Time: 6:00-7:00 pm, 27 June 2018
Venue: Millbank Tower
Speakers: Humphrey Hawksley, Bill Hayton, Dr Euan Graham, James Rogers
Good evening. It’s a very fine evening as well. I’d like to welcome you all to this panel discussion that is going to look at maritime geopolitics in the broader Asia-Pacific and we are joined here tonight with three experts in this field. The first of which is the man whose book is in front, Humphrey Hawksley who is an award winning reporter and best-selling author and whose work for the BBC has taken him all over the world with postings in Beijing, Colombo, Deli, Hong Kong, and Manila. He is the author of the acclaimed history series exploring world conflict and this was nominated for Royal Services Institute annual literature prize. He has several television documentaries under its belt including the Curse of Gold and Bittersweet which examines human rights abuses in global trade. Aid under scrutiny which looks at International development and Danger: Democracy at Risk which looks at the danger of bringing western style democracy too quickly to some societies. We are also joined tonight by Bill Hayton who is the associate fellow at the Asia Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of two books himself the South China Sea the struggle for power in Asia and also Vietnam Rising Dragon. Bill has worked for BBC since 1998 and currently works for BBC World News in London. He is also a fellow at the Royal Geographical Society. Finally, all the way from Sydney in Australia, although he came a few weeks ago, is the director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Dr Euan Graham. He has been a close observer of East Asia Security effects for more than twenty years in academia, the private sector, and also government. He has also worked for the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore where he was in Singapore and he also worked for the Foreign Commonwealth Office.
We’ll kick off with Humphrey who will outline the thesis of his book, he has some slides here and then we’ll move along the table at the end we should have some time for questions and general discussion. So thank you.
Thank you and thank you all for coming here I wanted to kick off with the cover there is a little story behind it. I’m assuming there is a general knowledge about the South China Sea issue here and there is a different cover in America to this but there is a struggle over the Asia-Pacific and Chinese Expansion. The American one reads over the South China Sea and strategy for Chinese expansion. The reason for the change is that a couple of weeks ago I got a call from the publisher who said they had a problem with title. He said the sales team in South East Asia will not want to sell a book with South China Sea in the title. I said it’s everywhere, it’s what we all use, it’s official language. It doesn’t matter if they don’t want to sell it they are not going to sell it and we got to do something about it. So then I said why don’t we make it to Indo-Pacific that is fashionable. He said that may be alright for you guys in academia, not that I am, nobody knows what the hell that is. So then we settled for Asia-Pacific which is essentially what it is. In effect it is a better title in a way because although this was commissioned about two years ago when the South China Sea was reasonably confined the expansion and the knowledge of China has grown since then. This runs from the base of Djabiouti right through the Pacific and Hawaii and beyond.
In there is basically five trigger points. There is India-China border, where there is still a long running dispute. There is Japan-China where there remain hostilities. There is the Korean Peninsula which a lot has been done about lately. There is the China-Taiwan issue and there is now the South China Sea issue. Now four of those are old problems dating back to the second world war or before that. The South China Sea is a new problem and I think each of them are equally dangerous, but when you have a new problem.
When there are new strategic frontiers opening up you have an added danger. You have the South China Sea which this is the nine-dash line which is more than nine-dashes in that line. They also call it the cows tongue because of its shape and it follows the contours of South East Asia. You have four points that I’ve identified, the Spratly Islands are the most famous where you have seven new military bases built by China basically around 2012. They’ve taken these reefs and rocks and have turned them into small military bases in the South China Sea. Above that you have Scarborough Shoal where they pushed away the Philippine fisherman for a bit, then they cut a deal with Duterte and let them back. Although this side the Philippines is an economic exclusion zone it is under control of the Chinese Coast Guard. Across from there you have the Paracel Islands which is disputed between China and Vietnam, it is halfway between China and Vietnam. It’s interesting China has taken that twice, it took one half in 1956 relatively peacefully the other in 1974 where there was loss of life. The dates are interesting because in 1956 Vietnam was preoccupied with Nguyen Van Thieu throwing out the French. Vietnam was about to go to war with the North that was going on, you had attention elsewhere in 1974 Vietnam was about to fall to the North. China has shown it attacks its opponents when it’s the weakest and it did take another scrap in 1988 when it suffered a huge loss of Vietnamese life and that was when it was focussed on its withdrawal from Cambodia. At the top you have Dongshar Island which is run by the Taiwanese. If you look at it strategically you have the Spratlys and the Dongshar, if China had Dongshar island it would have a very good strategic run of shipping going through there.
