Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Monday, January 07, 2019

Did I speak too soon? 

USS George Washington

In my post on New Year's Eve, I said that I did not expect a major confrontation in the South China Sea. Now I read that Rear Admiral Lou Yuan, deputy head of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, has told an audience in Shenzhen that the ongoing disputes over the ownership of the East and South China Seas could be resolved by sinking two US super carriers. Did I speak too soon? I didn't know about this speech when I wrote that post, but it would not have affected what I said. It is not unusual for top military brass in China to issue these proclamations once in awhile. It doesn't happen often, and the timing does seem to be strategic. And it is not without permission from the party I'm sure. But once in awhile this bluster is allowed, and perhaps even planned. So it's not surprising at all. It's diplomatically unwise, I think, because it is obviously designed to create fear, and I think it more often generates ridicule. Nobody really believes that China is going to start sinking American aircraft carriers. The problem in the South China Sea is that the United States is traversing the area to assert the right of free passage in what is generally regarded as international waters, but which China considers its own sovereign territory.

But the problem with asserting a claim, is that you have to defend it, or it will not be respected. In recent years, China has developed a pattern of drawing lines that other countries do not respect, and then doing virtually nothing when those lines are crossed (such as with China's self-declared "air defense zone"). This gives the nations of the world cause to believe that China doesn't really believe that those waters belong to China, but is hoping that bluster will suffice to keep other nations from challenging China's claim. It isn't working.

So who is going to win this conflict? As to actual possession of the islands, China is winning, because China controls the islands, and other nations, while protesting, are not doing anything to take them away from China. As to international recognition of China's sovereignty over those waters, America is winning, because American planes and ships routinely traverse the area, and China, while complaining, really does nothing to prevent the Americans from treating the area as international waters. That's the state of things for the present. The recent threats by the Rear Admiral are an attempt to tip the balance. We've seen this before. Years ago, a Chinese general, in a statement to the international media, threatened to destroy 100 or 200 American cities.

Again, I am certain these outbursts are orchestrated. I don't say that the generals in question are given the exact words to say, but their outbursts are timed to produce an effect at a certain time when the powers that be believe that a threat is the appropriate diplomatic weapon. They should be listened to, but I am not inclined to take them too seriously.


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