The South China Sea: An Inside Story

**This is provided to Jamestown subscribers to share the private views of a member of The Jamestown Foundation’s Board of Directors. This is not an official Jamestown publication and the views contained herein may not reflect the views of the Foundation.**

This is not titled “the” inside story because anyone who deals regularly and often unusually candidly with highly informed and well-connected Chinese, as I do, quickly discovers that sotto voce “inside stories” of impeccable provenance regularly contradict one another. This account, connects internal politics to foreign policy, for they are nearly always linked in China. So I present it, with caveats—ANW

The dangerous crisis in the seas around China has its origins 47 years ago, when on the morning of March 22, 1969, the PLA attacked an isolated Soviet garrison on the contested island called Damansky or Zhenbao dao (珍宝岛), for reasons still unknown, killing perhaps 80 or so unprepared Russian troops. Help arrived quickly however: this author was in Siberia at the time, his train side-tracked, as hundreds upon hundreds of flatcars carrying Soviet tanks, many muddy, south. Perhaps ten times as many Chinese were then killed the next day, while conflict continued off and on all summer.

That was the summer too when Mao’s victory in the Cultural Revolution was made formal by his apotheosis at the ninth party congress, which began on April 1. That Mao, his attention focused on this return to power, would have authored this military folly is difficult to believe. Someone did, however—and I am told it is possible to get the PLA into action with the approval of supreme authorities. The Soviets took it very seriously indeed: over the next few months, China’s borders from west of Mongolia to just north of Korea were garrisoned by the Red Army: a mortal threat.

Chinese Generals were terrified as they knew the PLA could be smashed and the regime deposed quite easily by Moscow. They needed to do something. One choice was to patch things up with Moscow, who were after all communists albeit heretic and well known and familiar to the Chinese. The other was to seek alignment with the equally ideologically odious United States, about which China had very little knowledge and experience since 1950. A group of PLA generals hashed it out, concluding “no substitute for the USA.” Mao approved. This incidentally opened the way for the Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy, of which the shared Soviet threat was the only real glue.

Many of us recall the jubilation at China’s reemergence seemingly as a friend. Kissinger considered the new relationship “permanent” and envisioned a “new world order” emerging. The Chinese were more tactical. They made no speeches about close friendship, cooperation, etc. They just needed a counterweight. The Soviets, not surprisingly, became more tractable.

The decades that followed, however, were never the strategic honeymoon Washington had planned. China and the United States exchanged intelligence, traded, sent tourists, sniped about Taiwan, and until 1990, the United States was secretly building modern fighter jets for China, which seemed to some Americans almost a NATO ally, under the “Peace Pearl” Program.

From the Party’s viewpoint, the domestic situation deteriorated with the American connection.  The decade of the 1980s was by far the most liberal between 1949 and the present. Almost inevitably, this culminated in the largest democracy demonstrations in human history in 1989. The demonstrations paralyzed more than 250 Chinese cities. They were put down unnecessarily with savage brutality. Again, this author saw this, and outside Beijing. In Christmas 1991 the unthinkable happened: the red flag with hammer and sickle was lowered for the last time from over the Kremlin. The USSR was over. Many had thought it had been an irreversible step toward a new society. No: it was simply an immense mistake that failed from its own defects. Liberal thought and writing and teaching continued in China, though, to a degree previously inconceivable to the ruling party.

So a decision was made to reverse the 1969 decision to align with the United States, A tactical decision based on domestic needs. How one turns 180 degrees remains to be seen, but China has twice done so: after 1950 against the West, and after 1958 against the Soviets. They needed us tactically until 1991 to offset the USSR. Now that is not necessary; all we seem to bring is trouble, so time for a drastic mid-course correction.

Under Hu Jintao the propaganda slogans began to change. They became more aggressive. The bit Deng had insisted on, about never breaking with the United States, dropped out. During this period a master-plan to put things back under control was outlined. The party would be restored to absolute supreme leadership. It would be strengthened, disciplined, and inserted even more deeply into society. Coercion would be expanded to include thugs called chengguan (城管) “city officials” who regularly beat to death innocent and often elderly people. “Black jails” were created to which the unwanted could be “disappeared” or where they could “be suicided”—the black humor of Stalinist Russian was adopted in China. Marxism was elevated and identified by Xi Jinping as—of all things—the essence of redness (this the discredited theory of a German intellectual, descendant of rabbis, having no knowledge of China now became that country’s official national definition!).

Recently we have seen a demonstration commemorating the Korean War (1950–1953) which Beijing long presented as a defense against an American invasion up Korea and down Manchuria into China. In the last few decades that story was supplanted by the simple truth. Then a memorial service was held in Beijing in May, in which the old narrative was clearly being brushed off. A film series was released. Anti-American propaganda began to surface (Sina, June 6). In just the last few days, an anti-religious campaign has begun, vilifying a French saint as an instigator of an eighteenth century war, while all offerings and tithes in (government run) churches were decreed to belong to the government. This was all quite strikingly crude in its execution (AFP, July 10; OneNewsNow, July 10). The Chinese are after all better educated than ever before in their history.

The climax of this Party restoration, according to sources, was going to be a triumphant annexation of the South China Sea and islands, a stroke so bold and dramatic that onlookers would be stunned, unable to comprehend or react. One can only understand this decision by postulating that some Chinese officials felt their immense military was now so full of wei (威) or “awesomeness” that no one let alone the Filipinos (their first target) would do anything other than protest perhaps symbolically.

That has not happened. A devastating court ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration has declared China’s actions illegal, while her neighbors are rendered permanently distrustful while  rapidly arming, soon be more than her equal with South Korea and Japan, one predicts, being forced to develop nuclear weapons. Seeking to burnish the reputation and power of the party, the Chinese leaders are entering a sort of Le Brea Tar Pit of indecisive but prolonged fighting, steady escalation, and nothing good for her, or for her adversaries.

Ironically the court decision has provided a perfect exit for China. Beijing could have announced “As members of the law of the sea we abide by the rulings of its tribunals, though we deplore and condemn this decision.” Esteem of China’s statesmanship would have soared. She would have been buried in bouquets from all directions. To abide, moreover, she could have begun liquidating the pointless annexation of the South China Sea—after all, already an international waterway open to China—dismantling her new structures, and so forth, demonstrating a high degree of respect for law as well as wisdom—for the war now brewing will be a quagmire that may stagnate destructively for year—but that could easily escalate hideously.

If the finding is not used, as signals indicate, the only viable, albeit humiliating solution for China now is to turn around, slow the operational tempo to zero, stop talking about the islands and the sea, and gradually remove her installations to status quo ante. Otherwise she and Asia and perhaps the world will be drawn into an indecisive dangerous quagmire. As for us, a much harder reaction than ever before is the only way to stop the combustion. Will the party that had the intelligence to produce the plan just outlined also have the true wisdom to abandon it before it bursts, catastrophically, into flame? Sadly, one doubts.

Arthur Waldron is a member of the Jamestown Foundation’s board and Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania

**This is provided to Jamestown subscribers to share the private views of a member of The Jamestown Foundation’s Board of Directors. This is not an official Jamestown publication and the views contained herein may not reflect the views of the Foundation.**