That’s the main island I visited there, that’s me visiting there in a Taiwanese plane and that’s me standing on the runaway, basically that’s all there was a runaway, explaining Asia to an audience in about two minutes which is all you get on the television thing. Whilst researching this book I talked to dozens of Chinese officials and one conversation I remember particularly is and one question I get commonly is: why are you so interested in the South China Sea? Why are you being so nasty to us about the South China Sea? I got into this thing about International Law and that sort of thing.
One conversation started rolling because we knew this was a circular conversation I said well as a journalist we go after big guys that beat up the small guys and what you’ve been doing is beating up the fisherman. This was a Vietnamese fisherman that I met for Vangour in 2014 he was up in the Paracel Islands and we was hauled from his boat by the Chinese Coast Guard, he was beaten up with his fishing gear and he was thrown back on his fishing boat where he was rammed where he towed back to his island. The South China Sea issue which is coming more and more into the fore has been going on for years. In 1959 the Australian Joint Intelligence Community warned about it. In 1995 the structure that appeared on Mischief Reef which was in the Spratly Islands the Philippines claimed territory. Then it would describe the shelters for fishermen. Not much going on in Mischief Reef until now five years later, you’ve got the whole cocktail of the military base there. Now this is 2017, just over a year ago, the year before that an International Court found the China was acting illegally in the South China Sea and it put down its ruling citing International Law and the rules based order. Nothing happened, Beijing kept building its base it kept installing its radars it kept building missiles and flying in bombers and all the rest. In essence is sorry we’ll take it all out and start again. That gives us a conundrum. Our conundrum is what to do about it. The key point about the South China Sea is that if they do what happened here, what could they do in the Indian Ocean? What is it going to do in the Arctic? What about the Mediterranean where it has ports in Greece and in Italy? What about the Atlantic where we have seen it was stopped at the last minute from buying a disused American naval base and it was stopped strictly under military grounds? What can a Western or any government do using the South China Sea as a precedent? So this is it building up again, these are the bombers on Woody Island, this is way after the Court hearing things just keep happening there. That’s my fisherman heading out to sea again in the Paracels.
Essentially what’s unfolding around these rocks and reefs is a demarcation line, I think, is what is known as this rules based system, this Western dominated world order. This is a testing ground that China has thrown out to see how much it can test the resolve of the other side with Trump, the EU, and Brexit we are not sure where the other side lines. What ripples out from here is likely to impact all of our lives and in Asia Waters what I’ve tried to do is link up history what has happened in Taiwan in 1958 is connected with India in 1962 is linked with the Korean Peninsula in 1953 and in 2018 and how all that is connected with Japan’s modern rise in the 1930s and how much that mirrors China’s rise today and how all these comparisons are likely to unfold. With that I will hand that back to you James.
Thank you I’ll hand it over to your neighbour.
Thanks so much when I started to write I wanted to have a sort of thought experiment is to talk about a country with over a billion people that has nuclear weapons, missiles that can reach Europe, aircraft carrier, unresolved border dispute, and how little attention we give to India. How you can take two states India and China. What is it about China that makes us so alarmed when only ten days ago India revealed it had a missile that can transfer a nuclear payload 5,000 miles and hit Europe didn’t even make didn’t even make Western press because we don’t regard India the same way we regard China. What is it about China that makes us alarmed?
Is it the Leninist political system that appears opaque to us? We don’t understand how it works and therefore it appears threatening. Is that the only thing or is it that the territorial agenda is that it’s going to keep on driving? Is it beyond that, is it an existential threat that we kind of see China and the way it’s trying to oppose its views through the censorship of other countries through Confucius institutes and particular ways of talking about China and so forth. We actually perceive it as a threat to our own freedoms in our own countries. I think there are bits of all of that really and there has been a fascinating episode in Australia. I don’t know if Euan has been able to keep up with this with all the mud locking on the River Thames the last couple of weeks. Australian program 60 minutes did a piece about Belt and Road. The Chinese embassy rang up and harangued them saying how dare they be critical of Belt and Road. The call was recorded and has emerged into daylight. This sense of how China is emerging as a threat to freedom of speech and independence and so forth. I think there is a bit of all of that in there. I think it is this sort of monolithic way of looking at the world. There is only one way to look at the road there is only one way to look at the South China Sea is the problem because my own research in recent years has been looking at the history of the territorial claims.
