A New Set of Great Power Relationships

A New Set of Great Power Relationships
Remarks to the 8th International Conference on East Asian Studies

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Liaoning University, Shenyang, Liaoning, China

We live in a time of great strategic fluidity.  Borders are shifting.  Lines of control are blurring.  Long-established spheres of influence are fading away.  Some states are decaying and dissolving as others germinate and take root. The global economic order is precarious.  New economic and geopolitical fault lines are emerging.

The great powers of North and South America are barely on speaking terms.  Europe is again riven by geopolitical antagonisms.  Ukraine should be a prosperous, independent borderland between the European Union and Russia.  It has instead become a cockpit of strategic contention.  The United States and Russia have relapsed into hostility.  The post-Ottoman borders of West Asia and North Africa are being erased.  Neither Europeans, nor Russians, nor Americans can now protect or direct their longstanding clients in the Middle East.  Brazil, China, and India are peacefully competing for the favor of Africa.  But, in the Indo-Pacific, China and Japan are at daggers drawn and striving to ostracize each other.  Sino-American relations seem to be following US-Russian relations into mutual exasperation and intransigence.

No one surveying this scene could disagree that the world would benefit from recrafting the relationships between its great powers.  As President Xi Jinping has proposed, new types of relations might enable the great powers to manage their interactions to the common advantage while lowering the risk of armed conflict.  This is, after all, the nuclear age.  A war could end in the annihilation of all who take part in it.  Short of that, unbridled animosity and contention between great powers and their allies and friends have high opportunity costs and foster the tensions inherent in military posturing, arms races, instability, and impoverishment.

But there is no shared vision and little discussion of what a new pattern of great power relations to promote peace and development would look like.  In the absence of serious engagement on the issue, the evolution of great power relations has been left essentially to chance.  An altered pattern of such relations is duly, if haphazardly, coming into being.  Unfortunately, it promises protracted discord and confrontation rather than reduced strategic friction.

Where is the world headed?  If it is headed to nowhere we want to end up, how do we change course?  Where do we want be?  How do we get there?  These are the questions this conference and the world’s statesmen must address.  Exchanges of recriminations about past injustices and humiliations have exacerbated current tensions.  There is an urgent need to talk less about the past and more about the present and what might follow it.

What can be done to create a more peaceful and prosperous future than current trends now promise to produce?  How can we transcend competing narratives to craft a more secure peace in the Indo-Pacific?  How can we promote a sense of trans-Pacific community rather than rivalry?  How can we reverse current trends toward rising antagonism among the Indo-Pacific’s great powers?

Understanding how tangles first became knots can help find ways to untangle them.  Any trend has an initial phase and origin.  Solving problems often requires one to begin at their beginning.

The proximate cause of the recently increased tensions in the Western Pacific is a series of disputes over long uninhabited (and mostly uninhabitable) islands, rocks, and reefs in the East and South China Seas.  It is significant that these places were uninhabited.  Traditional Asian statecraft exercised jurisdiction over people, not places.   Places without people were, in this conception, no-man’s lands, belonging to none, but accessible to all.

The notion of sovereignty as it evolved in Europe was quite different.  There the governing authorities exercised jurisdiction over territories and assigned them to national ownership whether or not there were people in them.  By contrast with this geography-based approach, the traditional Asian order was human-centered.  It saw the allegiance of people to a particular governing authority, regardless of their location, as the basis of state jurisdiction.

As in so much else, Japan led the way to change in Asia by adopting the European concept of sovereignty.  It did so both to counter Western imperialism and to emulate it.  The first place to which Tokyo applied the un-Asian idea of geography-based state authority was the five islands and three adjacent rocks that make up the Diaoyu Islands [钓鱼岛].  Not having yet embraced the Western idea that a state is defined by its territory rather than by its people, the Qing government of China had not seen a need to establish effective control of the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands.  So, following Western legal norms, Japan declared them “terra nullius” [无人区].  It annexed them in January 1895, at the outset of the first Sino-Japanese War and used a translation of their English name — the “Pinnacles” — to rename them the Senkakus [尖阁群岛].

