The South China Sea is a powder keg with disturbing echoes of 1914

John Hulsman
China Celebrates New Year
China is on the strategic march, throwing its weight around the South China Sea, where more than $5 trillion in trade passes through its waters each year (Source: Getty)

With all the Brexit drama, it is easy to forget that on the other side of the world a contest for primacy is brewing that will probably do more to tell the tale of what our multipolar world evolves into than anything presently happening in Europe. If the US and China manage their emerging geostrategic rivalry in Asia, all will be broadly well. If they do not, an updated version of World War I is entirely plausible.

I pick my historical analogy advisedly because, in a number of disconcerting ways, the rivalry playing out in the South China and East China Seas resembles nothing so much as 1913 Europe, sitting precariously on the edge of a powder keg. There are almost no significant multilateral security organisations in the region to cushion normal geostrategic blows, making Asia resemble pre-World War I Europe, rather than the continent’s post-World War II vintage.

Asia today, like Europe then, is bristling with nationalistic states with armies and navies, determined to throw their weight around. In Prime Ministers Abe of Japan and Modi of India, and in Chinese President Xi Jinping, the leaders of the three major regional powers are all strong nationalists, unchallenged masters of their domestic political realms, who would be unable to easily back down if a crisis occurs.

This lack of multilateral shock absorbers is mainly down to the fact that the Japanese elites have never managed to face up to their World War II atrocities (their proclivity to pray at the Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates a number of war criminals, could be laughed off as bizarre if it didn’t terrify both the South Koreans and the Chinese; imagine how the French would feel if the Germans prayed at the Goebbels shrine). South Korea, in particular, which on geopolitical merits alone ought to be Japan’s best regional ally (both working together balancing against a resurgent China) has unnecessarily fraught relations with Tokyo, stemming from Japan’s historical amnesia.

So instead the still-dominant Americans are forced to shuttle bilaterally between their various Asian allies, scuttling about like a headless chicken trying to keep the geostrategic show on the road. For there is an utterly unresolvable strategic tension lying at the heart of the increasing controversies in the waters surrounding China: the US is the dominant power in East Asia, and China wishes to be the dominant power in East Asia. Nothing can wish this basic strategic reality away.

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And the doleful 1914 analogy works at another analytical level. The US resembles 1913 Britain, still the dominant power in the world, even if it is in relative decline as others gain on it. China approximates the Kaiser’s bumptious Germany, determined to secure its place in the sun, and is the global rising power most making the rest of the world nervous. Japan is Third Republic France, in decline and painfully aware of it, even as its hated rival – for the French Germany and for the Japanese the Chinese – gains in power almost by the day. India is even an alright stand-in for Tsarist Russia, powerful, slightly geographically removed from the situation, yet capable of playing a pivotal role. The aptness of the analogy leaves little room for strategic comfort.

Like pre-1914 Wilhelmine Germany, China is on the strategic march, especially throwing its weight around the South China Sea, where more than $5 trillion in trade passes through its waters each year. Beijing ridiculously claims the lion’s share of the waterway for itself, through the use of the nine-dash line that it says validates these excessive claims. The problem is that Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan also have competing claims, and they increasingly chafe at China’s high-handed treatment there, where Beijing is constructing military bases. At last bearing it no longer, the Philippines took Beijing to the international court, with The Hague set to rule on the conflicting welter of claims in the next few days.

Almost certainly The Hague will rule in the Philippines’ favour, and equally certainly China, to the horror of its neighbours, will simply ignore the court’s decision. Then the mask will have well and truly slipped, revealing China’s naked power grab in this most dangerous region in the world.

In the wise words of my grandmother, British foreign policy-makers must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time, focusing on the terms of their divorce with Europe, even as they keep their eyes squarely on Asia, where most of the world’s growth and much of its geostrategic risk resides.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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