Understanding the South China Sea

Historical Truths and Lies: Scarborough Shoal in Ancient Maps

This essay offers a thoughtful review from the Philippine point of view of the history of territorial claims in the South China Sea. The site, from the Institute of Maritime and Ocean Affairs, was built around a 2014 lecture by Senior Associate Justice Antonio C. Carpio of the Supreme Court of the Philippines.

The Philippines is not a neutral arbiter in the issues surrounding the South China Sea, and even the nation’s Supreme Court is not above nationalistic impulses. Source notwithstanding, the depth of the site demonstrates that the arguments against China’s claims cannot be as casually dismissed as Beijing might wish.

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Understanding “Tao Guang Yang Hui”

A phrase that is making the rounds among China watchers is “tao guang yang hui.” I will not attempt to explain the concept: any brief explanation would hide too many nuances, and nuances are important here. I just watched an online debate amongst some of my more scholarly friends, and the battle was about different interpreteations of of the phrase.

One interpretation of the phrase is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s maxim “keep a low profile and bide your time, while also getting something accomplished.” Given the noises China has been making in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Indian frontier, and Hong Kong, it appears to some that China has abandoned the tao guang yang hui strategy altogether.

Others, however, suggest that the strategy was not abandoned, but that Deng’s intention all along was to wait for a time when China was ready to assert itself in the global sphere, not simply lay low forever.

Yang Wenchang, President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, offers his interpretation in “My Views about ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui.” It is a worthwhile read, and an important one: not only does he provide an erudite explanation of the idom’s roots, his interpretation of the phrase seems to be at odds with China’s current foreign policy.

The entire debate may seem a petty tempest among the cognoscienti. If China is becoming more assertive globally, what does it matter whether this is Xi’s own policy or a continuation of the past?

In truth, it does matter: the answer to the question of whether this is part of a long-standing plan or whether this is Xi rejecting Dengist strategy would help us better predict where China is likely to jump next. We are unlikely to get clarification from the leadership compound at Zhongnanhai: Xi will want to seem unpredictable so as to keep his percieved opponents, both at home and abroad, guessing as to his intentions, leaving him with the initiative. Hence a better understanding of his strategic approach is essential to ensure that Asia and the west are not caught unawares by China’s next Great Leap Outwards.

 

China and the Limits of History

Some things we used to know about china’s past and present but, now, not so much” 
Alice Lyman Miller
Proceedings of the USC US-China Institute Symposium, “History and China’s Foreign Relations: The Achievements and Contradictions of American Scholarship”,
Feb. 16-17, 2008

Stanford’s Alice Miller is one of those China scholars who prefers not to mince words. Whether it was her sixteen years with the CIA or the cumulative effect of four decades studying China, she is direct and still unfailingly scholarly in her assessments and, as a result is, a joy to read.

Her paper at a USC symposium above is an excellent example. There is a school of China scholarship that attempts to parse Beijing’s politics and foreign policy through a prism of China’s imperial past. To those scholars, the CCP is just another dynasty in China dynastic cycle, its current leaders just emperors in new clothes, and China wants to turn the rest of the world into tributary powers.  As a history buff with late-life aspirations to historianship, these parallels are appealing to me, and they are clearly appealing to others, else Miller would not feel the need to debunk the approach.

And debunk she does. Offering ample examples from current scholarship and public discourse, she makes a convincing case that while the history has some general value as background in understanding Chinese strategic thinking, past behavior is no template for current or future action.

A must-read for any China-watcher, it surprises me that this paper has not received more attention, but perhaps it shouldn’t: as a longtime purveyor of the “China is more nuanced than that” approach, I know that people are not looking for nuance: they’re looking for easy. Miller makes it clear that this sort of intellectual laziness is a hazard to be avoided.

History, however, is not the bunk that Henry Ford thought. I side with Cicero: ignorance of history is the hallmark of intellectual immaturity. Miller is correct in saying that we should not rely on history too much. It is important to caution that we ignore it at our peril.

India Looks at Xi

“Taking Stock of Chinese Leader Xi Jinping’s One Year Rule,” R.S. Kalha, IDSA Comment, December 20, 2013. Kalha, of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis in India, takes a look at the first year of Xi Jinping’s rule from a security policy perspective. His takeaway: by focusing on Japan, Xi picked the right nemesis, managing to demonstrate the real limits to the US commitment to the security of its allies in the region. More adventurism can be expected as a result.

Is China a Revisionist Power?

“Understanding Chinese Revisionism in International Affairs”
Matthew Stinson
April 2, 2014

Whenever I start to think I know something about international relations (my major in school three decades ago, and my predilection ever since), I need only read something by Matthew Stinson to send me, humbled and chastened, back to the library.

Stinson, who is on the faculty at Tianjin Polytechnic University in China, is not a paid political scientist, but he writes like one, albeit rather more clearly than most. It pains me to note that much of his output is in the form of Facebook posts, a fine way to engage his friends, but not so much to give him the profile he deserves.

The most recent entry in his blog Like Cooking a Small Fish is a happy exception. In an wide-ranging and highly erudite article, Stinson explains in detail how China is changing the rules of international relations simply by refusing to play by those established by the U.S. and European powers over the last two centuries. He concludes:

In 1996, the popular Chinese nationalist book China Can Say No advanced the concept that China should no longer follow America’s lead in world affairs. Roughly twenty years later, we may be reaching a point where, thanks to Chinese power, authoritarian regimes of the Global South can also “say no” to the West and pay no penalties for it.

Thought-provoking, and for those of us who place value in the international system as it currently stands. What Stinson suggests that we face is not a future of bad actors, but one in which we will have two systems operating by separate rulesets operating side-by-side. It is the perfect recipe for global conflict.

The Other Side of the Pivot

“Economics and the Rebalance”
Matthew P. Goodman
Global Economics Monthly
Volume II, Issue 12
December 2013

To this point, discussion of Obama’s strategic pivot to East Asia has focused primarily on the military and political aspects of that shift. But as Matthew Goodman of CSIS notes, the administration has placed economics at the center of the rebalance, and has made its biggest bet on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade agreement designed to link Asia and the Americas in a free-trade zone.

Goodman is emphatic: based on Obama’s approach, success of the economic end of the pivot – and of the pivot itself – depends on success of the TPP:

Without TPP, the rebalance would contain little of substance that is new and would be perceived in the region as driven primarily by military considerations.

What is more, success of the TPP depends, he notes, on Congress getting behind it. Thus, it stands to reason, the success of the pivot depends on Congress. Goodman offers recommendations for the Congress, but gently dodges the elephant in the room: will the Republicans in Congress support anything that is important to the President?

A thoughtful read, and one that offers persuasive food for thought on the administration’s Asia foreign policy.