Within a decade, sovereignty – signifying independence from subjugation by imperialism and the end of extraterritoriality – had seized the imagination of nationalists everywhere in Asia

Emancipation from foreign rule through the achievement of sovereign independence is the defining moment of every state in Asia’s modern history.  Colonialism was deeply humiliating.   The nominal equality of states is the heart of the Westphalian notion of sovereignty.  The peoples of the Indo-Pacific see this principle as central to their hard-won status as respected, equal participants in international governance.

Recently, some in the West have proposed to limit sovereignty and allow its breach for “humanitarian” purposes.  Without exception, Asians reject such innovations.  They remain passionately devoted to the original, uncompromising concept of sovereignty to which they were converted a century or more ago.  This concept takes respect for territorial integrity and immunity from foreign interference in domestic affairs as inalienable national rights.

So it is hardly surprising that Asians have reinterpreted their history to make it conform to the once foreign notion of sovereignty.  Historians have produced reams of paper documenting close encounters with remote rocks by the sailors of vanished Chinese and Vietnamese dynasties. But whatever these sailors were doing, it had nothing to do with either asserting or violating sovereignty, which was not yet an operative concept in Asia.  After World War II, when sovereignty had indeed achieved such status, a combination of factors – Japan’s retreat to the home islands, Cold War containment, war in Indochina, Asian military underdevelopment, and decisions by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping not to press China’s claims in either the Diaoyu Islands or the South China Sea – ensured that these geographic features remained uninhabited no-man’s lands.

In the early 1970s, as the Sino-American Cold War ended and the United States prepared to return the Ryukyu Islands to Japanese sovereignty, few noticed that the status of the region’s uninhabited islands had begun to change.  A new law of the sea endorsing exclusive rights to seabed resources near habitable islands was emerging from international negotiations.  At the same time, geologists suggested that there might be recoverable reserves of oil and gas near the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea.  There was suddenly an economic reason to demonstrate the habitability of previously deserted islands.

In early 1971, Chinese nationalists in Taipei sought to one-up Beijing with demonstrations against American transfer of administrative control of the Diaoyu Islands to Japan.  That made their status a cross-Strait and domestic issue for China as well as a dispute between Chinese and Japanese.

In 1973 the former Republic of Vietnam began to colonize islands in the South China Sea claimed by China.  In 1974, China repelled an attempt by Saigon to drive its fishermen from the southern Paracel Islands and settled in there.  In the late 1970s, the Philippines began to colonize the Spratly group.   Malaysia followed suit in 1983.  In 1988, China responded by beginning to build its own military installations in the Spratly Islands.  Today, Hanoi controls twenty-one geographic features there, Manila nine, Kuala Lumpur five, Taipei one, and Beijing twelve.

Every country claiming territory and resources in East Asia feels ferociously that it is on the defensive and that the other claimants are trying to humble it to take what is not rightly theirs.  The disputes evoke patriotic pride, a felt need to resist foreign bullying, narratives of past imperialism, and a lust for oil, gas, and fish.  All of them have become inextricably connected to concerns about the implications of China’s great size and growing military prowess for the regional order.  And all now involve a risk of military confrontation between the United States and China.  But the issues in the East and South China Seas differ in important ways.

The quarrel over the Diaoyu Islands triggers memories in both China and Japan of the first and second Sino-Japanese wars and their outcomes.  The first war humiliated China.  The second humbled Japan.  The dispute is also bound up with the unsettled issue of Taiwan’s relationship to the rest of China.  On the Diaoyu Island issue, even if they say more or less the same thing, China speaks with two voices – those of Beijing and Taipei.  Until the schizophrenia of the Chinese civil war is cured by some form of cross-Strait reconciliation, neither Beijing nor Taipei is free to settle this issue with Japan.  In practice, this means the Diaoyu Island controversy cannot be settled now and probably not for a long time to come.  So some way must be found to manage it.

