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Home > Blogs > Anthony Harrington > What does pushing and shoving in the South China sea mean to the global economy? Part One

What does pushing and shoving in the South China sea mean to the global economy? Part One

What does pushing and shoving in the South China sea mean to the global economy? Part One Anthony Harrington

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In a fascinating recent book, Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the end of a stable Pacific, Stratfor chief political analyst Robert Kaplan sets out his views on why China and its neighbors abutting the South China sea are getting so militaristic about that stretch of water, and what that might mean for the rest of us. The book formed the subject of a recent talk by Kaplan at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) and can be listened to online.

Kaplan's starting point, as in all his analyses, is the constraints imposed by geography on the choices that leaders and countries make. If you start with geographic facts, you immediately have two contradictory stories about China, he says. The first is that China is much bigger and better than it looks on the map. You have the Russian Far East, with a population of only around 7 million across a huge tract of land that is rich in minerals, timber, gold and uranium, abutting Chinese Manchuria and 100 million people in western China, who could pour across the Sino-Russian border and retake the land that had, after all, been part of China until the mid-nineteenth century. Add to this the fact that the Russian Far East has seen the population decline steadily to the point where the areas of interest probably hold less than four million people, and you have the ingredients for a serious conflict.

The other contradictory fact is that China is actually smaller than it looks on the map. Kaplan points out that the ethnic Han Chinese, who hold the dominant power positions in the Chinese state, live in the center of China and the east coast. The Mongolians hate them, the Turkuk Moslems hate them, and they live in the west where China's water predominantly lies, along with most of the country's mineral resources - all of which squeezes the Han into a much smaller space than the map of China suggests.

Kaplan points out that if the liberal democratic West had its way and China took up liberal democracy, the country would be under-sustained, and probably violent ethnic turbulence and would almost certainly fracture into a multiplicity of states. As well as keeping a lid on all this inherent fractiousness, the Chinese leadership also have to deal with the fallout from the slowing down of China's economy. That means more people out of work and fewer jobs, which equates to more trouble in China.

What do Chinese leaders do when things start getting out of hand? They dial up nationalism to give the people something to shout about. Where do you dial it up? The obvious place, in terms of China's geography, is the South and East China Seas. Kaplan points out that this is a natural basin that constrains all the countries that abut it. You have Vietnam in the west, the Philippines in the east, China in the north, Malaysia in the south west. China claims 80% of the South China Sea, but Vietnam and the others go according to the Law of the Sea Treaty, which says that what you can claim to be your territorial waters depends on where your coast lies.

The Vietnamese claim a 200 mile territorial limit out into the South China Sea. The Philippines claims the same from the other direction, and so on, and everyone's claim clashes with everyone else's. The reason the Chinese are sending so much naval power into the South China Sea, Kaplan says - and this is the unique insight he offers in his analysis (excluding his geographic-based exposition) - is that they learned a fundamental lesson from US history. This lesson, he argues, is that it was the ability to project naval power out into the Caribbean and to become the dominant power there, that led to the US maturing into a global superpower. Kaplan argues:

"The western hemisphere is divided into north of the Amazonian jungle and south of the Amazonian jungle. When the US gained control of the Gulf of Mexico it gained dominance over the western hemisphere."

What the Chinese want to do, hopefully without firing a shot, is to squeeze the US (and everyone else) out of the South China Sea, leaving it to be the dominant power there. This would at the same time give China a controlling access to the Indian Ocean, which would allow it to control global trade.

Part Two will look further at Kaplan's analysis.

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Further reading on China:

Tags: China , East China Sea , Foreign policy research institute , FPRI , Han Chinese , Mongolians , Philippines , Robert Kaplan , South China Sea , Stratfor , Taiwan
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