I can show quite categorically this claimed emerged between 1907 and 1947 its no older than that. It emerged haphazardly, the claim to the Spratly Islands in particular is the result of translation in 1933 compounded by a cartographical error in 1936. As late as 1945, ’46 the Chinese government was still arguing over whether it was going to claim the Spratly Islands. We have the minutes now that prove this, so we can show the Chinese claim is partial, haphazard, illogical and yet more than a billion to be absolutely true and a large portion of them are willing to die to defend a piece of nonsense. What does the rest of the world do when confronting something so illogical? Is there actually a rational way through dialogue that one can talk somebody out of this position? Or does one assume the only language they understand is that of physical deterrence and pushback. I have no illusions that the United States is going to ask or force China to abandon the seven new bases that China has built in the Spratly Islands. It’s originally occupied those in 1988 sixth of them and the seventh as Humphrey said was in ‘94 and ‘95. It’s been there a very long time and these bases are not new acquisitions in the territorial sense, but they are obviously massive increases in capacity. As Humphrey showed us earlier these were huts on stilts.
It seems to me in terms of where one could go from here if all of the various claimants were appeared to accept the status quo in terms of a territorial claim and then talk about cooperation on the basis of the law of the sea and so forth from there, that would be a perfectly reasonable way to resolve the situations. However, none of the states are willing to resolve confident that the other’s territorial agenda is finished. This is true about Vietnam and the Philippines and they have no reason to go to war with one another over these reefs and they can’t seem to recognize among themselves and recognize the others holdings even though there is a greater threat out there. From thousands of miles away, why don’t the Vietnamese and Philippines do a deal where they both recognize the others claims and occupation, extend that to Malaysia and potentially Brunei and present a United South-eastern front this visa vi China. They can’t organize that because they feel domestic publics would not accept that. So you have this complex dispute, and I would be confidence that I don’t feel China’s territorial agenda is finished in the South China Sea given the chance I think it would occupy every rock and reef it possibly could.
The Philippine marines in 1999 the Philippines rammed a ship onto a reef to stop it from occupying it. The same five or six marines living on this rusting hulk and the Chinese would surround them and try to starve them out. If they had actually given up and gone up I think it would have taken about 30 minutes for China to occupy the Shoal. I think this conflict continues but I don’t see there is any strategic or economic benefit to be gained from anybody occupying any more features. The Chinese have huge bases, the Vietnamese occupy more than half the features in the Spratly islands, the Philippines don’t know what to do with the nine or ten that they have. There is no strategic reason to occupy anymore and yet everybody fears that that is what is going to happen. That combined with the problems with the spaces in between the islands, the oil and gas reserves and the fish, is what is driving it. I can see a logical way out of the mess, but I can’t see anybody taking that route.
Dr Euan Graham:
Thanks James, thanks to the Henry Jackson Society for the invitation. Congratulations to Humphrey on his book, I commend you for it. I have a journeyman’s perspective on the South China Sea that follows a career that has progressively migrated to where my current position is in Sydney. As you can tell from the accent from these aisles. I was in Singapore for four years and saw it there which is frontage on the South China Sea. I have been concentrating on the South China Sea more at the Institute more recently. You do notice your perspective changes according to the location. There are as many South China stories as many as countries within it. Not just the claimants, but part of the reason you’re here today. What does it mean for the UK? What does it mean for the global order? I think Humphrey has nailed it in that although it’s important as a location for trade and as a source of fish and also as a source of energy. All of these things combined give it strategic importance.
