November 19th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY QUT discrimination case exposes Human Rights Commission failings

CANBERRA OBSERVED Triggs in the gun: loaded section 18C to get overhaul

EDITORIAL First Brexit, now Trump - it's the economy, stupid!

ANALYSIS What is possible to a Trump Whitehouse

MANUFACTURING Foreign ownership no sole reason for breakdown

ENVIRONMENT Billionaires bankroll U.S. anti-coal campaign

LIFE ISSUES Abortion trauma link to male suicides

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Commission's "Get Pell" campaign fails on facts

GENDER AND POLITICS Pronouns, ordinary folk, and the war over reality

NAVAL MILITARY HISTORY A WWII encounter that deserves remembrance

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China builds Great Wall in the South China Sea

MUSIC Dylan's Nobel prize causes song and dance

CINEMA Humanity within inhumanity: Hacksaw Ridge

BOOK REVIEW Bill is $500 billion and counting

BOOK REVIEW Arguments and facts: the man who remade Russia

POETRY Sunset at the Perth War Cemetery

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China builds Great Wall in the South China Sea

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, November 19, 2016

The landmass of Eurasia is dominated by two great powers, namely Russia and China. They are both continental powers and their maritime experience is limited.

Russia is largely confined to the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and ports in the Russian Far East, which are often iced in for a great part of the year. China, under the Ming and Ching Dynasties, restricted the use of naval power. The voyages of Admiral Cheng Ho in the early Ming Dynasty, though fruitful, were an aberration.


China’s foreign policy revolved around managing the “northern barbarians”. That is why Beijing was the capital of China – it was close to the northern border, from where intelligence could be gathered and raids launched against the northern tribes.

Who has not heard of the Great Wall of China? And who has not heard that it was to shelter China from the barbarians? But that was not its purpose. The Great Wall, which, incidentally, had many sections at various times, was intended to enclose territory and exclude the barbarians. The barbarians were horse people. They were extremely irate about losing their best pastureland to the Han Chinese. The Great Wall was a form of enclosure – build a wall, and turn it into Chinese territory and keep the horse soldiers out.

Brian Crosier, in his book, The Man Who Lost China (Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1976), sums up the coming of the foreigners – that is, Europeans – this way:

“In our age of jet travel and instant communications, it is not easy to grasp the cultural and psychological impact of their coming on the Chinese and their rulers. More than any other civilisation, China’s had developed in isolation. Desert, mountain and ocean shielded the Chinese from outside influences. They saw their vast country as the “centre of the world”, with barbarians and inferiors both beyond the natural borders and on the fringes of the areas where the Han Chinese lived. In this situation, the concept of international relations between equal and sovereign states did not apply. The Emperor condescended to receive tribute from the barbarians, and saw no need for further intercourse.”

The Man Who Lost China was Chiang Kai-shek, former President of the Republic of China. He came from a coastal province and was familiar with Western civilisation. He was also, at least nominally, a Christian. His wife, Soong Mai-ling, was the daughter of Charlie Soong, one of the richest men in China, who made his fortune selling vernacular Bibles to China’s believers.

Soong Mei-ling, or Madame Chiang, as she was often called, lived in three centuries, dying at the age of 106 in New York in 2003. Soong Mei-ling was invaluable to Chiang as his unofficial envoy to the West. She was educated in the United States and spoke native-speaker level English with a charming Southern accent.

The past several centuries of world history have been dominated by the maritime powers – first Britain, then the United States. The Royal Navy had acted as a global maritime police force for centuries. The Royal Navy relinquished this role to the United States Navy gradually. It did so without open conflict, which was without precedent.

Maritime powers are accustomed to dealing flexibly with issues of sovereignty, relying on rule-based behaviour. Admiralty Law is a separate and distinct body of law dealing with the law of the sea. Issues of sovereignty and liability are often not clear cut. They have to be resolved through arbitration and negotiation. The idea that you can draw a line around a large body of water and say that it is yours to exploit exclusively is alien to this arbitration system.

Where trade routes are concerned, agreements will be reached about rights of transit and so on, as in the Bosphorus. The Chinese do not think this way. Beijing has effectively built a Great Wall around the South China Sea, which it calls the “Nine-Dash Line”. This is simply contrary to maritime practice – it is applying to the ocean the methods of imperial expansion on land. This will not be acceptable to the international community, except perhaps Russia and a few minor powers in the pay of China. Moreover, it is clearly in contravention of UNCLOS – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China is the assertive and rising power. The United States is the incumbent power. If there is one thing the Chinese despise it is a “paper tiger”. The situation in the South China Sea is a zero-sum game. That is, there will be a winner and a loser. It is not a “win-win” game.

