21 September 2019
USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, has been patrolling the vast South China Sea since it was homeported in Japan in 2005. Photo: Internet
USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, has been patrolling the vast South China Sea since it was homeported in Japan in 2005. Photo: Internet

South China Sea tension: a storm in a teacup

Ignoring Beijing’s harsh objections, Washington sent its guided missile destroyer USS Lassen into the disputed waters surrounding the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea last week. The area has been demarcated in Beijing’s territorial claims yet Washington has clearly stated otherwise.

As we have already seen, Beijing’s subsequent reaction after the US Navy destroyer’s bold entry turned out to be very mild: other than the hackneyed verbal protest to the US ambassador, the nation’s censors and propaganda officials soon rushed to downplay the incident on mainland forums.

Washington seems to have already anticipated Beijing’s low-key handling, as more than a week before the symbolic voyage, Voice of America quoted Fan Changlong (范長龍), vice chairman of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, as saying that China will never prematurely resort to military confrontation even in matters concerning sovereignty and territorial integrity.

So far the most hawkish comments against Washington are mainly from radical Maoist websites with their servers located overseas.

My observation is that there may have been a tacit rapport between the two sides. Other than some political posturings, there’s no need to take off the glove merely for a few barren, tiny reefs and islets in the middle of nowhere when it comes to territorial disputes with no concrete national security implications.

Compared to the last time when it sent an entire carrier battle group into the same waters in 2012, Washington has demonstrated its restraint as well.

Xi Jinping and Barack Obama may have reached a rapport during their meetings at the end of September. China’s many overenthusiastic patriots may have just been fooled.

Yet, for perspective, even if there’s just one destroyer from the US side this time, not a single war vessel in the Chinese navy can combat it.

Equipped with the Aegis combat system and powerful missiles, the warship, homeported at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan, has patrolled vast waters in the South China Sea, India Ocean and western Pacific Ocean since 2005.

The legal justification that Washington used this time was to safeguard freedom of navigation rather than the concept of “innocent passage”.

In the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on the High Seas, “innocent passage” refers to allowing a vessel to pass through the territorial waters of another state subject to certain restrictions while freedom of navigation is a principle of customary international law stressing that ships flying the flag of any sovereign state in international waters shall not suffer interference from other states.

Washington’s choice of words, with a sound legal basis, indicates that it does not recognize Beijing’s territorial claims, nor does it acknowledge the latter’s sovereignty over manmade islands there.

Beijing is obviously in a very weak position. It has also failed to determine the exact coordinates of its ‘nine-dash line’ with ambiguities like whether the entire area within the line should be included in China’s territorial claims or just the islands, islets, reefs and surrounding waters it encloses.

Beijing lacks compelling accounts to support the merits of its own arguments. Thus, it is not hard to understand why it has firmly rejected Manila’s request to let the world arbitration court to hear these disputes.

Some observers have warned that any tiny conflict may easily escalate in this flashpoint, and a war is not entirely impossible.

I think otherwise. One guarantee of peace will be the typical rationality of a globalized capital market: for instance, those private equity funds owned by Communist Party princelings will have to take a battering in the market turmoil should Beijing and Washington become belligerent toward each other.

So many people in Zhongnanhai will oppose any direct military engagement.

Also, Beijing knows too well the lessons of Nicholas II, the last Russian emperor, who was forced to abdicate following the February Revolution of 1917, which was triggered by his militarism in the First World War.

The way Kuomintang lost China to Mao Zedong after fighting Japanese invaders is another example that a war cannot serve the best interests of the ruling party.

Also, still reeling from the economic downturn, how will Beijing risk being entangled in a war that it can’t possibly win? These islets and reefs are just irrelevant compared to Beijing’s own well-being.

But people’s hostility against the United States is there. In such a scenario, numerous intellectuals and scholars who graduated from US institutions may face some political headwind.

We have seen that during the 1950s. When Beijing’s relations with Moscow soured, quite a lot of engineers and experts who once studied in the Soviet Union were stripped of their jobs and subjected to political prosecution.

Some of them also suffered from purges and tortures during the Cultural Revolution.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 29.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal