Is China the new bully in town?

by Barry

China seems to think it can do what it likes in the South China Sea with impunity. The land grab by China of an area claimed by other nations has been rejected by the maritime affairs tribunal. China has stated that it doesn’t recognise the tribunal and is not bound by its decisions. They hope to create more economic territory for themselves by building facts on the ground.

“A UN-backed international tribunal has ruled that China has no “historic title” over waters or resources in the South China Sea.

A five-member tribunal of maritime affairs experts in The Hague issued its ruling, after a bitter dispute between Beijing and the Philippines continued, in a closely-watched case that risks ratcheting up tensions in Southeast Asia.

The tribunal set up by the Permanent Court of Arbitration is allowed to arbitrate on matters of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

It has the power to make a decision that cannot be appealed.

However, the tribunal and the PCA have no means to enforce the verdict, with compliance left to the parties concerned.

Manila and its allies – including the United States – say China will nevertheless be bound by the ruling.

But Beijing has said from the start that the tribunal is invalid and has boycotted its proceedings. 

The Philippines is hoping the favourable ruling will help to build international pressure on China to make concessions and reverse or stall its expansionist efforts in the sea.”

The map below shows the level of outrageousness of the Chinese claim. Because they are becoming the dominant power in the region they seem to feel they can behave with impunity and are unaccountable to anyone.


The high level of state control over information creates risk for the people of China as they have been fed the appropriate government line, with associated justifications for the official position. This is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, if they have to back down then the government will lose face with its own people. This raises the question of how far they will go to save face. Secondly, as a response to the official position, will the people demand that the government stand firm in the face of global opposition for the sake of national pride?

This whole piece is illogical in that if the competing countries can use the same mapping process then they could claim the territory as close to China as, say, China claims to the Philippines or Brunei.

For some reason China now thinks that it can do what it likes with impunity. So, will the other nations stand up to this land grab? If they don’t what will be the next step? It is showing all the arrogance of a nouveau riche global entity. They have got away with every dodgy action thus far. So, why wouldn’t they believe they can keep going? Some history: they walked into Tibet and took it off the locals and populated it with Han Chinese so that the locals are now a minority. They will take Taiwan by force if necessary. And then there is Tiananmen Square. These are known collectively as the three Ts and are what you don’t talk about if you want to be left alone in mainland China.

I wonder if China is a little drunk with its own success and starting to believe that, like the Titanic, they are unsinkable. After all, they have not known failure yet or had the levelling of economic slaps like the great depression.

How effective would economic sanctions be on China? It is a nation that has built its economy on exports and being the factory of the world. I would argue that it is very vulnerable. Unlike Japan and the US, which built a lot of their economic strength on domestic consumption that they then exported to the world, China is different in that the domestic economy is not that strong compared with exports. So, if exports dropped significantly I think China’s economy would tip over fairly quickly, or at the least frighten the markets and investment.

I don’t think this problem needs to be solved militarily; I think it can be done with the threat of economic sanctions on Chinese exports. With China’s GDP at around US$10 billion, to the US at US$17 billion and the EU (including UK at this point) of US$18 billion, there is room for pressure on China to back down. Russia may stand with its old friend but with GDP of US$2 billion it is hardly a game-changer. China is estimated to be running a current total debt to GDP ratio of around 250% so there is weakness to exploit.

Will they back down? I think they may have created the law of unintended consequence in that by controlling the messages the people get, and denying access to the rest of global opinion that may challenge the government position, they have painted themselves into a corner that will lose face for them to back down. Are they willing to face the economic consequences? Who knows? Politicians can be crazy animals when cornered.

One thing I am confident of. If we have a President Trump in the White House the US will stand beside its old friend the Philippines, and I suspect Vietnam who, incidentally, have been scrapping with the Chinese for over a thousand years. And, more recently, in 1979 when China invaded Vietnam, which ironically didn’t go so well for the Chinese.

If we have a President Clinton, think Neville Chamberlain and appeasement. We are certainly living in interesting times.


– NZ Herald

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