Is the South Sea worth it?


China needs to pull back from the South China Sea and to push radical domestic reform. But is Xi Jinping willing to take this route? And can he muster the necessary political support?

The political and diplomatic atmosphere around China has been changing rapidly in recent weeks and months because of tensions in the South China Sea, with grave consequences for the balance of power in Asia and in the world. Perhaps there will also be internal repercussions for China, where traditionally external occurrences both trickle into domestic politics by starting new processes and are the result of domestic fissures.

China is becoming gradually more isolated and singled out in the region and in the world after its stern and fierce denial of the recent sentence from the International Tribunal of the Hague, which ruled in favor of the Philippines over some disputed islands in the South China Sea. Many other countries, especially great powers, ignored rulings from The Hague that they found inconvenient. But they mostly did it tacitly, without announcing it in the national and international press and di so by raising new and old points of international law. In sum, Beijing rebuffed the sentence in a very different manner, shouting as if it were a violation of its national rights and pride and thus fueling domestic nationalistic resentment against its wayward neighbors and the power (America) supporting them.
In fact for all practical purposes, if Beijing wanted, now or ever, to gain control of the South China Sea, it should either convince the other claimants to those islands to give them up or take them by force. Neither solution is viable at the moment and the recent ruling of the Hague court in favor of the Philippines basically stated the islands are not Chinese. Officially, in the international arena Beijing lost them. China is in a bind and very isolated, and its reaction made the situation worse.

Yes, China doesn’t recognize the sentence, as other countries did in similar circumstances, but because of China's position in the world and because of its history, China is now on very slippery ground, unlike other countries.

In China, the sentence has started a wave of emotions, rage, and soul searching. Some Chinese have directly blamed the evil forces always on the prowl against Chinese victims—an old xenophobic streak in the country dating back at least to the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. Some others have questioned the tactics used in this “vicious attack,” spearheaded by Manila—those Chinese commentators said—but supported by Tokyo and Washington (1). Some wanted to skirt the problem, proposing a way forward anyway (2); others yet wondered about the difference in approach to issues in China and abroad (3). Some officials even insinuated that the Philippines bribed its way to a positive outcome.

Out of China many are taking these reactions as some kind of infantile tantrums that have to be handled with firmness. It was possibly no accident that two American studies, coming from people working at the Pentagon raised the greater possibility of war (4): the political and military climate in the region is getting very tense. What is interesting especially in War with China is that none of the four scenarios of conflict with China considers the possibility of a Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD was for decades the benchmark of military strategy during the Cold War and what actually prevented the escalation into a full-blown war between USA and USSR, as this kind war with total destruction of both sides would have had no winners. Without the spectre of MAD, is an actual war with China far more likely than it was between the US and USSR?

From this one could develop multiple scenarios in which actually many countries would have a positive interest in a war around China, including the US and also China. Simply put, prospect of war (cold, soft, hot, or lukewarm) around China could provide an easy excuse for conservatives in China to close up, at least for a few years, and push off inconvenient reforms that could lead to the privatization of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and also a drastic democratization. This could help the Chinese internal political stabilization, as President Xi Jinping is meeting more resistance to his rule. After all, there is a long tradition of searching for external strawmen when things don't go well at home.

In the US, still lumbering from the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, growing tension with China could provide an easy argument to rise import duties on goods made in China, increase trade with reliable Asian countries, agree to new free trade agreements, and eventually possibly renege on all or part of US debts in China's hands, a few trillion. All this could help the US recovery, as its derivatives are hitting the market again and once more are destabilizing the whole financial atmosphere. After all, the US shed the effects of the 1929 financial crisis with World War II.

Moreover, many countries in the region, from Japan to Vietnam to India, may have a lot to gain in shackling and stopping China its tracks and fostering growing tensions in China – each with its own ambitions.
But without delving into developments that could easily lead to Armageddon, it is important to consider a basic question: what is China’s place vis-à-vis the rest of the world, led by America and the West? As many Chinese deny the validity of the Hague sentence, they de facto challenge and are challenged by the present principles of the international order, which is behind the court that issued the sentence. No other country, whether interested or not interested in the South China Sea dispute, is siding with China, and China is in all respects isolated from the rest of the world. This is a new kind of isolation possibly without precedent in China’s history. This alone could be quite ominous.

