Sense of Destiny drives China's sea expansion

Financial Times August 20 2014

China's creeping occupation of the South China Sea is not primarily motivated by oil, let alone by its diminishing stock of fish. It is about two things: strategic position, and what the nationalists running the country today view as its “manifest destiny”, to borrow a phrase from American history.

The sense that China is entitled to possession of this sea lies deep in the nation's history of viewing its neighbours, especially those untouched by Chinese culture, as inferiors. China no longer feels a need to be liked. The promise of its “peaceful rise” has been replaced by jingoist actions designed to appeal to a domestic audience.

It may be decades before China has naval power to match that of the US and its Pacific allies – but by establishing footholds far from its own shores it overawes the neighbours and poses a threat to bigger nations and their trade. It is an early stage in the plan of turning the South China Sea, which for 2,000 years has been a meeting point of cultures and a global trade thoroughfare, but never dominated by China, into a “Chinese lake”.

The English term “South China Sea” is itself a misnomer that gives credence to Beijing's claim. Known to the Chinese as the South Sea, to Vietnam as the East Sea and to the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea, it lacks a neutral name. The first Europeans to reach it, the Portuguese, knew it as the Cham Sea after the Hindu, Malay-speaking mercantile state absorbed by Vietnam.

A more accurate term would be the Malay Sea, after the Malays of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, who until relatively recently were also the principal inhabitants of Taiwan and much of coastal Vietnam. China (including Taiwan) occupies only about one-quarter of the sea's shoreline, which is otherwise shared by the 500m people of Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia.

The ownership of the Paracel islands which lie east of Vietnam and south of China, has long been in contention but they have been in Chinese hands following their seizure in 1974. Although the islands have never been permanently inhabited, both countries have arguable cases over the extent of their exclusive economic zones best settled by an international court. But Beijing's recent deployment of an oil drilling rig in the waters off Vietnam's coast shows that it has no interest in arbitration or negotiation.

China's other claims to rocks and shoals – extending to within a few miles of the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, 1,000 miles from its own shores – would be laughed out of any independent court. They are simply assertions backed by a “history” of visits by Chinese sailors, which ignore the non-Chinese people who for millennia have been the principal inhabitants. The people of island southeast Asia had, at least until the late colonial era, always been the predominant traders across this sea.

Indeed, it is remarkable how little direct impact China has made on this region. The first foreign cultural wave came with trade from India, making Hinduism, Buddhism and Indian scripts pre-eminent, as they remain in mainland southeast Asia. Next came merchants from the Arab and Persian worlds bringing Islam to much of the region. Next, lured by the spice trade, came the Europeans. Trade with China was always important but the Chinese themselves were relative latecomers and then, as merchant entrepreneurs not agents of a Chinese state. Only briefly, in the early Ming period, did China seek to play a political role in the region with the voyages of Zheng He, the admiral who in the 15th century took large fleets around southeast Asia.

China suggests that somehow the mercantile states of southeast Asia were subject to Beijing because from time to time they paid “tribute”. But tribute was about trading rights not overlordship. Chinese assumptions of political hegemony were based not on reality but on the assumption of Han superiority. This was a matter of blood line, not just of levels of science and culture.

Belief in the uniqueness of Chinese genes – and hence the widespread rejection of the “out of Africa” thesis of human descent – still has many adherents in China. President Xi Jinping himself claims Han people lack “the invasion gene”, blaming past aggression on Manchu and Mongol emperors. The people of Hong Kong are urged by Beijing to remember that blood and patriotism go together.

China's recent rise is accompanied by military might that naturally frightens the neighbours. The ageing nation now lacks the population pressure that impelled Han expansion during the Qing dynasty between the 17th and 20th centuries, into Manchu, Mongol and Turkic lands, and brought large Chinese minorities into southeast Asia.

So, if demography is history, China's lunge into the South China Sea and collision with 500m non-Chinese will probably fail. But for now it is important to understand that China's push to control this ocean is driven by more visceral factors than seafood and fuel.




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