Recently, a CNN correspondent rode along on a Navy surveillance flight over the disputed Spratly islands, a group of uninhabited reefs, atolls, and islands claimed by the People's Republic of China, among others. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell apparently even told CNN that the flight and subsequent warnings from the Chinese indicate that there is "absolutely" a risk of the U.S. and China going to war sometime in the future.
A few days before that, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry concluded a two-day summit with China's top leaders. The major subject of the talks was U.S. "security concerns about Beijing's maritime ambitions in the South China Sea." To put that another way, when top leaders of the world's two most powerful countries met, they primarily discussed a small handful of uninhabited rocks in the middle of the ocean. This article argues that the increasing attention the media, the U.S., China, and its neighbors are paying to South China Sea "disputes" is counterproductive and exacerbating an otherwise minor security issue.
Teaching Chinese politics, I often find that after explaining a particular institution, situation, or reality in China, I end by commenting that the comparable system in this or that democratic country is hardly perfect either. When students inevitably ask: "what country does it the best?" I tend to come up with the same answer over and over, Sweden. Of course, no country is perfect, but Sweden, or more precisely in this case the nongovernmental Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society (SPAS), is once again demonstrating its remarkable ability to produce better solutions to common problems.
In the wake of allegations that Russian submarines have recently violated Swedish waters, the SPAS recently installed the Singing Sailor, an underwater "defense system" that consists of a neon sign showing a pink figure in white briefs and sailor hat. The sign reads "Welcome to Sweden - Gay since 1944" (a reference to the year Sweden legalized homosexuality). It also emits the message "this way if you are gay" in morse code. The sign is, of course, a reaction to recent official Russia repression of homosexuality.
But it is also far more than that. According to the SPAS "the sign is also a way to try to persuade the Swedish authorities to rethink using military means for national security." As SPAS understands, the problem with responding to military provocation in kind is that this is often exactly what the other side wants, and generally leads to escalation or, even worse, actual conflict.
When Putin starts sending in unmarked soldiers and missile launchers into your territory, you should be worried, very worried, and may need to respond with force. But if you think a small Russian submarine probably passed through your territorial waters, it is appropriate to respond with a bit of gentle mockery. Calling out this type of meaningless sabre-rattling as jingoistic machismo is a far better response than giving belligerent foreign generals the appearance of conflict that they desire.
This is a lesson that China and its neighbors, as well as the U.S., badly need to learn when it comes to their disputes over uninhabited rocks in the South China Sea. Despite having little to no value either strategically or economically, these rocks have increasingly garnered attention as potential flashpoints.
As with so many conflicts, hydrocarbons are involved in some of the disputes. The Chunxiao gas field is located near the disputed senkaku/diaoyu islands. Yet, the value of these resources is relatively small, especially compared to annual trade between the two nations (see my sarcastic graph from 2012). Additionally, China and Japan actually came to an agreement in 2008 to jointly develop the fields. Finally, at least some of fields extends into undisputed Chinese waters which means that China can safely drink Japan's milkshake regardless of any sovereignty issue.
A Google News search shows that over the past 10 years, there were over 180,000 articles that included the term Senkaku, Diaoyu, or their equivalents in characters. Assuming a word count of 1,200 words per article and an average circulation per newspaper of 1,000 (perhaps unrealistic as many of the articles are online only) we are talking about approximately 7 square kilometers of newspaper, just enough to cover the entire surface area of that island chain.
Of course, the over-coverage of this "crises" pales in comparison to even less weighty stories - equivalent calculations suggest that reporting on Kim Kardashian could cover the entire island-nation of Malta. Yet, there is the possibility of doing real damage here. Because the material stakes in this dispute are so low, the entire issue largely boils down to one of rhetoric and face. The more attention is paid to what should be a non-issue, the higher the stakes become, the harder it is for both sides to back down, and the more likely the world will see the first war in history to be fought over some uninhabited rocks.
Hawks argue that allowing China to expand its influence in the South China Sea would set a dangerous precedent. Yet this concern is overblown. The only precedent being set is that no one is going to bother to stop China from asserting sovereignty over some handfuls of uninhabited rocks. This would hardly be a signal that the US would fail to protect real strategic interests such as freedom of navigation through the South China Sea or to assist Taiwan in the case of invasion, an obligation that is more or less written into US law. Because these rocks are so insubstantial, the less attention they receive the harder it will be for the Chinese state to sell any outcome as a meaningful victory. China's generals may boast, but if foreign powers treat it as the non-issue that it is, it will be harder to convince average Chinese that anything has actually be accomplished. Indeed, as yet unpublished research by a Chinese graduate student of mine suggests that netizens' interest in these disputes is at its lowest point in years.
If only China and its neighbors had organizations like the SPAS who understood the value of diffusing pointlessly tense military situations with a bit of levity. Of course, China would be highly unlikely to let a civil society group of that kind flourish, which is a far better topic of discussion for John Kerry and Xi Jinping.