Fundamentally why do we get exercised about the South China Sea? Is really about the precedent that it sets. What really is at stake here is China strategic ambitions and how it handles countries that are either directly neighbours or in its path. The nature of neighbourhood is a fungible concept in the South China Sea shows. It’s China’s strategic position has demonstrably altered in the last few years. Those bases may look small, but you could fit Pearl harbour in the features of the bases have been built. They have created runways and the other four. The counterargument is in a high end conflict they would be extremely vulnerable; I think that is a fair point. Nonetheless I think China’s strategy is not about high end conflict where this being settled. It’s China’s ability to push the threshold below the armed conflict that changes the status quo. It changes that status quo in a psychological fence in terms of a physical fence by forcing smaller countries to cleave to a China-centric view of the region. That certainly I think is the fear and a lot of the evidence in recent years and I think a lot of the evidence fits that. China makes much fewer bones about strategic and territorial ambitions even more than it did in 2010 when all of this started and it started becoming an issue on the international agenda.
I think China has taken off the gloves and in some ways I think it can afford to do that although there is a clench fist in one hand, the other hand holds a lot of collateral. The future of Asia is inseparable from China, I think it’s that confidence and I think it’s that overconfidence I think China has is the unsettling issue. On paper it’s a territorial dispute between four countries, three if you discount Brunei since it doesn’t occupy any of those features. But really at call it’s about a test case of how China behaves in an unsettled maritime frontier and how it will treat the smaller countries around it. And whether South East Asia falls in line with China’s strategically ordered region and future what does that mean for the Indian Ocean? What does it mean for the South Pacific where China is also becoming increasingly present and certain?
That’s the rub of it and Humphrey is entirely on point there, but it’s not just about China and Southeast Asia. The strategic whether in Asia is set between these two great powers and I’m often asked the question: how likely is war in the South China Sea? It’s the wrong question the right question is: what kind of peace are we likely to have to live with? The biggest decider of that is the US-China relationship. And if the question about South China Sea is ultimately about China’s strategic ambitions and how it will treat smaller nations around it. The United States, it’s a question about its commitment to the security of the region which includes several allies Japan and Australia. And also that the to what extent the United States would ultimately be prepared to put its credibility on the line: would it fight for the South China Sea? China has had success in recent years to exploit this gap between what the United States says, that it upholds freedom of navigation, but yet in Scarborough Shoal the status quo has shifted at detriment of the US ally the Philippines so credibility was damaged there. The bases that China has developed have artificially developed have not been reversed. There is no prospect of them being reserved, that status quo has managed to reverse. If the United States in a high-end conflict, that’s the wrong way to approach it from China’s point of view having all those assets literally staring down the barrel of much smaller and much less ably equipped South East Asia countries it may not have to fight.
The intimidation and coercion and the coercive diplomacy backed by shows of force, below the threshold of armed conflict may be enough to flip South East Asia in the direction that China wants. Very briefly as I set in Australia I should a little bit about the Australian view of the South China Sea. It is an issue that has been very policy debate and has been very exercised about it. The chief question is what should Australia do to support the United States because those are the key questions that are asked. How come you haven’t done freedom of navigation patrols like the United States? Why hasn’t Australia stepped up to the plate and backed up the US as it has in Afghanistan and Iraq? That has exposed an uncomfortable gap between an alliance on paper that is described as a hundred-year alliance and as inseparable. And yet Australia also calculates the strategic risk from such demonstrates is rather uncomfortable. Much more uncomfortable as in sending helicopters to Afghanistan and Iraq where the strategic costs are much lower. So we also see these much greater question I think at play, much in a sense that is out of proportion of the small scraps of land at best. The picture is unfortunately rather pessimistic one who those that value the rules based order and those that uphold the international law of the sea because that credibility is continuing to be eroded and it’s very difficult for their allies to reverse that because fundamentally I think the Obama administration was in an uncomfortable place not wanting to take on its relationship with China. For the Trump administration we see on the one hand a much spikier relationship with China, but on the other hand every is up for grabs, everything is transactional. If China supports US policy with North Korea okay, we maybe won’t put that much pressure on you in the South China Sea. It makes allies in the region more uncomfortable that uncertainty is coming to a focal point in Australia recently. I’ll be interested in the questions you have and I’ll hand it back to you James.