If the United States says: “Yes, this is serious, but it’s not worth going to war over”, they will have lost face and won the contempt of the Chinese. Eventually, the littoral powers will say: “We cannot rely on the United States; the Americans will not stand up to the Chinese.”

The fact that Beijing does not care at all about the internal affairs of their client states is also important in winning over the littoral states. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has approved the extra-judicial killing of hundreds of penny-ante drug dealers since he gained power, to which the United States has objected. Duterte is an unsavoury character but he appeals to the people of the Philippines for the same reason that Donald Trump appeals to a certain class of Americans – they see him as a strong leader who will tackle problems head on.

Shabu, as the Filipinos call amphetamines, has been a problem for years. Slums like Tondo in Manila are riddled with shabu. If vigilantes shot all the small-time shabu dealers in Tondo, there would be few people left alive. Beijing doesn’t care; America does, apparently – which is why Duterte is showing signs of leaning towards Beijing.

Duterte said recently that he was “sometime tempted to declare martial law” over drugs. This must concern the Philippines’ Western friends and allies, for whom the unfortunate Marcos dictatorship is a not-so-distant memory. Martial law is likely to short-circuit the Philippines’ brisk economic growth, as the Marcos dictatorship did. The drug situation is not much more than a straw man for Duterte, similar to his justification for similar policies in Davao City on southern Mindanao Island, where he was mayor for 22 years.

The U.S. Navy must be concerned that the reopening of the naval base at Subic Bay, about 100 kilometres north of Manila, will be jeopardised if Duterte begins cozying up to Beijing. In 1992, the Americans were ousted from Subic Bay, formerly one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world, to rid the Philippines of the “ugly Americans”. More likely, the Philippines’ Senate was bribed to terminate the U.S. lease on the base.

Subic Bay is the most important Allied naval base in Southeast Asia, and invaluable in countering Beijing’s strategy in the South China Sea. Of course, Obama is a lame-duck President but soon he will be out of the picture. Hillary Clinton, if elected, may be tougher on the Chinese.

Admiral Dennis Blair, speaking on Four Corners on Monday, October 3, 2016, indicated that the United States would take a tougher line in the South China Sea. Blair, a former director of National Intelligence, was also commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific region. He knows the Pacific intimately. Blair says that that the Chinese are very practical on most things.

Barack Obama, as U.S. President, does not seem to have firm foreign policy views as it affects Asia. His priorities have been mainly domestic. Imperfect though it is, his health-care insurance program, known as “Obamacare”, will cement his place in history.

His reluctance to put troops in harm’s way has made the U.S. look weak, especially in Syria. Now that relations between America and the Russians are at the lowest point since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fact that Russian military forces joined Chinese forces, especially the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, in exercises in the South China Sea, will not have gone unnoticed in Washington.

Admiral Blair made it clear on Four Corners that Washington expects Australia to play its part if push comes to shove in the South China Sea. But Canberra does not seem to be enthusiastic about making a premature choice between its predominant political ally and its most important trading partner.

The Darwin Harbour kerfuffle may be the first demonstration of a Machiavellian streak that Canberra has not shown in the past. Is it possible that the Darwin Harbour lease was deliberately sold to Chinese interests as an intentional signal to America that Canberra is keeping its options open? This stratagem of realpolitik would be most unusual for Canberra, which has throughout history glued itself as closely as possible to its main allies, whether Britain or the United States.

Of course, Canberra has rarely gained all it sought – supplicants rarely do – and the price has often been high. Remember the atom bomb tests at Maralinga and the Montebello Islands? And the fact that U.S. servicemen effectively enjoy a form of extraterritoriality wherever they are stationed?

It is not possible for the United States simply to avoid China’s militarisation of the South China Sea. The recent deployment of the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS Ronald Reagan and USS John C Stennis and the accompanying dual strike group indicates a hardening of U.S. attitudes towards the region. It is natural in any conflict, when asked, “who are you with?” to point to the biggest guy in the room and say, “I’m with him”. The United States is, for now, the biggest guy in the room and the littoral states know that.

As a maritime power, the Americans will be compelled to use naval power to enforce the law of the sea and retain free movement for trade transiting the South China Sea. The Americans are good at using naval power in pursuit of diplomatic ends.

The PLA Navy is no match for the U.S. Navy and will not be so for many years, but that does not mean that accidents can’t happen. Especially if your aim is to keep intruders out.

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