The reasons for this predicament are complicated and are born out of a “clash” of the histories of China and other parts of the world, and the different worldviews they created. China should look deeply into this rather than considering military political strategies (5), which assume that China is “culturally” and politically fully integrated in the world and in the region. This, as we shall see, it is not the case, and that is the point.
In many ways, the situation is reminiscent of an old cartoon by philosopher Zhao Tingyang, drawing the official idea of jie gui (connecting the rail tracks, i.e., to be an integral part of the international community or a full member of the world society) as two sets of tracks running towards each other, then missing the meeting and moving on, parallel to one another. This is a common feeling in Beijing, especially with people of my generation, in their 50s and 60s, who witnessed Deng’s policies of reform and opening up as young men and expected wonders, and who now feel shunned or insulted by the outside world they wanted to embrace 30 years ago.

Jie gui was not only the dream of many Chinese of my generation, but of others as well. Modern China, starting from the 1911 revolution, itself was born out of this idea. Sun Yat-sen, the father of both the Nationalist and Communist Party, was a Western-trained doctor who sought to modernize China. The Chinese became communist because they felt this ideology was the most advanced Western idea, the one to which the whole West was turning. It was a little bit like wanting to buy the latest gadget on the philosophy shelf, to be abreast of the latest developments in the West. In fact, in the 1930s and 1940s liberal and non-communist intellectuals, like playwright Lao She or philosopher Feng Youlan, turned to the Communist Party when the Nationalist Party tried to revive Confucianism. Liberals, such as Feng, thought Confucianism was the root of evil for China. Then, this anti-Confucian movement went so far during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as to try to physically destroy all ancient and foreign objects, along with the destruction of old China and Western influences. By the early 2000s, the revival of Confucianism could also be seen as a new opening up to the Western influences spurned in the Cultural Revolution.

Yet with the end of Maoism, China began losing an important mechanism in the way it thought about itself in relation to the rest of the world.

Pre-1911, China had an articulated worldview based on the idea of Tianxia, “all that is under Heaven.” This is not to say that the Chinese didn’t know about the rest of world. For example, they knew Buddha came from India, and in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, they even called India Zhong Guo (“the Central State”), which is the name the Chinese now use for “China,” because it was the land from which their central faith, Buddhism, originated. Sometime in the early 1600s, Matteo Ricci drew for Ming Emperor Wan Li a Western-style map showing for the first time in Beijing the people of the court how the West then saw the world and China’s position in it (6). But still until 1911 China retained the concept of Tianxia. Tianxia was not a belief rooted in physical reality, but rather it denoted all that actually mattered, with circles of importance next to it. This Chinese perception of itself was aided by China’s physical and political geography as it was surrounded by thinly populated, inhospitable steppes and high mountains from the northeast to the southwest – the closest routes to the rest of humanity. When combined, all of the countries with frequent dealings with China in the south and the east had a population and economy amounting to perhaps half of China’s. China’s clout in the region, its own world, the Tianxia, was so strong that many neighbors pledged allegiance and vassalage to China. India, separated by the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal, was already too far to be relevant.

When in the late 16th and 17th centuries rising Western powers (the Spanish in the Philippines, the Portuguese in Taiwan, the English in India, and the Russians in Siberia) started approaching China’s outskirts, the borders of its Tianxia, Ming China was busy coping with a dual challenge: a bandit revolt led by Li Zicheng and the encroaching ambitions of the Manchu. Moreover, as the Manchu, who were descending from the steppes beginning in the mid-17th century, were busy gaining full control of China, they offered a golden opportunity to the Russians and the English to reach the Manchu’s pristine homeland in Central and Northern Asia as it was left largely unguarded. Although the control of Siberia involved bitter wars with the Russians and Dzungar Mongols (who were eventually exterminated), the clear reasoning of the new Manchu dynasty then was to give in to Russia in poor Siberia in order to have the time and energy to solidify its hold on rich China’s heartland. The then ruling Manchu, by conquering China, were conquered by the Chinese weltanschauung, worldview: the world was the Tianxia; the rest didn’t really matter but had to be dealt with.

The necessity of fresh control of the new dynasty, plus the thriving new economy, which in the early 19th century ended up with some 70% of all the world's silver and a third to a half of the world GDP, plus centuries of precedents, all conjoined to minimize the pressure coming from a world that was no longer separated into different areas but rather was becoming more integrated.

