Page 2 of 2 Hardened features of a soft war
By Francesco Sisci
The possibility of renouncing the claim is particularly sensitive for China.
The map with the dotted line was handed down to the People's Republic
government by the fleeing Nationalist forces in 1947. For many years, Beijing
had no capability to enforce the claim, which then simply reinforced that of
the Taiwan-based Nationalist government. During the Vietnam War, the Chinese
claim helped to keep at bay the US forces trying to pressure North Vietnam,
which was allied with China. When China sided with the Americans and even went
to war with Vietnam, Beijing's claim became convenient for the US as a further
tool to press Vietnam, then a Soviet ally in Asia. A military clash between
China and Vietnam on the disputed islands in 1988, when US and China ties were
still good, was brushed away by the international press. Things started
unfolding for Beijing in the South China Sea
only in the 1990s, when the simultaneous economic growth of China and its
neighbors pushed them all to the sea. But, as we saw, the growing tension was
put off for one more decade.
This present tension is different and extremely irksome for Beijing. It's not
just the obvious interest in the oil and gas below the South China Sea and the
interest in stretching its hands into sea lanes vital for transportation to
Japan or Korea. The possibility of giving up even part of the South China Sea
opens the government to internal criticism: Beijing is getting weak, it is
unable to stand up to foreign pressure, it is giving up precious territory, and
in sum, it is a renegade government and it can be challenged by people in the
streets or in the corridors of the central government. The Chinese political
system currently is also cornered because it has little latitude to counter
nationalist attacks, which could engulf the fiery public opinion. The defense
of the national interests, embedded in the easy mechanical drawing of a map, is
part of the legitimacy of the Communist Party's power, as it gained that power
because it claimed to defend Chinese interests better from invading foreign
forces (then the Japanese) than its competitors (then the Nationalists of the
Kuomintang, or KMT).
The redefinition of this old nationalist claim on those sea lanes could be a
very long and controversial process, if ever undertaken, and definitely it
would look like surrender if done in the heat of the controversy about the
South China Sea. State councilor Dai Bingguo indicated a change of mindset on
November 22 when he said that a solution in that sea should make all neighbors
However, this dispute cannot be turned into a second Taiwan issue for Beijing.
Taiwan is already a very thorny question in the hands of the US. To affirm that
the South China Sea is as crucial would multiply the pawns in other people's
hands and, by extension, it would heat up tension in the sea spaces around the
Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are similarly contested with Japan.
Moreover, the South China Sea is objectively different from Taiwan. That island
is inhabited by the Han people (the majority ethnic group in China), who speak
Mandarin, and it is ruled by a government claiming until recently to be more
Chinese than Beijing's government. If Beijing were to give up its claim to the
island, it would be harder to explain why it still rules such regions as Tibet
or Xinjiang, with local non-Han populations.
Yet the South China Sea remains very delicate as ultra-nationalists in China
still resent Mao Zedong's vast territorial concessions to the country's
neighbors and in particular to the USSR. There are still voices arguing that
these territories should be reclaimed. Beijing has no intention of reclaiming
them, but giving up existing claims could give more fuel to the people eager to
redraw all borders.
To China it seems clear, but perhaps outside of China it is not clear at all,
that Beijing would be in a very difficult position if it were to intervene in
the situation. To Beijing then, the real point of the US raising this issue
seems to be to set a trap whose only real goal is to put China under pressure.
From the perspective of some Asian neighbors, China's attitude during the past
decade was worrisome, as it stepped on their interests and only considered the
US. In a decade or so, China could grow even stronger and more difficult to
deal with. Therefore it must be pressed on this now, also as a reminder that
the neighbors will defend their turf against China's growth and will not just
be swallowed, like many times in history, by China's overwhelming presence.
This is an economic and geopolitical issue. Yet Obama decided to cast aside
geopolitical concerns and concentrate on ideological issues of human rights, as
we saw in Australia. The new approach outlines the contours of a new cold war
around China. The enemy in this case would not be the Chinese people but the
Chinese government. China's policy is not decided, but preparations and
soldiers are being arrayed. If China does not give in to political reforms and
cuts military expenditures, soon enough everything could be ready around China
to turn the screw of political pressure further, while the international
situation, both political and economic, is not good for anybody.
