One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.
― Otto von Bismarck in 1888
In 1913, who would have predicted that Sarajevo would be the site where the archduke of an aging empire would be assassinated and precipitate the largest war the world had ever seen?
Will the world’s next great war spring forth from damned foolish things happening in far-flung places such as Mariupol or Mischief Reef?
On Tuesday, July 12th, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague gave its ruling on the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea between China and her furious neighbors. The tribunal’s findings are nothing short of a poke in China’s eye. The tribunal systematically refused every claim and rationale presented by the Chinese. Most importantly, the tribunal wrote that China lost its “historic rights” to the waters of the South China Sea after signing onto the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which clearly limits territorial sovereignty to 22 kilometers from a nation’s coastline and limits “exclusive economic zones” to 370km (wherein a country, its businesses and fishermen exclusively exploit resources).
China had been claiming its territorial sovereignty applies up to nearly 2,000km off its coastlines, which objectively puts the rising power at odds with international law. Ever since Hugo de Groot’s Mare Liberum was published in 1609, nations have recognized the principle that the seas are free to navigate for all but belong to none.
Fortunately for them, as with most international bodies, The Hague’s proclamations are toothless as there are no enforcement mechanisms. The Communist Party of China remains steadfast ever since the Philippines unilaterally called on The Hague three years ago to arbitrate: China will not recognize any international judgments from outsiders and will continue talking directly with neighboring countries to find a solution. After all, China was able to determine the maritime rights of the Tonkin Gulf through a peaceful bilateral agreement with Vietnam, and China signed its biggest Free Trade Agreement ever with its South Korean neighbors last year.
Enter the world’s city on a hill to provide moral guidance, the United States, who has itself never signed the fundamental treaty on the subject, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. President Obama previously made his thoughts known, saying with a straight face “Where we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.” In a Reuters article on the day following the tribunal ruling, one particular obtuse Senator and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee simultaneously expressed his country’s unflinching eagerness for war and condescension towards vassal states when he told reporters “I don’t think China wants a confrontation with the United States. They don’t mind a confrontation with a Vietnamese fishing boat, but they don’t want a confrontation with the United States.”
And boy golly, if The Hague has no muscles to flex, the US sure does. Last month, the US sent a whole armada of 12,000 sailors, 140 aircraft and two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers through the South China Sea on a “warfighting techniques training exercise“. I wonder how American journalists would welcome a similar show of force in international waters in the Gulf of Mexico?
Coincidentally, in May this year the US lifted an arms embargo against Vietnam that had been in effect for decades. In April this year, joint military exercises were conducted in the Philippines with over 5,000 Filipino, American, Australian and Japanese soldiers. Even the budding alliance between China and South Korea was cut short earlier this month when South Korea and the US announced the deployment of a highly advanced missile defense system to ostensibly fend off any North Korean attacks, although Beijing senses its encirclement
The provocation of China is not just military. Last month, Barack Obama warmly welcomed Tibetan exile and spiritual leader The Dalai Lama at the White House residence. On the economic front, the same day of the tribunal’s findings, the US brought a case to the World Trade Organization challenging China’s tariffs on key commodities. Also in a report on Wednesday, the US Congress pointed the finger to Chinese-government affiliated hackers as being responsible for the breaches at the Federal Deposit Insurance Company.
The predictable result of the ruling has been a very dangerous game of shadowboxing. Just today on July 17, China showed its teeth by flying a bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons over Scarborough Shoal, which the tribunal ruled was part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This act may pre-empt any American attempt to fly over disputed territory as they did with two drones in the November 2013 dispute with Japan regarding the Senkaku Islands.
Why would the Americans be so interested in the territorial claims of some rocks 7,800 miles (12,550km) away from its western shores? Probably the same reasons the American government is celebrating the deployment of missile systems in Romania and Poland; just the right range for intermediate-distance missiles to strike Russia. It is the life-threatening encirclement and containment of perceived rival nations.
And China is surrounded by enemies on all sides: India, ASEAN countries and American protectorates Afghanistan, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. China’s maritime claims are aimed at loosening the choke hold. It is also worth noting that 40% of Chinese oil imports pass through the South China Sea and without oil the People’s Liberation Army could be wiped out just like the Japanese Imperial Army that didn’t have any fuel for its tanks, warships and planes by the end of World War II.
It should be little surprise for the West to discover that they have united two ancient enemies with China and Russia announcing a new “Great Silk Road” economic plan including a high speed train directly linking Beijing with Moscow. Out of Western meddling, bumbling, and damned foolish things, a new Eurasian superpower is emerging with an embarrassed China that is less trusting and less willing to negotiate with its neighbors.
Let us pray for deescalation, unless the next great war has already started, in which case: Stop this war!