Is China starting down a path similar to that followed by Japan and Germany before 1945, when nationalism backed by new economic clout led to overconfidence and adventures which eventually proved disastrous?
The question needs asking in the context of China’s latest moves ultimately aimed at making the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. Beijing has been railing against a US overflight of a China-controlled islet being expanded with a massive dredging operation.
Mainland-based academics have rushed to condemn this “dangerous provocation”. Yet the brutal fact is that no international body or significant state recognises China’s claim that the sea and its islets and shoals are its territory; least of all neighbouring states.
The artificial expansion of the islets may be more for show than to provide any significant strategic advantage. They may even prove impermanent, should they be hit by monster typhoons. But they are part of a pattern which in 2013 saw Chinese vessels occupy the Scarborough Shoal and drive out Philippine fishermen. The shoal lies well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and had long been fished by boats from nearby Luzon. The seizure was an act of imperialism.
The US, like any other country, has a right to overfly territory which is not officially acknowledged as part of this or that nation. The same applies to features occupied by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. China’s claim that its reclamations are to improve security are viewed with derision by its neighbours. But those people do not count. They do not exist in the version of history by which Beijing claims the whole sea, stretching to the coast of Borneo, as defined by its nine-dash line, on the basis that the Chinese had always been in command of the sea.