Frictions in the South China Sea: Chinese Strategic Mistakes

May 24, 2012

The USS Gridley pulls alongside a sealift command dry cargo ship in the South China Sea. US Navy photo

Indonesia and Japan will play pivotal roles in the further development of Asia as an economic block to counter China’s growing influence.

Beijing, presently, cannot contemplate or afford to allocate any resources in search of alternative forms of energy, which will have greater ramifications in the future.

Importantly, China’s economy is becoming overheated and too well integrated into the petrodollar system. The Sino economy is low-wage and labor intensive and Chinese revenues are heavily dependent on exports and Chinese reserves are predominantly a mix of the USD and US Treasury bonds.

To sustain itself as an economic entity, the People’s Republic will require more investments in alternative energy sources and less dependency on oil, who’s availability ebbs and flows.

Domestically, the demographic-migratory pressures are huge, regional demands are high, and expectations are brewing. Considering its best external energy dependency equalizer (and inner cohesion solidifier), China seems to be turning to a military upgrade rather than towards the resolute alternative energy/Green Tech investments – as it has no time, plan and resources to do both at once. Inattentive of a broader picture, Beijing (probably falsely) believes that lasting containment, especially in the South China Sea, is unbearable, and that – at the same time – fossil fuels are available (e.g., in Africa and the Gulf), and even cheaper with back up warships.

The forthcoming Chinese military buildup may create political-military isolation for China that would justify American military presence in Asia-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea.

Additionally, a Chinese buildup will affectively allow for the demonization of China in parts of influential Western media. The inevitable Chinese grab for fossil fuels and its competition for naval control is not a challenge but rather a boost for US-Asia-Pacific ties.

The US will exploit any regional territorial dispute and other frictions to its own security benefit, including the costs of sharing the military burden with local partners, to maintain a presence in the Asia-Pacific region, one that arches from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, Malacca and South China Sea up to northwest–central Pacific.

A real challenge is always to optimize the costs in meeting national strategic objectives. In this case, it would be advantageous for China to turn towards green technology, coupled with an attempt at Asian multilateralism. Without a grand rapprochement with Indonesia, India and Japan, there is no environment for China to seriously evolve and emerge as a formidable, lasting and trusted global leader.

Consequently, what China needs in Asia is not a naval race of 1908, but the Helsinki process of 1975.

Opting for either strategic choice will reverberate in the dynamic Asia–Pacific theatre.

Any eventual accelerated arms race in the Asia-Pacific theatre would only strengthen the hydrocarbon status quo. With its present configuration, it is hard to imagine that anybody can outplay the US in the petro-security, petro-financial and petro-military global playground in the following few decades.

Within the OECD/IEA grouping, or within the G-8 (the states with resources, infrastructure, tradition of and know-how to advance the fundamental technological breakthroughs), it is only Japan that may seriously consider a green/renewable-tech U-turn.

Tokyo’s external energy dependencies are stark and long lasting. After the recent nuclear trauma, Japan will need a few years to (psychologically and economically) absorb the shock – but it will learn a lesson.

For such a huge formidable economy and considerable demographic, situated on a small land-mass which is repeatedly brutalized by devastating natural catastrophes, it might be that a decisive shift towards green energy is the only way to survive, revive, and eventually to emancipate.

After the recent Fukushima disaster, as well as witnessing the current Chinese military/naval noise, Japan will inevitably rethink and revisit its energy policy, as well as the composition of its primary energy mix.

Tokyo is well aware that Asian geostrategic myopias are strong and lasting, as many Asian states are either locked up in their narrow regionalisms or/and entrenched in their economic egoisms.

Finally, Japan is the only Asian country that has clearly learned from its own modern history, about the limits of hard power projection and the strong repulsive forces that come in aftermath from the neighbors.

Their own pre-modern and modern history does not offer a similar experience to other two Asian heavyweights, China and India.

That indicates the Far East as a probable zone of the Green-tech excellence and a place of attraction for many Asians in the decade to come.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Post comment as twitter logo facebook logo
Sort: Newest | Oldest