A Dragon In Its Own Backyard – Brian Cloughley

It is well to remember and reflect on Napoleon’s supposed statement when he was asked during his final exile what he considered might be the greatest concern to the world in centuries to come. He pondered only momentarily before declaring – “When the dragon awakes”. His reference to China, almost two hundred years ago, was prescient, and we should all bear it in mind.

Over the years I have written much about China’s presence in the South China Sea which, I argue, is perfectly reasonable. Never at a loss for a cliché, I refer to “their own backyard” and rattle on accordingly, and have not altered my opinions about sovereignty in the region. So I refer to some of these pieces in order to examine the territorial disputes in the light of recent developments.

The South China Sea has nine littoral states: Brunei, China, Indonesia, Kampuchea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Most have maritime sovereignty claims, and some are more reasonable than others. The United States has a vast fleet and military bases throughout the western Pacific, surrounding the Chinese littoral, just as it menaces Russia in Europe.

None of the islets in the South China Sea was taken over by imperialists in the heydays of colonial expansion, and my contention is that it didn’t happen because the French realised grapevines wouldn’t grow on coral and the British didn’t bother because they realised they couldn’t build a decent-sized government house. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm wasn’t interested as there was no room for a cavalry charge, and when America colonised the Philippines in 1898 it left the Spratly Islands alone because the floating baseball had not yet been invented. 

There was no attraction in China Sea island-grabbing for imperialist powers in these early days of expansion, but for some years now there has been considerable interest in the region. Naturally this is based on economic imperatives, although estimates of the amounts of oil, gas and rare minerals under the waves vary greatly. This is not surprising, because no exploration company is going to admit that there might be lots of money to be made from these otherwise uninteresting bits of rock. 

No matter what crude nationalistic advantage might apply by occupation of individual islets, there is the knotty problem of legally apportioning particular and economically lip-smacking spots of sandy coral to any one country. Article 121(3) of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos; ratified by China – but not the United States) says sensibly that “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no Exclusive Economic Zone or continental shelf,” but if a lovely rich subaqueous oil gusher spouts a few kilometres away from your very own tiny lump of coral, are you going to pay much attention to Unclos? Of course not. You’re going to build a little platform on it and grow vegetables watered by a vastly expensive desalination plant and then declare that your coral paradise is inhabited and self-sufficient. It, therefore, has an Exclusive Economic Zone extending for 200 nautical miles all round. Then you wait for the people who haven’t managed to do that sort of thing to complain and take whatever action they can to stop you. The trouble is that greed leads to violence.

Eleven years ago I wrote in relation to the South China Sea that “we should not imagine for a moment that if military muscle is exerted by others, then Beijing will lie down like a purring pussy cat. The Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore are involved in Washington’s plans for expansion of its military presence in the region (an ‘Asian Nato’ has been suggested, to confront China, which would be reinventing a wobbly wheel – remember the farce of Seato?), and US Deputy Defence Secretary Wolfowitz announced in Singapore last month [June 2003] that ‘it’s very important to this whole region that the United States remains committed here.’ This may be agreeable to some countries, but it is disturbing for others that the Bush administration intends to meddle further in their region. Introduction of yet more US military might is not going to create stability: it is going to exasperate the PRC (perhaps it is meant to do that) and encourage division.”

So over the years the US has stepped up its military might in the region – and there are now 70 warships, over 300 aircraft and 40,000 marines making it quite clear that the United States has a commitment to confront China in whatever it does in its own backyard.

And then to back up what Wolfowitz announced in Singapore eleven years ago, Washington sent Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel to Singapore last month to proclaim that China “has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea.”

He announced that China “has restricted access to the Scarborough Reef; put pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal; begun land reclamation activities at multiple locations; and moved an oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands.”

Then came the naked threat. Hagel announced that the US “will not look the other way when fundamental principles of international order are being challenged,” which is a deliberately provocative and truly foolish pronouncement.

US confrontation with China looms closer, and it’s hardly the fault of the Chinese whose position, in the words of Xinhua, is that “the tree craves calm but the wind keeps blowing.” But there’s one thing certain: the Chinese tree will whip back if the Washington wind increases its intensity. As the Chinese well understand, the world in general craves calm, but the out-of-control US military machine, in an expansionist wave of unprecedented energy, is hell-bent on global domination.

Remember what Napoleon said two centuries ago, and bear in mind that the Chinese dragon is waking. And when dragons wake up it’s not altogether clever to threaten them.