South China Sea Dispute: and the winner is . . .

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What's all the fuss about?

At this point, I’d have to say the United States. But let me back up here for a moment.

I haven’t written anything thus far on this dispute between China and Japan. I have several good reasons. First and foremost, I know next to nothing about military issues, such as the naval capabilities of the two nations. Second, disputes over tiny islands tend to make me giggle. Sure, this kind of thing can get serious (e.g. Falklands, just to name one precedent), but in the grand scheme of things, having very important countries squabbling over tiny rocks in the ocean is absurd, and my brain would rather get back to that Connie Willis book it was reading.1 Third, this particular dispute is ongoing, so it’s hard to tell how this whole thing is ultimately going to be resolved.

Good reasons to shut up. However, there is one other consideration here. We’ve just had a long holiday weekend (well, sort of a weekend. the holiday schedule was a bit odd), and there’s another, longer one coming up at the end of the week called National Day. As a result, there has been a significant dearth in interesting news. Indeed, this South China Sea dispute is practically the only game in town.

So a quick opinion is in order. Even better, an opinion I can’t really support all that well, at least not until events unfold over the next couple of weeks. Perfect opportunity for an unaccountable blog post.

Ever since this most recent dispute started, with Chinese and Japanese ships playing footsie in the South China Sea, I’ve been wondering who would end up on top. As usual, I figured that whoever won the press/spin war would be the victor. As soon as Japan captured that fishing boat captain and (temporarily) refused to hand him over, I thought the game was over; sympathetic individual usually wins out.

But events have moved on. The captain has been released, and now we’re stuck in the middle of a pathetic series of demands by each side. “We demand you pay for damage to our ships!” “Bullshit, you need to pay for damages caused by your guy’s reckless behavior!” “Oh yeah, then we’ll charge him for all the sushi he ate while he was in Japanese custody.” A diplomatic version of a slap fight.

Not the most productive dialogue, but when these two nations go at it, emotions tend to cloud reason. Meanwhile, two things are going on that will not make Beijing happy.

First, whether justified or not, China’s initial moves towards the disputed islands have been seen by several Asian nations as provocative. Unfortunately, this has played into the popular theme of “China asserting itself in Asia” that has been eagerly played up in the region in the past few years, to be periodically pushed back by China’s “Charm Offensive” international PR moves. This territorial dispute might very well be capitalized upon by the China-as-bully lobby, who will essentially be saying “See? This is what we’ve been talking about.” Among other things, expect that this incident will be used very successfully by U.S. military contractors during the next round of defense appropriations. Anyone want some more submarines? Paging Senator Lieberman . . .

Who wins if this spin on events takes hold? The following, from an AFP article, makes sense to me:

For years, US policymakers have watched uneasily as China grew more assertive, fearing that the emerging power would cut into Washington’s clout in one of the world’s most dynamic regions.

But in recent weeks, China’s rise has instead offered a golden opportunity for the United States, which has swiftly rallied behind the growing number of Asian nations that have butted heads with Beijing.

Second, the usual pre-election China bashing is going on in the U.S. What usually happens is that a number of Democrats in manufacturing areas with high unemployment make a lot of noise about the value of the RMB, China subsidy programs, etc. and threaten to take action. Folks like Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham do interviews, perhaps we get a Congressional hearing or think tank report, then the election comes and everything resets.

This time around, all of those things are happening, but unemployment is very bad and Democrats are in very bad shape. They don’t have much to lose when it comes to China bashing, so they’re going after the RMB issue in particular with hammer and tongs. The House Ways & Means Committee last week even voted a punitive currency bill out of committee; I don’t know whether the full House will vote on it or not before the election, although it wouldn’t surprise me at this point.

China’s best bet during these periodic bashing episodes is to keep its head down and be patient. Don’t give the anti-China group on the Hill the chance to demonize, or they will use any misstep against you, perhaps gathering even more supporters to sign on to trade sanctions legislation.

The dust up with Japan comes at a very bad time indeed, and although no one in Congress will be talking about Asian conflicts in speeches to the local crowd back home, you can be sure that this will be cited numerous times in D.C. as evidence of China’s hegemonic intentions.

I don’t know how this will end. Perhaps Japan will make a mistake and China will be able to play the victim again. Perhaps. Meanwhile the United States, and its newly-resurgent anti-China lobby in Congress, is happy to see all of its traditional friends in Asia, who are now more worried than ever about China’s aggressive behavior, come back into the fold.

  1. Time travel AND the Black Death is definitely a winning literary combination. []

7 responses on “South China Sea Dispute: and the winner is . . .

  1. pug_ster

    I don’t agree that the winner is the US. China shouldn’t flinch in terms of RMB situation. I am willing to bet there’s are alot of hot money going to the RMB because many speculators assume that it is going to rise. If the RMB rose about 20% then they can sell the RMB back to the dollar for a profit. This kind of crap happened in Japan in the 1980’s and it hurt the Japanese economy tremendously.

    I say stabilize the RMB and let the US slap tariffs on Chinese goods. This will put an end to the hot money issue. It will certainly impact the Chinese economy in the short term, but the Chinese government will be able to compensate in the long term.

    1. Stan Post author

      I don’t actually think the US is going to do anything. Even if the House passes something, the Senate would never go for it, and Obama definitely doesn’t want a currency bill on his desk.

      However, I’m more concerned with all this bad press. China is taking some real hits, particularly within Asia. The American indifference to Asian issues over the past ten years or so has really damaged its credibility with some nations, particularly in ASEAN. This sort of incident drives some of these countries back to the US.

      1. pug_ster

        I don’t know if the situation of the South China Dispute is a major concern in terms of a military threat. A few days ago watched an interview with some ASEAN representive concerning the dispute. The major issue with the Land disputes in the South China Sea is that China wants to have bilateral talks between the nations whereas the ASEAN nations (with the backing of the US) wants multilateral talks to gain more leverage.

      2. pug_ster

        I think China is off the hook for now because in the latest meeting they mentioned nothing about the Island Dispute. But they did mention about ‘maritime security’ so I guess US will have some active engagement in that region. China did make some mistake in terms diplomacy in that region: one was mentioning that the islands in the south sea is a ‘core interest’ to China, and the second was that China seems a little upset when Vietnam is getting nuclear technology from the US. China certainly has to tread carefully in regard to that region otherwise US will be more than happy to get involved.

  2. luckylulu

    I’m surprised at this article. From a legal perspective this should be handled according to international maritime law or law of the sea. Instead of quickly bringing up international sensationalism or emotional knee-jerk reaction commentary – the issue should be handled as a legitimate dispute involving a collison at sea. There should be an investigation as to what exactly happened, who collided with who and under what conditions so that the same incident does not happen again and resolve it in a reasonable and diplomatic way with equitable compensation. Of course the area that it occurred in makes it a very sensitive issue – but that is when reasonable minds and calm attitudes should prevail. Your commentary completely sounds like a sound bite written by CCTV’s Yang Rui not that of a practitioner of the law.

    1. Stan Post author

      I wasn’t commenting on who had the better legal claim but how the issue was being perceived by others. Unfortunately I don’t think this will ever be resolved in a calm, reasoned manner, which is too bad.

      If it was up to me, of course I wish that cooler heads would prevail.

      Wow, being compared to Yang Rui . . . that hurts! 😉