Something very new and extraordinary had been happening in fact since the discovery of America in 1492 and the Turks' growing hold on the Mediterranean that began after the fall of the last rump of the Roman Empire in Constantinople in 1453. The Western discovery of America started a process of direct trade and integration with all regions of the world and Europe. Previously, different countries along the Eurasian trade route mediated trade and contacts. Persian, which originated in lands in the middle of the Eurasian Silk Road, was the official language in the Ottoman and Mongol courts. Eurasia, with its subcontinents, including Northern, Eastern, and Southern Europe; North Africa; the Greek and Arab world; Persia; India; Southeast Asia; and the Sino-sphere were largely all that mattered. In that segmented world, Sub-Saharan Africa was mostly cut off, or mediated by the Arab traders, and America simply didn’t exist.

The discovery of America did not just bring America to the fore with all its new gold and new plants, transforming the world economy and production; it amounted to the discovery of a method of maritime trade bringing a few dominant European powers direct access to all the world, unfettered by any middleman. The Turkish hold on the Mediterranean and the millennium old mediation of the Persians were smashed over a few centuries.

This took place thanks also to two very important elements: new growing military prowess and the new cultural-ideological pull of the European powers. The two went hand-in-hand. The mission of spreading culture and the Christian faith (the Catholic version when the Spanish or the French were on top, or the Protestant version when the Dutch or the English ruled) often came before and sometimes in contrast with the thunder of their new iron-cast cannons.

It was this culture, complex set of rules, and new vision of the world that through centuries of pervasive, typically uncoordinated efforts came to be accepted (not simply imposed) by the whole world. This culture had strength because it did not just impose the needs of one people over those of another people, but they claimed—and sometimes tried very honestly—to put the interests of the dominant country (Spain or England) in line with the interests of the world. In fact they went as far as to claim that the interests of the dominant power were the interests of the world. This happened by taking into account the interests of the ruled lands and people in a very complex way that varied and evolved over time and across different countries.

The effort was so successful that in 1911 China decided to voluntarily join in, after having tried for some 70 years, since the first Opium war in 1840, to resist it. The communist power since 1949 was the acceptance of the Western worldview, although it eschewed the Russian version of communism. China was part of a global vision for human liberation. It espoused so much of this vision that after Mao's rift with Moscow, he set off to start and support his own variance of global communism by financing small and large Maoist groups all over the world. Communism in theory didn’t simply put in line the interests of the world with those of one country, but promoted every people’s interests together. It did so by promoting at the top tier of its organization foreigners, those not born in Russia, which was the leading communist country. In practice the national interests of Russia were diverging from those of international communism. But the internationalist idea was there and it was almost mirrored by the US with the idea of democracy. China, to some extent, was also part of this vision.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution and the start of anti-Soviet cooperation with the US in the 1970s, China gave up its idea of exporting revolution and an ideological worldview, which was in contrast with Western visions. Beijing tried to seek its own self-interest, which had been neglected during Mao’s times of international fervor. It sought this newly found self interest while being shielded by its broad bond with the US on many international matters, which guaranteed China’s place in the world.

Since 2009 relations with the US have somewhat soured (7), ties with neighbors have become less than sweet (8), and in the meantime, Beijing has forgotten what it had perhaps not fully digested as an important lesson in its modernization: you need a vision of the world to put the interests of your country in line with those of the world. The issue of the South China Sea in a nutshell is about the will of China against the will of neighboring countries. This is something very common that is solved in basically two ways: either by force or by accepting/inventing and convincing others of some general rule. Force would be the end of China, for the simple reason that it would de facto be its force against the whole world, and the world is far bigger, richer, and more powerful than China.

Inventing and convincing others of a new general rule would be a very long and hard process that would create a situation similar to that of the US-USSR Cold War. Is Beijing ready for that? The fact that Beijing in many cases does not explain or pose its position in positive terms, but only in negative ones (e.g. against Western values, against foreign influence) leaves Beijing with only the option of accepting the generally accepted rules. Exceptions to this are Zheng Bijian's theories of Peaceful Rise and Community of Interests or Zhao Tingyang's Tianxia system. But they are mostly geared for domestic consumption, and even if meant for “export,” they do not have the systematic and voluntary efforts of millions of foreign followers and do not have centuries of stratification to back them up.

That point is what Sun Yat-sen and Zhao Tingyang saw: the necessity to jie gui with the rest of the world that was culturally and ideologically dominated by the West for the last 500 years. The Chinese in other words have to start understanding their interests along those lines and in a coherent way alongside the interests of other countries and of the world. This is what dominant powers in the West have done since the Greek and Roman times, and what they expanded on a global scale since the discovery of America. There has been foul play with this concept but not always.

