At the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, the defense ministers of France and the UK announced that their governments will send warships to join those of the US in challenging China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea (Naval Today, April 6). However, they did not specify how many ships the two European powers will commit to the US-led FNOPs (freedom of navigation operations) or whether they will sail within the 19-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ), suggesting that neither country wants to irk China.
But the ambiguous UK/French position does leave room for speculation: Were they “coerced” into the alliance since none of the Asian claimants – Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam – have shown any appetite for a military showdown with China. On the contrary, they joined the other Asean members in negotiating a proposed 2017 “code of conduct,” preferring dialogue over confrontation in addressing the issue (Reuters, February 6).
Japan and India appear to be equally hesitant to confront China; it is their largest trade partner after all. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, in fact, met twice with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss how the two nations can cooperate in the future (Bloomberg, May 26). Japan would also prefer to engage rather than confront China, sending officials to the “communist” giant and inviting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Japan to mend fences (Bloomberg, May 13).
Further, not everyone in Australia buys into Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s anti-China stance. His trade minister, Steven Ciobo, said in a June 6 Australia National Press Club interview (People’s Daily Online, June 11) that his country’s trade relationship with China is “deep and broad” and would not change. He also pointed to the possibility of Australia joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a direct refutation of his government’s present policy.
It could be argued that the US desperately needs to build an alliance by coercing its two allies in the bombing of Syria to help counter China’s rise
To that end, it could be argued that the US desperately needs to build an alliance by coercing its two allies in the bombing of Syria to help counter China’s rise.
Another probable reason might be that the UK and France wanted “stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with the US to contain China, much like the Eight Nation alliance suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in 1901 (David O’Conner, The Boxer Rebellion, London, Robert Hale & Company, 1973). The rebellion was led by a group of young rural dwellers who got tired of being treated like second-class citizens by Christian missionaries and European imperialists. On their way to Beijing to drive out the imperialists, they killed many missionaries and Chinese Christians whom they labeled “running dogs” (Moak and Lee, China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact, Palgrave McMillan, 2015).
Either way, the “triple alliance – the US, UK and France” might not be able to deter China’s claims in the South China Sea. Joining the US in mounting FNOPs in the strategically vital waterway could indeed put the UK/France’s economic and security interests at risk.
Joining US at odds with British/French interests
Joing the US on FNOPs in the South China Sea is at odds with the two European powers’ national interests in that they have been approaching China in an effort to reverse decades of economic stagnation. According to Trading Economics, a US-based research organization, France’s economy grew at an average annual rate of 0.7% from 1949 to 2018, while the UK’s expanded by only 0.6% between 1955 and 2018.
In the first quarter of 2018, both economies registered only 0.2% growth, according to the International Monetary Fund. High government and consumer debt coupled with rising protectionism and populism on both sides of the Atlantic preclude any improvement in the two countries’ economic woes.
The lack of relatively “cash-rich” and “robust markets” might explain why the leaders of the two countries made back-to-back visits to China in the early part of this year. The aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis are still felt in the developed economies, which are enjoying annual growth rates of less than 1% (World Bank). Trump’s “America First” policy is imposing tariffs on EU steel and aluminum. The US president is promising that more tariffs on EU products are coming, accusing his allies of “unfair” trade practices or “ripping” Americans off. Then there is Brexit, dimming UK export opportunities to the EU. The major developing economies – India, Brazil, Russia , etc – are either too “cash poor” to buy large amounts of exports and, in fact, are struggling to sustain economic viability.
British Prime Minister Theresa May traveled to China in late January, promoting trade and “soft power” items such as culture, education and climate change, and enshrining a “golden era” of Sino-British relations. During her visit, deals worth £9 billion (US$12 billion) were signed and a promise to negotiate a free trade agreement was made (The Guardian, February 2).
French President Emmanuel Macron visited China in the early part of January to forge closer economic relations, vowing to be the biggest supporter of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (Singapore Strait Times, January 10). Macron also pledged to bring back or improve EU-China relations, strained by allegations of technology theft (by China) and the increasingly warm Asian ties with Eastern and Central European nations.
