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Protecting peace as a nation rises

Updated: 2016-07-29 08:02
By Giles Chance (China Daily Africa)

The South China Sea dispute is about defining terms on which China reemerges into the global community as a major power

In the early 1980s, Chinese reform policies set the country on a growth path. Onlookers then in the United States and Europe were interested to learn that China had changed direction.

But most never thought then that China could have a major impact on their own lives. However, after two decades of fast growth, the developed world, led by the US, had to consider how a fast-growing China could fit inside their shrinking world.

Protecting peace as a nation rises

The issue of China's global integration was brought into sharper focus by the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, as Chinese growth in 2009 and 2010 prevented the global economy from slipping into a depression.

The challenge posed by a fast-growing China to the established global order prompted a rethink of US foreign policy. Without specifically mentioning China as its target, the US announced a "pivot" to the East, away from its deep military and political engagement in the Middle East.

This expressed itself first by way of US military redeployment toward the eastern Pacific, and subsequently by a US-led broad Pacific trade agreement (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), which has been criticized for extending the power of large multinationals over the rights of individuals and signatory governments in matters like intellectual property.

Until the 2008 credit crisis, China tended to regard the US financial and economic system as an ideal to which it should aspire. The global financial crisis came therefore as a huge shock to China, changing the underlying preconceptions of its global view.

Protecting peace as a nation rises

Suddenly, the US global superpower appeared to have feet of clay. Chinese policymakers realized that while US economic, military and technological leadership would ensure its continuance as a superpower, it would be dangerous for China to rely completely on the US for its security in the Asia-Pacific region.

Moreover, should China not attempt to regain its long-held former position as the dominant power in the eastern Pacific? China decided to turn to its own resources in order to guarantee the East Asian regional security on which its own, the Asian and ultimately the global economic community depends, ignoring an invitation in 2012 to join the TPP while searching for its own alternative Asiawide trade agreement as a response.

In 2009, China asserted its rights in the United Nations to most of the South China Sea under the so-called dotted line, and followed this up in subsequent years by developing several islands and reefs in the middle of the South China Sea into landing strips and small military bases.

On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague decided to support the Philippines in its claim under the 1982 Law of the Sea against Chinese infringement of its boundaries in the South China Sea. China has refused to recognize the court's right to make decisions concerning its rights in the South China Sea.

China is not the first country to refuse such ruling.

In 1982 Nicaragua sued the United States in the International Court of Justice for mining its harbors. The US then claimed that the International Court of Justice had no authority to hear Nicaragua's case. This is the same argument that China uses today in the South China Sea case.

In 1982, the US vetoed, on several occasions, a motion brought against it in the UN Security Council to recognize the court's finding and pay damages to Nicaragua. The US ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, dismissed the International Court of Justice as a "semi-legal, semi-juridical, semi-political body, which nations sometimes accept and sometimes don't".

Protecting peace as a nation rises

The US, the only country with the means to challenge China in the South China Sea, has said it supports a peaceful resolution of the dispute in accordance with international law, but did not itself sign the Law of the Sea treaty in 1982, and does not recognize it. Meanwhile, China has signaled its determination not to stand down or give way over the South China Sea issue.

While the US position with respect to international courts and the Law of the Sea is unclear, there is no lack of clarity over the core issue. At its root, the South China Sea dispute is about defining the terms on which China reemerges into the global community as a major power.

Today, the US remains the world's policeman, so the issue really concerns the Sino-American relationship. Is the US going to go to war over the South China Sea? Almost certainly not. But the question that Americans are asking themselves is: "Will China stop at the South China Sea, or could it go further?"

It's not a coincidence that, as the US' senior general visited China to discuss military cooperation, the Chinese announced military exercises south of Hainan Island in the South China Sea. But it would be a serious mistake for the more aggressive elements in China's military to think that China could push the US in areas like the central and western Pacific, which the United States considers fundamental to its national security.

China's rise brings with it the promise of a more balanced, multilateral world, in which the US, with a military capability that can be brought to bear anywhere around the world, will continue to play a central and a very important role. But the reality is that the US will share more power and influence with China (and other countries) than it did before.

The South China Sea dispute marks an important stage in the transition from a US-dominated world to a multilateral one. This gradual transition, which will unfold over several decades, can occur peacefully and successfully only if all the parties involved, particularly the US and China, understand the process that is underway, communicate frequently with each other, and respect each other's core interests and "red lines".

Yet it is very difficult for every country to be fully understood or for its interests to be fully appreciated. Misunderstandings and miscalculations between countries will occur. Like the South China Sea episode today, these carry the risk of local standoffs becoming regional points of friction, with the threat of armed conflict in the background.

Globalization is an inevitable and unstoppable process, and so is the rise of China. Both these related trends have brought tremendous economic and cultural rewards to many millions of people around the world. But they also bring with them the dangers inherent in fundamental change to a new world order.

For the world to continue on an upward path, the major players must appreciate the process of which they are a part, conduct frequent consultations with each other, and encourage an environment of shared communication. There is an alternative scenario to continued peace and prosperity, but it hardly bears consideration.

The author is a visiting professor at Guanghua School of Management, Peking University. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 07/29/2016 page10)

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