Thank you for those three very interesting introductions and overviews of the situations. Maybe I could start off by asking a question. That is, you said a moment ago in your first presentation; you said what happens in the South China Sea is likely to affects all of us and it already potentially is? If that is the case is the South China Sea becoming, if you go back into the early 20th century [inaudible] one of the major geostrategic thinkers at the time said what happens in Eastern Europe is going to define the 20th Century a bit late years later an American geostrategic theorist said what happened in the rim land, the region from Europe and the Middle East would define what happened in the next century. Are we living in a new world order and what happens in the South China Sea is going to define the geopolitics of the entire world order and the extent that China has gained hold in that region? Has China won are we now living in a new world order that is defined by China and not by the maritime power of the US and its allies in Europe.
Yes, and I hadn’t thought about it like that, but I yes there is some story I can tell that perhaps illustrates your point. You very much focus on the South China Sea and this reef and that reef. In order to divide the ASEAN ten-member group. China worked very hard to win over Cambodia and China works very hard to bankroll Cambodia. Four years ago when ASEAN was going to put out a unified statement to balance what China was doing, Cambodia refused to sign it so there was no unified statement. Let’s put that on the South China Sea the new look on the Belt and Road Initiative and China in 2012, which was a pivotal year because you had Xi Jinping come to power you had the recession, the financial crisis and all that. China had set up fifteen plus one and it looked at sixteen of the poorer European countries, some inside the EU and some outside of the EU, and it set up a trade alliance with them with the headquarters based in Beijing. The Belt and Road Initiative had sort of been announced but it wasn’t a big thing. Money poured into places like that and now we have Viktor Orban in Hungary openly saying he is in favour of illiberal democracy. This is a sort of authoritarian thing that is against the founding values of the EU. That wasn’t cause by China, but it was helped by China. He said that if the EU doesn’t give us the money we will get help from China. You could all say that is rhetoric and that’s fine, but then last year Hungary refused to sign an EU document condemning the detention of Chinese lawyers in China. Greece another participant, not a member of the sixteen plus one, but to join as it were. Greece refused to put its signature on, the EU decided to put a universal signature on human rights to the UN vice council about human rights abuses in China. You are beginning to get a pattern here. I’m sure if we had people that realized what China was doing in Africa there would be similar patterns. What has happened in the South China Sea is given it the confidence to do that because it knows it’s pushes its boundaries as much as it can. This morning I was with the European network and we were talking specifically about China in Europe and how China has moved in to fill up three hundred billion dollars of stuff because of the recession China has put in the rest of it. It is moving into places that have got, that are weak, that have got vacuums like Europe and US have got at the moment. That’s why I think the South China Sea is so pivotal because that’s the precedent that everybody is looking it.
Dr Euan Graham:
It’s a good question and it’s correctly framed because I think you have to ultimately approach this through a geopolitical lens to understand how important the South China Sea is. I think [inaudible] got it wrong. The Eurasian heartland is not where the centre of power will be tipped. You just have to look at the dust bowls in the Stan’s, but that’s not where the global balance of power changes. I think where this will be tested is in China’s Belt and Road Initiative that China has lost. There are two parts of this: there is a continental part of connectivity and there is also maritime silk road. The fact that China realizes this and invests in the Silk road will I think decide it becomes the preeminent power fulfilling its true potential and the root of that potential will be through the maritime root primarily. We talked about the Indo-Pacific and Humphrey I take nothing away from you that you use the Asia Pacific, but the South China Sea if you frame things from the Indo-Pacific the South China Sea sits right there at the fulcrum. And that’s not lost on US and Chinese strategic thinks we use the word Indo-Pacific in terms of its behaviour and its resources and how quickly it moves into the Indian Ocean proves that it is operating on a template that challenges the Indo-Pacific and the importance of the South China Sea within it.
Even in the Atlantico-Pacific (laughter) okay let’s take some questions. Yes, Euan.
Thank you very much gentleman, Euan Grant Institute of World Statecraft, I’ve been admired an admirer of Hawksley’s ever since I read Dragon Strike. I was at a wedding Kuala Lumpur this year and I commented on the lavishness of the celebrations and they said back if this is lavish you should see how the Chinese weddings are. My question is on the possible high end warfare side of the issue how favourable is the South China Sea? What do you think about submarine operations in the area, an area where currently the United States has the edge and secondly beyond the Indian facilities obtaining facilities on the same share is there any other implications of US, European and Indian cooperation building up within the Indian Ocean?
