China’s Neighborhood Bullying Increases

If anyone had any doubts about China’s aggressive attitudes towards its neighbors, they should be swept away by the Hainan provincial government’s demand that foreign fishing vessels must get its permission to fish in the waters of the South China Sea, which it claims are part of China. China’s ramping up of the Daioyu/Senkaku islets issue and declaration of a huge air defense zone near Japan and South Korea must be seen as part of a broader nationalist policy and increased focus on military preparedness under President Xi Jinping. (For sure, Japan’s Premier Shinzo Abe hasn’t made things easier with his provocative visit to the Yasakuni shrine, but the threat to regional peace now goes far beyond China-Japan issues.) It is unclear so far whether Xi is using these issues to build support at home while he tries to push through genuine economic reforms that require taking on powerful vested interests within the party and state, or whether he sees himself as a forceful national leader building his reputation as a hero by treating neighbors as if they were tributary states. Already he has moved to enhance his own role at the expense of Premier Li Keqiang in a way that suggests he sees himself more as an autocrat with personal authority than the head of a collective leadership in the style of his predecessor Hu Jintao. As a province, Hainan, which Beijing uses to “govern” the South China Sea, has no standing internationally so its claim really means nothing and will doubtless be ignored. Hainan’s claims cannot exist other than as part of a defined national claim. But clearly this was yet another Beijing move to threaten its neighbors and will probably be followed up with the periodic seizure of Vietnamese and Philippine fishing vessels or stealing their catch. It amounts to another move to gradually enforce China’s claims to almost the whole South China Sea as indicated by the nine-dashed line on official Chinese maps. That claim is completely at odds both with the history of the sea and of the peoples who live on its shores – most of whom are not Chinese and never were. But the claim plays to racist assumptions at the heart of Chinese culture – that the “outer barbarians” who are their neighbors are inferior people who owe tribute to the emperor in Beijing. The tribute system was largely seen by so-called tributary states as a necessary payment to be allowed to trade with China. Naturally they paid if required because the states of the region were mostly sea-going, trade-oriented states who also acted as intermediaries in trade between China and states from India westward. The leaders of China who assumed that the nation was superior to all others could thus wallow in the illusion that these barbarians were actually their vassals. The US and Japan and their smaller allies are sufficient to keep China from controlling shipping in the sea and fully enforce the ownership claim. But they are unlikely to stop the gradual encroachment on the waters of all the littoral states, with fishing boats being the most vulnerable to harassment. Beijing’s current ruler seems to believe that China’s economic power gives it the right to revive the tributary idea and make it reality rather than fanciful illusion. Some in China may think that it has a potential Fifth Column in the ethnic-Chinese owned enterprises that dominate so much commerce in the region. For sure, some of those tycoons seem more concerned with buying goodwill on the mainland than investing in their home countries. Some potentially threatened states hide their heads in the sand – Malaysia, for instance, is very vulnerable to the next stage of China’s advance after Vietnam and the Philippines but politicians more concerned with money than national interest cozy up to a China whose claim also covers huge areas of Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Indonesia too is apparently more concerned to play diplomat than lead Southeast Asia in a concerted response. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations will always be inadequate because some of its members have no direct stake in the sea question – though all are vulnerable to tributary assumptions or border claims based on the bogus “history” now being used in the South China Sea.