Cops and Robbers (Again): Solving the South China Sea Dilemma

Chinese Shenyang J-15 fighter. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Garudtejas7

A fable about the future of the South China Sea.

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part story about the strategic situation, key dilemma and best solution in the South China Sea. For a better understanding of the second part, the reader is encouraged to read the first part, which lays out the situation and the problem in the region.

As promised, my friend and I met after the holidays to discuss the South China Sea issue. In our previous conversation, I used a fable to clarify the situation and the key problem in this region. We employed this language again when discussing how to solve the problem because it helped us to focus on the essential, remove distractions and minimize irrelevant attachments to real names.

“Did you find a solution to the dilemma?” I greeted my friend provocatively.

“Your story left me with more questions than answers,” he replied with his usual smile.

“Tell me your questions,” I said, curious.

“Is the robber really a robber?” my friend asked musingly. “He wants to live with the neighborhood’s residents as an extended family in which he is the uncle. If the policeman stopped patrolling the street, the robber might stop robbing.”

“The word ‘family’ suggests warmth, which sometimes translates into insulation from the law, but the word ‘uncle’ implies a hierarchy of unequal rights,” I said, tried to explain to him what “family” and “uncle” mean in the Asian context. “Most of the residents want equal rights and impartial laws, but the guy in the biggest house in the neighborhood wants to stand above the law with his ‘historical rights,’ and above the other residents as their uncle.”

Now it was my friend’s turn to turn curious: “How can he stand above the law and above the other residents?”

“By overwhelming force or money, firm resolve and serpentine tactics,” I answered. “One tactic is to give aid with no strings attached initially—but the strings would come later, as a consequence of the structural dependence. Another is to create new facts on the ground in ways that rig the landscape without triggering a large fight. And the occasional robbery is part of this strategy, too. He robs not only the policeman, but also other residents on the street.”

“But why does he want to be their uncle?” My friend’s curiosity did not appear to subside.

“He has a dream,” I explained. “He dreams of a future that resembles the glorious past of his own family. He calls it the ‘great rejuvenation’ of his family. In the past, his family stood above everyone else in the neighborhood, and they ruled the neighborhood not by law, but by a combination of overwhelming force and rituals that reinforced their roles as uncle and nieces or nephews.”

“Does everybody in his own family now share his dream?” my friend continued to interrogate.

“Of course not,” I responded. “But he wants everyone in the family to dream his dream, and those who have a different dream are powerless.”

“Can we empower those who have a different dream?” asked my friend.

“That’s as difficult as changing his dream.”

“But we can change his dream,” argued my friend, his eyes full of confidence.

“How?” I got excited.

“With the right incentives and disincentives, you can even change people’s dreams,” he declared with a smile. “But I need a little more information about the uncle.”

My friend inquired: “What does he want most, and what does he fear most?”

“Power,” I summed up quickly, then elaborated: “What he wants most is to stay in power, and what he fears most is the loss of power as head of the family.”

“How does this relate to his dream?” my friend continued his investigation.

“He relies on three key tools to hold on to power,” I answered. “He uses force to repress those who oppose his role. He also uses material benefits to buy the support of others. And the dream of rejuvenation creates a rallying point for his family members to endorse his leadership.” Pausing for a moment, I remarked: “What’s interesting is that force and material benefits are expensive to maintain, while the dream of rejuvenation is far cheaper, because it is aligned with psychology and rooted in culture and history.”

“Hmm, so his role as head of his family and his dream as boss of the neighborhood are inextricably intertwined,” noted my friend. Then he turned to a different matter: “What about the economy of the uncle’s house?”

“They have undergone a long period of high growth, which catapulted them to the second place in the world, second only to the policeman’s,” I answered. “According to the latest data, their annual income is more than a half the neighborhood’s total, and about 60 percent that of the policeman’s house.” (This is the neighborhood of the East and South China Seas.)

“How did they achieve this feat? What is their recipe?” asked my friend.

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