Maybe we could take a few questions at a time, I saw quite a few hands up. Yes, the gentleman there please.
In the FT this morning China lambasted the UK mouthing off about China not accepting China’s claims in the South China Sea at our time and nature. There was some discussion a year or two back as I recall there was some talk about the Vietnamese welcoming back the US Navy to port bases. Is there any evidence of US-Vietnamese cooperation in the future?
Okay who would like to go first?
I’ll take the Vietnamese one, but if you want to you can. I’m going to leave submarines to you (laughter).
India hasn’t been talked about a bit and Bill mentioned it. I was in Washington last week doing a number of these thing. India is not thought of like China because it’s too clumsy, it’s too democratic, it doesn’t have a Monroe Doctrine. It’s a democracy so it’s not seen as a threat. China has its string of pearls, it has its string of pearls, it has Pakistan if you look at the lack of the Monroe Doctrine this past few years. They also have a lot of influence in Nepal that they have been using. It used to be in India’s territory which was flared up over the summer, Bangladesh, Myanmar it’s taken back over after Obama. There is sort of this soft power or sharp power diplomatic stuff and then there is the infrastructure building. There is this military stuff that is going on through the Indian Ocean as well. India is not China, it’s not that juggernaut of purpose and vision. India doesn’t have a Belt and Road Initiative it doesn’t have something that captures the public’s imagination or the people’s imagination that says yes this is where we are going forward for the next twenty or thirty years.
My only comment on India would be to see how that they how they have completely failed in the Maldives, you had a coup in the Maldives a kind of regime emerging which is probably going to end up being more pro-China than India would like. What did India do? Absolutely nothing, useless. So apparently there was a discussion of whether they could have an intervention and they thought it would take them forty-five days to invite one of the smallest countries on earth. In terms of Vietnam you could ask the gentleman sitting right behind you in fact. Yes, the Vietnamese are being nicer to the Americans, but there is no chance they will ever be, under the current government, any kind of American base in Vietnam. The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier visited Danang earlier this year I have a theory which is invited to more or less coincide just before an oil test was supposed to be conducted in a contested part of the sea. The Carl Vinson came to the South China Sea sailed around Danang and the crew went and painted a school and were very nice to the local community and it sailed away again. About two weeks later the Chinese mobilized a flotilla and intimidated out of Vietnam for drilling for oil. If that was the point it didn’t deliver the message to Beijing. So yes Vietnam is seeking friends from wherever it can get them just as China is making friends with Pakistan. Vietnam is reaching out to India and they are reaching out to everybody: South Korea, Japan, Australia, the UK. So Vietnam wherever it can get them. At the end of the day what Euan was talking about. In all situations short of outright conflict China has the edge. China is able to intimidate the South East Asia countries out of developing its resources which the law of the seas says are theirs by military force. Vietnam has bought six brand new Kilo submarines off Russia, but if it’s not prepared to use them against China what was the point of buying them?
Dr Euan Graham:
Can I just comment briefly on Vietnam just to amplify what Bill was saying? I think Vietnam is in a very lonely position in South East Asia at the moment. Other South East Asian countries like Singapore that have been recently been vocal about the South China Sea and the importance of International Law even though it’s a non-claimant and it has been pretty clear economic coercion from China. On the other hand, the Vietnamese have a long term of strategic history and orientation view of the world that fundamentally has self-reliance as a basis of that. One does not need to repeat Vietnamese history to understand they know how to handle great power relationships as other countries don’t. I think it’s a very interesting dynamic in the relationship. On the one hand they have symmetries to that relationship to China that other countries in South East Asia don’t have. As the saying goes you can your friends, but you can’t choose your neighbours. I think the Vietnamese will continue hail on all frequencies to try and build what partnerships it can. Fundamentally if the chips are down they are probably in it alone.
With the submarine operations and the high intensity. It’s always nice to get a question from another Euan. If there is strategic rationale for China in the South China Sea to be for its submarine operations, it may be linked to their nuclear sea based deterrent. The Bastian strategy that the Soviet Union followed was about securing a deep water area that could be concentric defence could be ringed around so that there would be at least some plausible element to keep out US forces.
