nothing else.

Today we are urged to keep filing notes verbale. I refuse. Every note verbiage you send to a country that ignores it merely confirms that notes are worthless, that the international community is even more so, and every note ignored is a stone in the edifice of possession which is 9/10ths of the law and will morph in time into a legal right of ownership. And that Thucydides is still right: the strong will do what they like and the weak must swallow their pride and even lose their independence. One of the features has been made habitable and “weaponized” with an airfield, radar, docks for warships. But it is still not an island, which The Hague said only God can make.

That’s the foxy way of looking at it. It is just a local Philippine problem and not much of one if there is no oil. We can talk around it and make mutually beneficial deals so long as we don’t sign away what’s ours by law because that would be treason.

Here’s the hedgehog view: this is all a portent of Chinese aggression and its evident aim to establish Chinese hegemony in Southeast Asia by taking possession of all the waters as close as possible to the shorelines of the littoral states around.

And why?

To break out of the first island chain of iron alliances drawn by the United States from South Korea through Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia which locks in China and locks out commodities essential to China’s economic strength and military power: principally energy. And then push the US back to Hawaii or San Diego.

There is a thriller, Trident, that envisions a scenario where an alliance of littoral states led by Japan interdict Chinese commerce in the Straits of Malacca and sink it in the South China sea. It ends with a nuclear demonstration explosion by the United States to sober up everybody that the economic and political game is really not worth the flame of a nuclear candle.

Kagan says that is only the half of it: the wider gain is the Indian Ocean which Arab oil and African rare metals must cross to reach China after passing the Straits: the entire enchilada from source to consumption and back again in an Indo-Pacific theater under Chinese control or with significant say to the exclusion of American presence except by leave of the Chinese state.

The question for the government succeeding the one that won at The Hague was whether to keep banging our head against the Great Wall to the applause of a useless power and forego the benefits of Chinese trade and credit. Or play along with it.

I asked a Central Asian ambassador, knowing the Tans are menaced by Russia and China. He said, “What do you do if a bear is running toward you? Do you run? It will overtake you and maul you, exasperated because you made it run. Do you stand and fight, it will maul you worse for your insolence. What you do is run toward the bear and hug it tight. Of course it can crush you against its chest. But not if you hug it really tight and dance with it.

This much is true. The “weaponized” reef is the most useless investment China ever made towards increasing its military power and reach because the worse thing in warfare today is an immovable object. It has cost China the suspicion of all Southeast Asia, which was lured by its generous credit. (A professor in the audience explained that a submarine cable from the reef to the mainland will show what satellites cannot: the passage of submarines up and down the South China Sea. Ok, I missed that and I shouldn’t have; that point was made by one of the audience at an Asia Society event hosted by China expert and Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and Graham Allison, author of Destined for War: The Thucydides Trap and, more famously much earlier, the last word on the Cuban missile crisis, The Essence of Decision.) Now they prepare for the worst from China. And there is this too: military experts say that in the first half hour of conflict between China and the Philippines, a missile strike will evaporate the “weaponized” reef, indeed turn its sand into glass. Yet it would arguably not be an act of war because the reef belongs to the Philippines but the point was made.

Out of this parochial situation has arisen fox and the hedgehog concerns: does the US preemptively strike down Chinese aspirations in the Western Pacific with hedgehog-like focus? Or does it weave in and out of situations generated by friendly and hostile relations between China and the United States? Like a fox.

Is the US still interested in being the indispensable power in the world or will it be the first empire in history—whose presence is far more reassuring than resented—that wants to decline and fall without a shot fired in anger and self-respect. Becoming just another continental country like Russia but with internal freedom in the Age of China. American diffidence of course can cite the authority of Kennan—your greatest and most elegant foreign policy thinker—and his view of the limitations of American power to change things in its image. But then he was wrong to see the Philippines as an American foreign policy misadventure because without it the US would not have been able to wage the Vietnam War from its Philippine bases. And while it lost that war, the devastation the US visited on Indochina stopped the further spread of Communism in Asia if not the world. No one wanted to undergo that experience. (But Arab Islamic fundamentalism has shown the fortitude and more to take it on again and again.)

One other option is to revisit US-Philippine relations and recreate some of its old features. MacArthur called Taiwan America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier. Actually, the Cold War Philippines was America’s unsinkable carrier group off the coast of China just as Britain was off the coast of Europe. That can be replicated to greater effect even without formal US bases: an entire archipelago of over 7,000 islands offering an impossible-to-track ordnance platform from any part of which the US can strike out and move out of range to another part.

What is the role of the UN? I cannot imagine. We cannot even raise our maritime issues without losing our connections to dominant regional and economic groupings that favor China. The UN is the parliament of man with all the human weaknesses that entails. China has the means to replace the US as the major funder of the United Nations and become the major influencer in the world. But China doesn’t move. Its contributions are minimal. Maybe it doesn’t think it necessary to buy big into an institution under increasing American disdain when it can set up a parallel one; like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank—its answer to the Japanese-American ADB. All of America’s closest western allies have joined the Chinese bank. After holding back out of independent pride and suspicion, we lamely followed. I hope we got in.



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