Chinese dictator Xi Jinping postures as a proponent of multilateralism, but the regime’s actions in the South China Sea suggest otherwise. They appear to follow Mao Zedong’s principle that conflicts are best solved through the brutal application of force and that “peace is lost through compromise.”
The South China Sea is the world’s busiest maritime trade route, and its mostly barren islands, reefs, and atolls, and rich fishing waters, have global geopolitical significance. China is in effect laying claim to virtually 90 percent of the disputed region and shows no willingness to resolve competing claims peacefully.
On April 3, a Chinese coast-guard ship intentionally rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel. The two countries are in conflict over jurisdiction of the Paracel Islands and fishing rights in the waters around the archipelago. On April 18, China unilaterally announced the establishment of the Nansha and Xisha administrative districts in the Paracels and the Spratly Islands, drawing a protest from the Philippines, which has a presence of its own on at least nine Spratly islands and islets, including Fiery Cross Reef. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which monitors territorial conflicts, says Fiery Cross has been transformed into a Chinese missile base. In an earlier move, in mid-February, a Chinese naval ship locked its radar on a Philippines naval vessel near the Commodore Reef in the Spratlys, signaling a strike as an act of intimidation. China in recent months has also provoked conflicts with Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
China’s aggression has made a mockery of efforts by members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) to adhere to a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes in the region. That code reflects the organization’s commitment to “compromise, consensus, and consultation.” According to Le Hong Hiep, an expert on Vietnamese affairs at Singapore’s ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, China’s “actions not only create tensions with Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, but also cause ASEAN members to question China’s sincerity in negotiating a code of conduct for the South China Sea.”
China appears to be exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to advance its South China Sea expansion project by “brute force … using its increasingly powerful navy to assert its dominance by harassing the shipping of rival states, even at times, in their own territorial waters.” But just as China’s failure to stop a local epidemic from becoming a global catastrophe has brought it precisely the bad PR it was hoping to avoid, its South China Sea bullying has resulted in intensified anti-Chinese reactions in Southeast Asia and around the world. Beijing’s efforts to staunch the country’s hemorrhaging international reputation have had the opposite effect. For instance, on April 24, in the midst of the pandemic, the Chinese embassy in Manila released a music video of a song called “Iisang Dagat” (“One Sea”). Chinese ambassador Huang Xilian wrote the lyrics, the lead singer was a Filipino-Chinese, and a Chinese diplomat joined the performers in celebrating “a new era of friendship” between the two countries. But the video received over 65,000 “dislikes” on the first day it was online. Filipinos lambasted the video’s imagery of a sea shared by both countries as belying the reality of the dispute.
China’s illegal assertiveness in the South China Sea — its wolf-warrior diplomacy — is damaging the state’s and Chinese people’s reputations. But it is also perhaps the greatest threat to international peace and security in the world today. Understanding the sources of China’s behavior is thus a matter of paramount concern.
Foremost among them is the ethno-nationalism embraced by Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Along with rapid economic growth, since 1989 nationalism has solidified the legitimacy of CCP rule. Economic growth had faltered before the onset of the coronavirus, but now the country faces food shortages, unemployment, inflation, a debt crisis, and, given the inflexibility of centralized and often corrupt management, even the specter of financial collapse. The CCP has relied merely on two factors to legitimize its rule in China despite its notorious record of human-rights violations and corruption: economic performance and nationalism. As the economy suffers, nationalism intensifies.
The kind of nationalism that has emerged in China is, like that of Nazi Germany, intrinsically aggressive toward nonconforming individuals, groups, and other societies. It follows a logic expressed by Isaiah Berlin in a penetrating 1978 essay: “Nothing that obstructs that which I recognize as my — that is, my nation’s — supreme goal, can be allowed to have equal value with it.” When a state holding this view of itself encounters another that views it differently, it feels it has a right to force the other to yield.
The use of coercive force — internally and in international relations — is thus inherent to China’s blood-and-soil nationalism. Conflict in the South China Sea also diverts public attention from Xi Jinping’s policy failures and unpopular power grabs: his coronavirus cover-up, trade war with the United States, inability to crush the democracy movement in Hong Kong, and embarrassing pursuit of a personality cult and self-serving removal of the presidential term limit. Xi is heavy-handedly purging potential enemies in the Communist Party and further tightening control over society.
Indeed, the regime’s aggression in the South China Sea is consistent with its aggression at home against religious and ethnic minorities, human-rights advocates, and any individual or party whose views, or existence, challenges its aspiration toward monolithic control and global hegemony. The international community needs to respond firmly to this aggression. But the burden of the regime’s actions is borne by the Chinese people, whose well-being and future are most at risk.
Jianli Yang, a survivor of the Tiananmen Square massacre, is the founder and president of Citizens Power Initiatives for China. Aaron Rhodes is the president of the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe and human-rights editor of Dissident magazine.