The Chinese might see that as necessary if they are worried about missile defence starting to detract from some of their land based forces, but they are modernizing their forces at quite a fast clip. I think there is probably a strong inter-service element to it. The Navy sees this claim to their resources on China and there is a strategic rationale for it, but is it really worth all the grief in South East Asia to make themselves look like an aggressive power simply to achieve strategic stability with the United States. For me that doesn’t quite add up. For me China is allocating resources to the South China Sea most of the new surface combatants go to the fleet the aircraft carrier is more of a status ship to put it crudely. I think the South China Sea will become a more important area in the future on an experimental basis. You may have heard about the A2-AD: The Access Arial Denial Strategy. If the US can operate in the South China Sea, but it is going to become increasingly costly and difficult for them to do so. Those artificial islands increase the costs because of the surveillance and targeting data that they provide to Chinese forces. What the Chinse are trying to do is shift the balance of risks the US will just elect not to take the risk. For the countries that depend on the South China Sea for their supply lines, for Japan and for South Korea, there is always the option of going around. You can divert, but you can divert at higher costs. The beauty of high seas transportation is that if you pay the extra transportation cost to go around it. The idea of a sort of modern course being fought in the South China Sea is probably not sustainable.
Okay some more questions then, please.
I would like to start off on the strategic reason why China is doing what she is doing in the South China Sea? Is it just territorial expansion? I think there are references from Dr Graham from the United States perspective. Also the reference to the South China Sea being a conduit for supply lanes for Japan and South Korea without mentioning the very fact that the South China is the lifeblood for the survival for the Communist Party. If you look at the trade in the South China Sea, and China depends on trade, a lot of the trade passes through the South China Sea. The perception is the South China Sea is under threat from military deployment the island line and aircraft carrier groups. So I am just wondering if the book or the discussion have centred on this fact? That the geopolitical influence is not only China exerting influence all around, but the main factor driving China is survival or the fear that in fact if push comes to shove the military exercises being conducted in the Pentagon can shut down the South China Sea with an aircraft carrier. That angle to what extent is it just territorial?
The second one which is different is more historical. You mentioned the claims going back to fifty years without mentioning there is always the perception. That somehow the South China Sea is China’s sphere of influence. The tributary system is the system of exercising. The historical aspect is important. To what extent is this geopolitical context a threat to China’s survival in terms of the South China Sea is being its economic lifeblood and its historical claim that the South China Sea is completely controversial and contradictive.
Thank you those are two very interesting questions. Conscientious that we are getting close to time so if I take two more questions, could you keep them very brief though.
I was just wondering because we are thinking about this from a West point of view. The South China Sea is not really China Sea in that sense part of it by the other states you had Champa Sea near Cambodia and there were people who were suggesting there was a need to have a portion of that sea become different parts of the sea. It’s like the Mediterranean Sea
Were you here at the beginning?
No I wasn’t.
There was a story about the beginning about the title of the book that you are reflecting right now.
If this comes true than would the Western countries support this narrative to balance China?
One more question please.
Very brief comment and then a question. The comment is all the strategic growth is based on the fact that China will by the middle of the century will rise in power. My question is in the old days’ people would say it was a redline to go beyond the Scarborough shoals. Is that still a redline for the US or do you see China actually putting a base on Scarborough and the US not reacting?
Just quickly I know we are short of time. To address your issue because of a couple of things. In Washington last week the deputy Chinese Ambassador was there and I think he put his finger on it. You talk about that you go straight to the Opium Wars, they go straight to the weakness of China and they go straight to the fact that they didn’t have a great war of the sea. When you have this conversation with people in the West the eyes roll and they say it’s all rubbish. But if you have one people believing that, you need to actually take account of it. At the same time, you’ve got the super powers do this what the US did in the Caribbean. It protected its trade routes from the former colonial powers that got thrown out of Latin America. So the reason to do this has been on the Chinese books to do things that the century of humiliation and when people ask why is China doing what it is doing? The Chinese Deputy Ambassador said China is doing what it is doing to ensure that the Chinese people never become slaves again. That’s the narrative that goes around that.
