The Real Danger in the South China Sea is Repeating Assumptions Until They Become Truth
Recently, The Interpreter published another post warning readers of the dangers of China's intentions and actions in the South China Sea.
The piece argues that 'the real danger' is that 'China will take its notion of "sovereign rights" in the South China Sea too far, and that China's para-military forces will be employed to eject fishing vessels and other units of the littoral nations, probably starting with the Philippines'. The post also implies that it is almost inevitable that China will build 'yet another artificial island' and declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. The author concludes with a warning that if China gains dominion over the region, resentment will fester in other claimant nations, and peace will be lost. It cautions China to 'finesse its policies for the South China Sea with a sensitivity that has so far been absent from much that it has done'.
It is of course unarguably true that China has, among other things, been undertaking some fast-paced building activities in the region, has declared an ADIZ in the East China Sea and has said that an ADIZ in the South China Sea is not out of the question. It seems to be just clear common sense that what this adds up to is China's desire for regional pre-eminence.
What else, when you look at the facts, could it mean?
Let us for a moment remember that 'common sense' is not universal. It's not even necessarily shared between two people from within the same social group, let alone across vastly different cultures. Interpretation of what we think we see is not flawless; each individual has their own lens through which meaning is created. So let us just for a moment pause to ask what hard evidence we have — apart from our own interpretation of what we see — of China's intentions.
This is of course almost impossible; where would one turn for such evidence? The Global Times says one thing. The spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says another. The high profile academic something different. The retired army general something else again, and what we can gauge of public opinion is a whole other matter.
So, all that we can really conclude is that there are different views within China about what China wants to achieve, and how best to achieve it, and we on the outside cannot really know for sure.
Considerable debate exists around the extent to which actors behave independently or as part of a grand, directed strategy. No one, in fact, really knows. Xi Jinping no doubt has a pretty strong view of what he wants to achieve — the 'China Dream' — but the specifics of that vision are not universally agreed. Yes, Xi has consolidated a great deal of power, but its debatable whether he has been successful in owning and operating the entire system.
It is the very lack of certainty about what China wants that constitutes a large part of the concern over its activities. There have been a lot of calls for China to clarify its intentions.
Without this clarity, though, many analysts conclude that determining meaning from what we see is the only reliable method. From what we see, interpreted through our own understanding of how international geopolitics works, China's activities certainly look like it is trying to push the US out of the region to replace it as the predominant power. If that's the case, what does it matter what its motivations are? What difference does it make why it wants to be predominant? Is it relevant if Chinese notions of predominance are different from our own?
These issues are important when we are weighing up risks and when developing responses, if we want those responses to be effective in the long term. There is little point, in the long run, trying to quash the symptoms without addressing the cause.
As I have argued elsewhere, Chinese policy elites see the world and China's role in it differently from Western policymakers. Something as apparently obvious as 'predominance' is actually a very culturally nuanced concept. Can we safely assume it means to the Chinese exactly what it means to us? Even a fleeting study of Chinese language and culture will show how many variations there are to something that we think has a clear meaning.
Chinese Culture 101 teaches that Chinese people don't like to say 'no' to requests – but it doesn't mean there are things they can't or don't want to do. The term 'it's not convenient' doesn't mean 'it's not convenient', it means 'no', but many an over-enthusiastic foreigner has pushed ahead regardless, to everyone's frustration and embarrassment. These are of course simple examples, but what they indicate is that if there is space for misunderstanding and misinterpretation at the most mundane level, there is certainly a significant possibility for misunderstanding and misinterpretation in international geopolitics, with far more serious implications.
I do not mean to single this article for particular scrutiny; it is just one of many, largely from within the defence and security community in Australia and the US, that places the onus of responsibility for peace in the region at China's feet. The authors are of course well intentioned: in their line of business, being acutely sensitive to and highly anxious about the national interest is their bread and butter. But, like all of us, their background and position colours their perspective. As such, their analyses tend to rest on assumptions of what China is trying to achieve and why, or on a conviction that motivations don't actually matter when the reality is so clear. But the truth is, most of them, like the rest of us, actually do not know.