Triple alliance might not be able to stop China
Further, today’s China is very different from that of late 19th and early 20th centuries during which the county was divided and weak, and therefore vulnerable to foreign invasion. With its development of advanced weapons technology, China could push back Western military adventurism. Indeed, the newly appointed US Ind0-Pacific Command chief, Admiral Philip Davidson, admitted that China is “capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US” (Asia Times, June 6). Because a US-China military conflict might lead to Armageddon, the probability of the US and China falling into the “Thucydides Trap” is zero.
China has never blocked any country from FNOP
Besides, China has not blocked any commercial or naval ships from plying the South China Sea. The Chinese military only chased away US warships that deliberately provoked China by advertising sailing within the 119-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of islands inside the Nine-Dash Line. For example, China never complained about the Canadian frigate sailing through the South China Sea in 2017, probably because Canada did not advertise the FNOP and the warship sailed outside the EEZ (National Post, July14, 2017).
Debate on China’s SCS claims
Whether China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are legitimate, however, depends on how one interprets history and perspective. Chinese seafarers have been plying the waters since the 1300s, if not earlier. The Nine-Dash Line was drawn by the pro-US Nationalist government in 1947 and is said to be based on records handed down by earlier dynasties.
Further, the current claimants – Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam – inherited the boundaries from their colonial masters, who annexed the territories when China was weak. It could therefore be argued that the legitimacy of these countries’ boundaries is questionable.
And as far as China is concerned, it is only reclaiming its “inheritance”. Since the “Nine Dash Line” was drawn by the previous Nationalist government based on historical records, it would be safe to assume that no future Chinese government would act differently.
UK and France lack military power to deter China
Further, the presence of British and French warships is unlikely to “scare” China in the South China Sea. Both countries laid bare their military weakness during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, forcing them to ask the US for military help (History.com). According to the news portal, instead of offering assistance, then president Dwight Eisenhower demanded that France and the UK leave Egypt.
Deng Xiaoping probably knew Britain had a well-trained military, but was insufficiently equipped. Britain would not have won the Falklands War without US help, which provided it with much-needed weapons and ammunition (London Evening Standard, April 4, 2012 and Washington Post, March 7, 1984).
Perhaps aware that Britain was militarily weak relative to China, then prime minister Margaret Thatcher (who probably had no choice) recommended that the British Parliament return Hong Kong to China in 1997 (The Quora). Britain did not want to give Hong Kong back to China. The former colony was a “cash cow” – taking the land and leasing it back to the owners was a very profitable enterprise.
France also had a military clash with China. In his book, China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950 – 1975, Chinese historian Qiang Zhai suggested that China played an important role in defeating the French (Wilson Center). According to Zhai, Vietnam might not have defeated France in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
“Militarizing” the South China Sea
In any event, China and the US are accusing each other of “coercion,” aggression,”or “militarizing” the South China Sea. Which country is right depends on whose side one is on. And which country history sides with will depend on who writes it.
But it is interesting to note that the US, establishing many military bases and frequently showing off its naval and air power in the South China Sea, is accusing China of “militarizing” the waterway.
France/UK joining FNOP might not be “coerced”
There is no reason to believe that France and UK are willingly joining the US FNOP because of economic and security risks. The two countries cannot expect China to be an economic partner and geopolitical competitor at the same time; it’s dishonest.
US Admiral Davidson is correct – kicking China out of the waterway requires a war, quite possibly a nuclear one. It is very unlikely that British or French (or the American) people would support such a war, particularly one fought on “fake news” like the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
Further, nations will always look after their national interests first. Alliances are largely based on common interests. For example, Japan requiring US protection against China.
China was a US ally while Japan was America’s enemy during World War II. Since both countries need each other more than Japan and have more common interests than differences, a US-China rapprochement might be in the offing.
What’s more, US President Donald Trump is not the first American president to have adopted the “America First” policy since the end of World War Two. It was the Truman administration that rejected the formation of the World Trade Organization and established the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) as an alternative. It was under the Kennedy administration that non-tariff barriers (i.e. national security) was included in the GATT framework, blocking imports that were deemed harmful to its economy (Ken Moak, Developed Economies and the Impact of Globalization, Springer Nature, 2017). The only major difference between Trump and his predecessors is he is “more honest.”
Taking the debate to its logical conclusion, France and the UK joining the US in challenging China in the South China Sea will not be a “game changer,” but may risk a nuclear holocaust. Those who cheer them on should be careful what they wish for.