I think you can see a very logical strategic reason for China’s actions. But what are the things that China does that other countries don’t do. For example, the United States made space for the Soviet Union during the Cold War to be a naval power. They tolerated the fact that the Soviets had spy ships sitting off the coast of Long Island, monitoring military communications and so forth. The US basically allowed that to happen because it was doing the same thing off of Vladivostok and all the rest of it. China is attempting to block off the sea and say you can’t come here for its own domestic legislation for example. Or to stop Vietnam developing its oil resources which are in their exclusive economic zone on the basis of a historic rights claims. Historic in the sense it was invented around 1990. This is what China is doing different. If China didn’t have a domestic law that said foreign military vessels cannot sail through territorial sea than the US wouldn’t be doing freedom of navigation operations, there. If China wants to get rid of the Americans, then it should get rid of its domestic laws that restrict the freedom of the seas. The point on the tributary stuff, this is the subject of my next book, but I want to show how a lot of ideas that we have about Chinese history now were actually constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. So onto the tributaries and meaning and what that meant in the modern day in the nation states. Those ideas were changed and reimagined in the early part of the twentieth century. Yes, there were tributary states, no they weren’t part of an empire. They were certainly not part of a sphere of influence in the sense of controlling maritime trading routes.
In terms of the naming of the Sea, let’s not do that. I think we should call it the North-East-South-West Sea. One part could be the South China Sea the North Natuna Sea the West Philippine Sea and the Vietnamese Sea. You know it’s called the South China Sea by the Portuguese. In terms of Scarborough Shoal and this is written on writings by Washington two years ago on May 2016. The Obama delivered a blunt message to Beijing deployed A10 aircraft to airbases in the Philippines. Basically made known that they would shoot at any Chinese trawlers or dredges that appeared close to Scarborough shoal. The Chinese have not shown up so I assume those stories are correct that it is the same position.
Dr Euan Graham:
I think China is a rising power has the wind in its sails. Although it may catch that in terms of reaching its historical power and rightful place in the world. I think to all appearances I think it appears as an offensive strategy and the idea is to push the Americans out and then they could rule the roost and then the South China Sea is on to that to put it bluntly. In terms of freedom of the seas I agree with Bill you just get back into the cycle of contending claims in that way that there isn’t a pan South-East Asian position. I think what the South East Asians need to get behind is the law of the UN or the Law of the Sea for the obvious point of national self-interest because the UN Law of the Sea favours South-East Asian claims over Chinese claims as the arbiter case in 2015 demonstrated. Prime Minister Mathir has said he wants to maintain Malaysia’s features in the South China Sea. I think we should always be careful about over reading the pushback from South-East Asia countries, but never underestimate nationalism as a driver. I think Dr Mahathir is a nationalist root at his core and the South China Sea, he will be less pro-China than Razak. On Scaraborough Shoal Bill is right I think that in 2015 that was a belated case of US deterrence working on the marginal question of whether that eighth feature might have been reclaimed. That was under different management however whether Trump would be prepared to use force; I just don’t think it’s in his psychological makeup to understand the importance of defending abstract principles on far away scraps of features which the US doesn’t have a clear national interest like a North Korean missile. For an American First principle I think it will be very difficult for him to make that case unless it is done so bluntly that it contaminates the entire US-Chinese relationship. I don’t think the Chinese are that stupid to play that card so I think they’ll bide their time. The other card that Duterte has to drop is the Philippine politics has to realign, we are seeing interest signs of the beginning to that the defence relationship with the US is still there. A US aircraft carrier has visited for a third time in a year and Duterte’s position has shown to not work. Appeasement doesn’t actually doesn’t work. He hasn’t delivered the economic benefits that he said he would and he has been shown to compromise Philippine maritime sovereign rights and territories. That may develop to a point where we have a Philippine President who starts to be closer to the US alliance. For the moment it seems difficult to imagine how US would go to Duterte given everything that he has said and everything he has done to undermine the Philippine national position.
Okay well I’m afraid we have run out of time for further questions, it is now five past seven. But if you would like to find more about Humphrey’s works and ideas you can buy this book outside which is at a special introductory price. I thank the panel for coming and speaking here tonight and sharing their input and insights. I hope you found it very interesting and are now better versed in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific. Thank you.