Beijing thought it had a deal with Tokyo to avoid making an issue of the Senkaku Islands.  But it in 2010, a belligerently drunk Chinese fishing boat captain rammed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel near the islands.  Rather than following precedent by dealing with the charges against the captain as an administrative matter, an inexperienced new Japanese government referred the affair to Japan’s domestic courts.  This amounted to a slap in the face for China, which had counted on Japan continuing to avoid the provocation of an overt assertion of legal jurisdiction in the Senkakus.  Later, Japan “nationalized” the islands to preclude their political exploitation by bellicose right-wingers.  The nationalization set off the current confrontations.

Tokyo’s continuing refusal to admit that there is any dispute over sovereignty in the Senkakus has made China determined to demonstrate that there is indeed a dispute and that Japan cannot claim unchallenged control of the islands and their adjacent seas.  The result is a dangerous near-war between Chinese and Japanese paramilitary forces.  Even if China and Japan cannot solve the attitudinal problems that have so badly soured relations between them, both would gain by finding a face-saving way of shelving their dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, as they did in practice for the 115 years between 1895 and 2010.

There is nothing to prevent Tokyo from now restoring the situation to what it was before it became acute.  It could “denationalize” the islands by transferring their ownership to a private foundation dedicated to preserving them in pristine condition, free of human intrusions and legal wrangling over control.  If China really wants to set the issue aside, as it says it does, this would allow it to do so.  If the Chinese and Japanese governments cannot discuss and arrange this, civil society in the two countries can surely do it for them.

By contrast with the Diaoyu Islands issue, where no solution is quite clearly the best solution, there is nothing for any party to gain from delay in resolving the disputes in the South China Sea.  Every island, rock, and reef that can be occupied there has now been seized by one or another claimant.  With one exception – the Second Thomas Shoal [仁爱礁] – there is not even a dispute about which nation is in effective possession of what.  Unless the claimants are prepared to go to war, none can hope to expand its current holdings.  None of the geographic features in the South China has much importance in and of itself.  There is therefore little, if any incentive to dispossess others of what they now have.  War in the South China Sea makes no sense.

The continuing uncertainty about whether force will be used to alter the current status quo is nevertheless having significant strategic consequences.  In practice, given China’s size, wealth, and military power, concern centers on China.  As then Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi correctly noted in 2010, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”  That fact is not going to go away.  Indeed, the gap between Chinese and Southeast Asian power is rapidly widening.  In the absence of U.S. opposition, China has the ability to take what it wants from its smaller neighbors by force with relative ease.  The fear that it might seek to do so drives China’s neighbors to seek American military backing to counter what they perceive to be a “China threat.”  This understandable but unhealthy dynamic is pushing the United States and China into military posturing and confrontation.  As long as the status quo in the South China Sea remains insecure, it will continue to do so.

It would be in everyone’s interest to bring this pointless drama to an end.  All that would be required to do that would be to accept a fact: the current state of affairs cannot be changed except at unacceptable cost to all concerned.  In practice, whatever the historical justice or injustice of its claim to a place in the South China Sea or how that placet was occupied, every claimant is going to keep what it now has.  Vietnam is not going to drive China from the Paracels [西沙].  The Philippines will never dislodge Taipei’s forces from Taiping Dao or Beijing’s from Johnson Reef [赤瓜噍].  For very sound reasons of national strategy, China will not seek to conquer the islands and reefs held by Vietnam, the Philippines, or Malaysia

In the end, therefore, resort to the well-established international legal principle of uti possidetis is the obvious solution.  This Latin phrase means that, in the absence of agreement to the contrary, everyone is entitled to keep what they have regardless of how they got it.  Agreement between the claimants to apply this principle and the law of the sea to the South China Sea would end their disputes over territory, quell concerns about armed conflict, and facilitate the legal apportionment of seabed resources.

Neither of the proposals I have outlined – for the reshelving of the Senkaku issue and the resolution of South China Sea disputes – requires outside mediation.  Both would be Asian solutions, crafted by Asians themselves.  But both would, I am confident, be welcomed internationally, including in my own country.  After all, the result would be a significant reduction in tensions in Asia and between the United States and China.  That could, in turn, facilitate progress toward defining a new and more productive pattern of relations between the great powers of the region and the world.