Few saw it coming. In the words of The Economist, it was "hot oil on troubled waters", as an international crisis over a naval standoff between Beijing and Hanoi in the South China Sea swiftly transformed into large-scale riots against Chinese interests in Vietnam, precipitating the exodus of thousands of Chinese citizens in the country. Foreign Policy went a bit further, suggesting the possibility of a domestic political upheaval in Vietnam, as authorities in Hanoi struggled to contain crowds and prevent the massive destruction visited upon multi-billion-dollar investments from Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea. Latest reports suggest China has been amassing troops near its border with Vietnam for any possible contingency.
Other experts, in turn, announced the dawn of a new era in China's foreign policy, with Beijing seemingly caring little about freedom of navigation in adjacent waters as well as existing regional agreements on conflict-resolution, namely the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), which, among other things, explicitly discourages the use and threat of force and bars any construction activity on disputed maritime features. Despite being a party to the DoC and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China, in recent days, has brazenly admitted that it has been constructing facilities on the Johnson Reef, a South China Sea feature that falls well within the Philippines' EEZ.
By aggressively taking on weaker claimant states in the Western Pacific, in absence of any meaningful provocation, China has announced its intention to re-design the Pacific order in its own image. With the demise of communist ideology, China has come to rely on popular nationalism to foster internal unity and enhance the legitimacy of the ruling communist party. More recently, amid a difficult period of economic transition and a large-scale anti-corruption crackdown, the internal makeup as well as external outlook of China is undergoing transformation. For the Chinese leadership, looking tough in the near abroad is a domestic political imperative, while the Chinese military has been successfully translating the country's economic wealth into military muscle.
Emotions are running high across the region, and even the perennially over-polite Association of Southeast Asian Countries (ASEAN) can't hide its panic over the simmering conflict in the region. Anti-China protests in Vietnam and the Philippines somehow mirror anti-Japanese protests in China in recent years. A right-wing government in Japan, in turn, is skilfully working around age-old constitutional restrictions to allow the participation of Japanese Self Defense Forces (SDF) in combat operations abroad, especially in the adjacent waters. Ultra-nationalist Japanese leaders, meanwhile, have openly denied the historical crimes of Imperial Japan, sparking outrage across East Asia.
There seems to be shrinking room for compromise. Given the centrality of Asia to the world economy, the U.S. has little choice but to pro-actively mediate among conflicting parties. The Obama administration has been mostly focused on increasing the U.S.' strategic footprint in Asia, with the emphasis on market access and new military bases. But there is a great need for more creative diplomatic interventions. Otherwise, not only the "Pivot to Asia" (P2A), but also the international liberal order could fall into disarray.
The Ideological Regression
During his recent visit to Asia, Obama quite dismissively described ongoing territorial tensions in the South China Sea as "disputes on a few rocks" that should be resolved through dialogue and mutual respect. What he didn't mention was how countries across East Asia, primarily China, Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines, have tied their national honor and political legitimacy to defending a chain of maritime features below which could reside one of the world's richest hydrocarbon reserves.
The great German Philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) saw how extended periods of peace tend to inspire complacency and apathy among peoples, as individuals take the existing political order for granted in a relentless pursuit of particularistic interests. Inter-state diplomacy becomes an extension of domestic narrow interests. Soon, conflicts -- arising from the absence of diplomatic creativity and political conviction -- become the only way for rekindling age-old commitments to more universalist notions of community and nationhood. As the First World War demonstrates, the shift from economic interdependence to total war could be abrupt and devastating.
After a long period of peace in Asia, which underpinned an unprecedented expansion in intra-regional economic interdependence, old ideologies such as Communism have lost their appeal. Democracy, in turn, is largely translated as a ritualistic exercise of voting for a collection of identical leaders with no discernible vision. The only common variable among Asian countries is Capitalism. There is neither a genuine appreciation of Marxism, nor is there much excitement over democratic politics. And the gains of the past few decades -- from the democratic transitions in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia, to the astronomical rise in intra-regional trade -- are under threat.
Amid an ideological vacuum in Asia, popular nationalism has gained traction among the masses as well as the political leaders. More and more countries are beginning to shift their attention to traditional notions of territorial integrity and historic rights -- rekindling old-fashioned debates on the ownership of international waterways.
Globalization and Fragmentation
In an era of performance-based legitimization, especially for authoritarian countries, neither communist Vietnam nor communist China can afford major disruptions to their economic trajectory lest they risk untold social backlash. Unlike the earlier Newly Industrialized Countries (NIC), namely South Korea and Taiwan, the new tiger economies of Asia have largely relied on Foreign Direct Investment and supply-chain trade to turbo-charge their economies. Domestic political stability and regional peace is a foundation of the existing economic order.
Also, an explosive increase in wages has forced many Chinese companies to outsource their production to cheaper destinations in Southeast Asia, with Vietnam and Indonesia featuring among the most desirable locations. In economic terms, Vietnam and China are increasingly complementary. But after three decades of almost uninterrupted regional economic integration, precipitated by globalization and massive intra-regional investment and trade flows, East Asia is inching closer to its own "1914 moment". Earlier this year, important figures warned against the grim prospects of inter-state confrontation and regional conflagration amid an unprecedented period of popular nationalism across Asia.
"This year marks the centenary of World War I. Britain and Germany were highly (inter)dependent economically. They were the largest trade partners (to each other), but the war did break out," exclaimed Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos. "What I would call a military encounter between Japan and China would deal great damage to both countries. Its regional and global impact would be extremely large."
Missing in Action
Historically, the U.S. has tried to justify its imperial ambitions by emphasizing its contributions to the spread of democracy and capitalism across the world.
In the mid-19th century, it forced Japan to open up to international trade, triggering a massive re-engineering of a once-secluded island nation into an industrial powerhouse. In early-20th century, the U.S. oversaw the modernization of the Philippines, transforming the archipelagic colony into Southeast Asia's leading nation. After the Second World War, the U.S. facilitated not only the reconstruction of Europe and Japan, but also the rise of new economic powers such as Taiwan and South Korea. By the 1970s, the Nixon administration gradually guided communist China towards economic opening, eventually precipitating one of history's greatest capitalist success stories.
It goes without saying that one shouldn't overlook Washington's brutal military interventions in Asia, ranging from the silencing of the Philippine Revolution to the nuclear attack against Imperial Japan and the anti-communist proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam. Nevertheless, many in Washington have proudly paraded America's supposed contribution to the eventual emergence of Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines as modern, capitalist democracies. Moreover, for many Asian countries, including Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the U.S. remains to be seen as an anchor of stability in the region, rather than a menacing imperial power. This is precisely why the Obama administration's P2A policy has been welcomed by most East Asian countries, with the notable exception of North Korea and China.
The U.S.' claims to leadership in the region, however, have too narrowly focused on economic and military affairs. With the emergence of popular nationalism across Asia, it is high time that the Obama administrations, and its successors, stop dismissing the ongoing territorial disputes as a petty squabble over a bunch of uninhabitable rocks.
Observing the bloody Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece, Thucydides correctly observed how wars are not only about interests and fear, but they are also about honor. And precisely for this reason, the U.S. should pay greater attention to (public and private) diplomacy, playing a more pro-active role in calming nationalist passions across the region, calling upon allies to refrain from provocative action and rhetoric, and more decisively pushing back against China's territorial assertiveness in the Western Pacific by preserving freedom of navigation in international waters.
Otherwise, disputes over seemingly worthless rocks could turn into a global crisis.