Island Building in the South China Sea

In anticipation of the annual U.S. – China Strategic and Economic Dialogue held in Washington this past week the Chinese government announced that it had pretty much wrapped up work on its island creation in the South China Sea, an important international shipping lane, 80% of which China claims ownership to. (Several times more oil passes through the South China Sea than the Suez Canal.) The other countries bordering the South China Sea – Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia, of course, lay their own claims to much of the area in which the island-building has occurred.

The Western media interpreted this as an attempt by the Chinese to put the U.S. at ease prior to the Dialogue that it had no further territorial ambitions in the area, an interpretation that implies, of course, some level of Chinese deference.

I have a different interpretation. I believe the Chinese were clearly stating, as a matter of fact, that the new islands are there – live with it. They don’t want to waste any time at the Dialogue negotiating over what they consider to be non-negotiable.

The Western article I read on the topic quoted several ‘experts’ on the topic, all attempting to decipher the Chinese smoke signals and pontificating about what the Chinese may or may not do in the future. While much of the conjecture has to do with whether or not China will use the newly created islands for military installations, the gravest conjecture of all appeared to be whether or not China would eventually declare the entire area an air defense identification zone, essentially preventing the military aircraft of other nations – including spy planes – from using the air space.

But of course they will. There is absolutely no sense in debating that. I can only hope that the U.S. government doesn’t waste a lot of taxpayer money hiring professors, think tanks, and consultants in an attempt to decipher China’s intent. They need only put the comments in the context of the Chinese receiver-oriented, indirect communication style and even a glassmaker can figure it out in mere minutes. From the Chinese perspective, there is nothing to talk about.

The debate over who owns what land has always struck me as a bit disingenuous. History is not a post card. It’s a motion picture. Who owns what is a matter of where you pause the movie.

The Americans clearly don’t ‘own’ the United States. Sure, the claim would easily hold up in a court of law but fairness and truth are not the stock in trade of the legal system in the U.S. Pragmatism is.

And did the Dutch really buy Manhattan for trinkets worth $24? Maybe. But even if they did any contemporary judge in the U.S. would invalidate the sale for some technical reason I’m sure.

And what about Europe? Who really owns Europe? Again, it depends where you pause the movie of history. The Greeks, rather than begging for handouts from the EU might be smarter to simply lay legal claims to its former empire. That would surely solve their cash flow issues and who is to argue at which point the movie should be paused. Indigenous people all over the world are clearly and effectively making that point.

Like it or not, pragmatism, when it comes to matters of territorial claims, is a matter of will – or lack of will when it comes to those in a position to change the reality. Does Russia have a right to annex Crimea? Who knows? Who cares? They did and nobody, including NATO, is going to drive them out. Fait accompli.

Will the U.S. return San Diego to Mexico? San Antonio? Of course not.

Our children’s children will think of the Spratley Islands and the South China Sea in much the same way. Of course they are part of China. Who is going to rewrite that history?

I honestly don’t understand the political aversion to pragmatism. Well, actually, I do. At the end of the day politicians have no incentive to change. On the contrary, their importance is firmly cemented in the status quo. It is only the threat of being voted out of office – or revolution – that will cause a politician to consider foundational change. That is not a derogatory accusation. It is merely a mirror on the incentives that shape their thoughts and actions.

All of which creates a bit of a conundrum for the U.S. It made a lot of commitments at a time when the balance of power was decidedly different in the world. China was a mere shadow of its current presence and might. Russia was strong, but Europe was stronger. Both realities have changed.

Would the U.S. really commit to all out war if China invaded Japan? Could it? With its resources already tied up in the swamps of Iraq and Afghanistan how much of a fight is it really prepared to wage? Don’t get me wrong. The American military is the mightiest in the world without a doubt. But even it has limits as to how many fronts it can engage on – short of blowing up the planet, of course.

Which brings me to Taiwan. Here is the stickiest wicket of all for the Americans. I don’t have to predict whether or not Taiwan will eventually be part of China. It already is. Eventually it will be formally incorporated on a similar foundation that Hong Kong was. In the meantime independence is merely a matter of semantics – and the Taiwanese, in the end, both accept and welcome that reality. It’s a nation of 25 million people, roughly the size of Shanghai. What possible reason could there be for them to lunge at that windmill? And they don’t want to anyway.

Imagine how much taxes could be reduced if we elected our political representatives on the basis of pragmatism instead of ideology. Don’t get me wrong; ideology is great, as far as it goes. But that’s not very far. Geo-politics is governed by the laws of nature. And nature doesn’t stray far from pragmatism. Nature lives by the laws of the food chain.

So does geo-politics. Only the politicians don’t get it. Or maybe they do. Perhaps they are merely living in their own pragmatism. There’s money, after all, to be made in pontification. Plenty of money.

As one who helps foot the bill, I’m not bitter about that. Such is the way things work. I just hope that ultimately we keep it all in perspective.

As I said before, the islands are there. And there will be military installations there – visible or not. Let’s move on.

Will the U.S. give San Diego back to Mexico? Will the Mexicans ask? Both are doubtful. Instead of focusing on ideology I’ve often felt we should elect our political leaders on the basis of their pragmatism. That is, after all, how the world really works.

View the author’s literary work written under the pen name of Avam Hale. Both books are available at Amazon and most major online retailers in both electronic and print formats.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China  Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.