Cops, Robbers and the South China Sea's New Normal

Chinese People's Liberation Army-Navy Jiangkai-class frigate Linyi alongside the Luhu-class destroyer Qingdao. Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

This is what happens when America leaves Asia.

Back in the neighborhood, the robber continued to build and arm his outposts and conduct the occasional robbery with impunity. Some people called what he did “unlawful construction and militarization” and “robbery,” but he said he had the right to do things that make him feel secure.

He treated the entire neighborhood as his own backyard. The residents had no other choice but to give in to him. Giving gifts and deference became their standard behavior in relations with him. Anybody who hurt his feelings would be punished ten times harder. He forbade people from calling him “robber”; he smiled when they called him “uncle.”

Some residents asked him to be the new policeman. He said, “I don’t want to be a policeman. That is a title from the colonial era. We’ve sent the policeman home. Our neighborhood is now free of foreign colonial masters. We’re our real masters now. Historically, we’re a family and I’m your uncle. We’ll live as a family and I’ll exercise the right and duty of an uncle.”

The policeman—the old policeman—continued to patrol the street. One day, when he was not on patrol, he was robbed again. But this time, the robber did not return the equipment to the policeman.

The policeman went home and brought back a big gun. Meanwhile, the robber, whom the neighborhood’s residents now called “uncle,” phoned the houses on the street and asked them to fulfill their duty as “nieces” and “nephews.”

When the policeman arrived, he saw a crowd of the residents protesting on the street. They shouted at him, “Get out of here. Your weapon is threatening the security of our neighborhood.”

“I’m not threatening you,” the policeman explained. “I want to get back my equipment, which was stolen by the guy from the big house.”

“Go talk to our uncle,” the residents said. “But you have to leave your weapons before entering our neighborhood.”

The policeman ignored the demand, waving his big gun and entered the street. He went to the house of the robber, but the door was closed. He turned to the checkpoints that the robber built on the street and looked into them, only to see big guns pointing at him. On the street, the residents yelled louder, asking the policeman to leave.

“If you are the policeman, what are you going to do?” I asked my friend.

“Good question,” he answered.

By now, my friend’s time was up; he had to go. So I could not tell him the third part of the story, which was about the solution to the problem above. But he said he would come back after the holidays, and in the meantime, he would also give some thought to the matter. He will also think about the solution to the problem, and will share his thoughts with me when we meet next time. So stay tuned.

Alexander L. Vuving is professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of his employers. He tweets @Alex_Vuving.

Image: Chinese People's Liberation Army-Navy Jiangkai-class frigate Linyi alongside the Luhu-class destroyer Qingdao. Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet