Commentary: Why China will go to war for the South China Sea

DURING the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Henry Kissinger wrote an advice for policymakers in the Washington Post on how to work their way out of it. This is one of the key takeaways of that article: the West must understand the deeper significance of Ukraine for Russia (“Henry Kissinger: To settle the Ukraine crisis, start at the end,” March 5, 2014). Our decision-makers should apply that advice in our territorial conflict with China.

On February 4, 2014, in an interview with the New York Times, former President Benigno Aquino 3rd compared China to Nazi Germany. Aquino thought that China’s territorial disputes with our country is like Nazi Germany’s disputes with Czechoslovakia over the latter’s areas populated with ethnic Germans. These areas, which were known as Sudetenland, were leftovers of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which became border areas of Czechoslovakia. For Aquino, the South China Sea is this century’s Sudetenland: if China gets to do what it wants, Aquino surmised, the world would face another Nazi Germany.

The problem with the Sudetenland = South China Sea analogy is its lack of understanding of the South China Sea’s significance to China. Just like any form of historical thinking, historical analogies are supposed to help us understand the present by way of relating it to what happened in the past. In the case of historical analogues, the analogue (the past event) is used to shed light on the target. The analogy being lifted from European history rather than from China’s own history is the reason why its allure only produced a dull glint.

The South China Sea is better off understood as this century’s Shandong.

Shandong province lies in the northern coast of China. During the competition for concessions by the foreign powers in China, Germany occupied the Jiaozhou harbor in 1897. By virtue of the Convention for the Lease of Jiaozhou Bay, Germany was given the right to economically exploit Shandong province (known to Western powers then as Shantung).

In 1914, Japan went into war with Germany. Germany lost and, consequently, Japan took over Shandong. Japan promised to restore China’s sovereignty over the province. However, in its 1915 Twenty-One Demands, Japan pressured China to give it further economic and political rights over it and other areas. Despite China’s protest, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles awarded Shandong to Japan. China refused to honor it. It was only in 1922, by virtue of direct negotiations between China and Japan, that full Chinese sovereignty over Shandong was restored.

At first blush, the Shandong Problem and the South China Sea conflict don’t look like being analogous. Shandong is terrestrial. It has inhabitants, while the disputed islands in the South China Sea are uninhabited. So, what makes the South China Sea this century’s Shandong?

Shandong and the South China Sea have analogous existential significance to China. During the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Dr. V.K. Willington Koo, the delegate sent by Bejing to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, passionately pleaded that Shandong province be returned back to China and not be given as a reward to Japan. Being the birthplace of Confucius, China’s premiere philosopher, giving up Shandong was like giving up China’s soul.

Meanwhile, Jiaozhou, which is somewhere in north Shandong, provided the shortest route from outside to the capital. Giving up Shandong would be making China’s capital easily accessible to foreign attacks. Shandong was not just simply a piece of territory for China, its significance has implications to China’s sense of self and security. Giving it up would be like spiritual and physical suicide. Thus, China fought hard for Shandong.

If Shandong’s existential significance to China is spiritual, the South China Sea is material. China’s economy is largely dependent on exports mostly transported through that sea. Its energy needs are supplied by oil imports that pass through it. Any disturbance in that area would have serious repercussions on China’s economy. Without any presence in the South China Sea, China would also be vulnerable to attacks, like what happened to it during the First Opium War. Just like in Shandong, retreating from the South China Sea would be inimical to its security.

Both Shandong and the South China Sea served as a fodder for Chinese nationalism. As Shandong was awarded to Japan during the Paris Peace Conference, on May 4, 1919, protests spread all over China, carrying the sentiment that China was betrayed in Paris. This May Fourth Movement, precipitated by the Shandong problem (among other issues), ignited fervent Chinese nationalism.

The South China Sea conflict has also aroused incendiary nationalistic feelings in China. After the Permanent Court of Arbitration released its ruling on the case filed by the Philippines, Luo Xi, a Ph. D. graduate of China’s Renmin University, wrote in an article in The Diplomat that major social media sites like WeChat were “flooded” with calls for enlisting in the army (“The South China Sea Case and China’s New Nationalism,” July 19, 2016). The outrage was so inflammatory the Chinese government had to censor the online calls for war. The arbitration ruling, as Luo puts it, is seen in the same light as the awarding of Shandong to Japan—a humiliating assault on national dignity.

Thus, the South China Sea will never be just a sea for China. It will fight to remain there, though the heavens may fall.

(Published in The Manila Times, 23 May 2017)

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