I have said, several times, that I do not regard China’s actions in Asia, including in the South China Sea, as a real threat to peace. I see those actions as bullying, plain and simple. I believe that Canada should help its Asian friends (Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam) stand up to Chinese bullying ~ and I suspect that China will not punish us for that … lots of finger wagging, to be sure, but no loss of trade.
But the reaction in the USA is quite different. There, we see a steady stream of articles about the “Great Wall of Sand” (referring to the artificial islands) and the “Great Wall of Confrontation,” and so on, and they all worry about the same thing: in the words of the Wall Street Journal, in the linked article, “How should China conduct its relations with the world?” The answer, from a uniquely American perspective, is that China “should” acquiesce to American hegemony in China’s home region, East Asia; the Monroe Doctrine, you see, applies only to others; but China has its own version of the Monroe Doctrine and some scholars see it as a threat that will provoke America into a war it cannot win.
So, there is a Chinese threat: it is to American power.
How America chooses to respond may be a bigger threat to peace than is the Chinese bullying it is meant, in some circles, to counter.
For some Americans, especially for some admirals and generals in the pentagon and some politicians and businessmen tied into the “military-industrial complex,” China is a much needed “near peer” enemy that can be used to justify more bombers and more aircraft carriers and more divisions and more wondrous new weapon systems. In truth, China is a rising military power: approaching great power status. History, at least as I read it, and as Roger Cohen says in the New York Times article (linked above), “is not rich in” examples of one great power giving way gracefullyto another … look, just for example, at Russia (which, arguably, was never a truly “great” power) but which still strives to be a regional hegemon in Eastern Europe. America likes being a global hegemon and some Americans ~ not all, to be sure ~ are unwilling to concede that China might “deserve” or have earned the right to have its own “sphere of influence” in its own region.
The first question we ought to address is the nature of the American power that is being threatened. I would argue that, broadly and generally, for 150 years, it has been a force for good in the world ~ not universally good, just broadly and generally used for good. Sometimes American power has been badly used and misused in the pursuit of misguided American policies, but when it has been misused Americans, themselves, have tried to correct the errors. Power, itself is neither good nor bad: Roman power, Arab power, British power and American power were neutral, despite occasional very good and very bad instances of the use of that power in pursuit of specific policies. Some other have, recently, echoed an old Russian line that American policies are, generally, bad; I reject that line; America is not, universally, ‘good’ or ‘right’ but it is, usually, as it has been, more often than not, a responsible, peace-seeking great power, one of the very few, in history, not, like Russia, for example, a power seeker just for the sake of power.
I do not see China as an imperialist power.
My sense is the second issue we need to address is that China wants (demands?) respect. I think it wants the same kinds of respect that America and even Germany are accorded and, above all, it wants recognition that it, not America or Japan, America’s client, is the great power in East Asia. It, almost literally, wants all the foreigners (老外 or 鬼佬 ) to kowtow to the Chinese paramount leader. Our correct response is to echo Lord Macartney (1793) and treat China with all the respect it is due ~ and that’s rather a lot ~ but without obsequiousness.
My third issue is for Canada, specifically, and the correct response to the Chinese threat to American power means using our good offices in the region to treat fairly and respectfully with China ~ we should, over certain American objections, join Australia, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom in the Chinese sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, we should, also, and soon, pursue a free trade agreement with China. At the same time we should move to help our friends in the region by supporting them when they try to resist Chinese bullying. I would put another rock vs. hard place problem in front of Prime Minister Trudeau: he should abandon his silly goal of securing a second class, powerless seat on the United Nations Security Council by going after wasteful, inefficient and ineffective baby-blue beret style UN peacekeeping missions and he should send:
- One large army battle group to Eastern Europe ~ probably for about five, perhaps even ten years, reinforced with CF-18s, but, see below, possibly coincidental with a withdrawal of naval forces on Operation Reassurance; and
- On very regular rotation, at least annually, one or two Canadian warships to work with friends in the region, especially the Philippines, to assert everyone’s right to freedom of navigation and commerce in the SouthChina Sea.
Both would be real peacekeeping, not the nonsense the UN tries and normally fails to do, because both would aim to keep peace where the prospects of conflict are real or growing. It is both unfair and unwise to ask the United States, alone, to affirm and assert our collective right to freedom of navigation in the South China Seas, because:
- It makes the issue a conflict between two major powers rather than the matter of international principle that it should be; and
- It leaves the US military unconstrained by the views of allies and we might suspect that some US commanders and some Chinese commanders would not mind trading shots … which would be the wrong strategic course for both.
Neither Chinese bullying of its neighbours nor Chinese efforts to control the South China Seas are, in and of themselves, threats to peace, but a Sino-American confrontation that could escalate quickly might be. A multinational effort to guarantee freedom of navigation might be enough to calm the waters, in every sense of the word.