When big countries reach agreement, small countries may pay the price, says Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan in a speech he delivered in Tokyo this week. The excerpt below includes notes prepared in anticipation of questions.
President Xi Jinping has termed the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) role as leading the “Great Rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation after a century of weakness and humiliation. But the outcome of the second phase of reforms, even if completely successful, will be slower growth, as the CCP has itself acknowledged. The “Great Rejuvenation” must therefore be as much, if not more, outwardly than internally directed. Externally, it is increasingly an essentially revanchist narrative. Herein lies the importance of the South China Sea (SCS) to China. Put simply, it is the least risky way of putting some shreds of meat on the bare bones of the historical narrative by which the CCP justifies its right to rule.
The United States defines its interests in the SCS in terms of upholding international law and freedom of navigation (FON). These are important interests but not of the same order as the CCP’s primary interest, which is existential: the legitimacy and ultimately the survival of the CCP. The US has made clear that the US-Japan alliance covers the Senkakus; it has been ambiguous about the US-Philippines alliance, and hence in effect made clear that it does not cover the disputed areas in the SCS. War in support of the principal US East Asian ally is credible, if unlikely. War over rocks, shoals and reefs would be absurd.
I doubt that China can be deterred from continuing its reclamation activities and deploying military assets on the artificial islands it is creating. But I doubt too that China can deter the US from operating in the SCS. Military assets that cannot be used are a weak deterrent. To use them to deny access must evoke a US response. This confronts the CCP with Hobson’s choice: escalate and risk war or at least serious conflict which will jeopardise CCP rule; or respond weakly, which will expose the hollowness of the “Great Rejuvenation”, which will also shake confidence in CCP rule. The CCP will not willingly place itself in such an invidious position.