Politically, the wave of Jasmine Revolution sweeping through the Middle East
looks like a dire warning for the Chinese elite. Economically, the gloomy
prospects for 2012 could crush many Chinese export-oriented factories, creating
unemployment in formerly booming towns. Both elements could combine to stir up
turmoil among the less fortunate in crucial industrial areas far from the
capital and its leaders.
The warning is similar to those that were blared to Libyan leader Muammar
Gaddafi and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad: Reform or be toppled. Assad has
decided so far not to trust the US and to fight the revolution mounting in his
country. Chinese leaders, diffident of US intentions, may act similarly, but
certainly taking down the Chinese leaders could be a much longer and harder
endeavor than taking down Gaddafi. But the US did it with the USSR, so why not
with Beijing? After all, the Cold War was the one thing the US proved to be
Moreover, the US concerns can be easily sold to the American public. The United
States has an open political system; China does not. Beijing could take
advantage of America's openness to infiltrate and influence the US political
decision-making process, while Washington cannot do the same with the Chinese
system. In fact, China, because of its tight controls over media and culture,
proved unable to influence the American public, and thus its soft power has
little grasp over that country. Conversely, despite Beijing's political
restrictions, the US media and culture have far more clout in China. Therefore,
Beijing may fear that if it were to give in to US demands, Washington could de
facto take over China's political command and control system. Therefore, there
are risks for the Chinese leadership both in resisting and giving in to the US.
However, risks - as in all wars, soft or hard as they may be - are not just
one-sided. A conflict between the US and China raises the typical prospect of a
Three Kingdoms strategy, the one exemplified in the famous strategic novel The
Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This was the strategy devised by Mao that brought
the Chinese Communist Party to power. As the Japanese started the invasion of
China in 1937, Mao tried to gain leverage between the two main competitors,
Japan and the KMT.
Similarly now, as the US and China prepare for confrontation, a third or fourth
competitor could trump both in a decade or two. The list of growing and
ambitious states is not short.  Without any specific order, one can see
India, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Turkey and Indonesia, besides the
old flames eager to get a second shot, such as Russia or Japan - and that's
ruling out the possibility that Europe could manage its long-awaited political
merger and surge back as a dominant economic and political power.
Yet again here the US has long experience while China has none. The US managed
to kill decades of enmity between France and Germany, which had fought three
massive wars from 1870 to 1945, after World War II, lining up both countries
against the common ideological threat of the USSR. For that purpose, the US
pushed first for greater unity in Western Europe from the 1950s to 1980s, and
then for an eastward expansion of the European Union to solidify the
territorial loss of Moscow in Europe after the collapse of the USSR. In the
same fashion, the US could push for greater political unity in Europe, if it
could align the EU against "communist China". The same could happen with
Russia, India or Indonesia - even Iran or North Korea - if Washington were to
perceive the threat coming from Beijing as growing and very real.
China at the moment cannot do the same. It does not have similar experience.
China, in fact, has no recent or ancient experience in equal alliances -
despite US-underscored leadership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,
Washington has great experience in taking on a very measured, transparent, and
respectful attitude toward its allies - and China's tradition is only in
feudal, unequal ties, where minor countries bow to China's superior power.
To face these challenges, China has possibly one year, the time it will take to
usher in the next group of leaders who will be promoted in the Party Congress
next autumn. They will have to decide what to do with the US, and their own
country. Massive reforms are needed on many fronts, and possibly even a great
change in mindset. Without them a combination of interests in the US and in
Asia could take on the Chinese leadership and a new form of "soft war" could
1. Remarks by President Barack Obama to the Australian Parliament on November
17, 2011: "Meanwhile, the United States will continue our effort to build a
cooperative relationship with China. All of our nations - Australia, the United
States - all of our nations have a profound interest in the rise of a peaceful
and prosperous China. That's why the United States welcomes it. We've seen that
China can be a partner from reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula to
preventing proliferation. And we'll seek more opportunities for cooperation
with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote
understanding and avoid miscalculation. We will do this, even as we continue to
speak candidly to Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms
and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people."