Concretely if China wants to win in the South China Sea, it has to win over the world first, being liked and loved by all and not just feared. Everybody wants to be American and wants to be as successful as Americans—the ones who hate Americans are often the ones who tried and failed to win in America. This implies a total change of mindset to the one that worked for the 1911 and 1949 revolutions, only this time the situation is something very different.

Then, not all but many in the West and abroad were supportive of China joining the world. Now, almost everybody is scared of this growing giant lumbering around like an elephant in a China shop. By the day, there are thinning numbers of people who want to take a chance on China, take China by the hand, and help its evolution, and there is a growing number who believe that the giant must be put in some sort of cage or worse.

In Beijing, there seems to be a very blurred vision of the world further muddled by constant conspiracy theories where no one is a friend but everyone is an enemy under false pretenses. In this, Chinese project their super-conspiratorial internal politics abroad. China also fails to fully accept (9) that there really is only one “power” willing to help Beijing; that power is the Pope and his church. Driven by the salvation spirit, used sometimes in the past for the wrong ends, the Pope has said many times that he would like to visit China. This would be a great help for China’s position in the world as it could signal the beginning of a change of heart in Beijing; the church could help in the evolution of China, allowing China to fully join the world.

At the moment and in the foreseeable future, Beijing has nobody else willing to really help with its predicament; for China, going it alone in this gloomy world would be far tougher.

Now, despite the change of mood in the more conciliatory official rhetoric, calling for peace in South China Sea, (10) Beijing is confronting a stark warning. To that it can decide to radically change or change as little as possible. The temptation of dragging its feet can certainly be very strong, and this is the internal logic of any given bureaucracy. China is huge and full of problems, and any sudden movement may be very risky for its internal stability. However, doing as little as possible is also the wrong answer as it could make things worse eventually. The show of force of by the American Commodore Perry with Tokyo in 1854 led Japan to the massive reforms of the Meiji Restoration movement. China conversely, although “warned” by the challenge posed by Western powers earlier, in 1840 in the Opium War, chose to put off radical changes until it was too late to do anything. Is China now in a similar predicament? Certainly present China is much weaker than China two centuries ago, although now, unlike then, the Pope, now the major super soft power in the world, as he clearly said in the interview he gave this year (11), would be willing to be of some help. The two speeches given on August 27 by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin in Pordenone also confirm this interest.
Moreover, in the heart of the Western world, the UK may also be of help, as it showed great interest in collaborating closely with China by last year signing agreements wider in scope and latitude than with any other Western country. In short, China needs to pull back from the South China Sea where it has lost de facto everything (12) and may trigger dangerous fights with its neighbors. It also needs to push radical reform and privatization of the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) that are dragging down economic performance. It lastly needs to address the issue of some form of democratization, as China's opaque and unpredictable political system could be overlooked when China’s GDP was small, but it can’t be ignored any longer, as simply because of its size it creates immense political and economic uncertainty for other governments and large companies.

These changes are de facto made compulsory by a mix of internal necessities and external pressures. The ultra-nationalist streak in the Communist Party may and would probably balk at the prospect of caving to foreign “hegemonic pressures” suspected of being aimed at undermining China’s stability and party leadership and giving up precious territorial claims in the South China Sea. But in reality Mao Zedong, the sacred cow of the present opposition to compromise in these areas, gave up much more in the 1950s in order to get the fundamental political support of the USSR. It ceded to Moscow about 20% of its territory, formerly ruled by the Qing Empire and Nationalist Republic. Moreover, it accepted massive intervention in the internal organization of its political life and its economy, befitting the Soviet model.

Surely with hindsight this may look like a tactical bargain in order to gain some immediate help at a critical moment in China's history. This time it is bound to be far more than that because the goal is the eventual “jie gui” (connection) in a world that is Westernized.

Here two sets of problems stand out. First: we don’t know if Xi Jinping is willing to take this route. Second: even if he is willing to take it, can he muster the necessary political support to move China in this direction?

1. A great deal of literature came out in the past few days, and in the most influential outlets:,,
4. See Stuth Cevallos and Cristina L. Garafola. War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable. Rand Corporation, 2016. See also Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich. "Future Warfare in the Western Pacific and Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. Air Sea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia."
5. A series of articles on the subject were published for instance here:
6. See Ge Zhaoguang. Zhongguo Sixiang Shi. 2001.
7. See also
8. See
9. Although China officially accepted the point that America leads the world with vice premier Wang Yang’s statement last year (see ), in practice there has been little progress on that.
10. See for instance and
11. See
12. See
(29 Agosto 2016)


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