The trust deficit is international

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China’s recent decision to lob a billion dollar oil rig into the disputed South China Sea, some 220 km off the coast of Vietnam, seemingly embodies the old maxim that possession is nine-tenths of the law.  

The rig is located near the Paracel Islands, which the Chinese Communist Party won part of (the Amphitrite group) during their civil war with the Nationalists in 1950 and the remaining islands (the Crescent group) from US backed South Vietnam in 1974.  After the collapse of South Vietnam two years later the newly unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam inherited South Vietnam’s claim. 

Until recently the islands were just one more piece of disputed territory in the South China Sea. No less than seven sovereign nations – Brunei, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – push their claims for the expanses of water, submerged minerals and islands that make up one of the world’s most important shipping lanes. 

As such any action that might tip the balance to one claimant over another is recorded with the precision of a seismometer’s needle.  An operational deep sea-drilling rig is analogous to a sizeable geopolitical quake.  And Vietnam has responded in kind.

Flotillas have been launched, ships have allegedly rammed each other like angrily jousting knights, an anti-Chinese protest has lurched into pogrom-like violence and businesses have been burned to the ground for even using Chinese characters.  China is now evacuating its citizens from potential danger as Vietnam’s leaders seek to reign in the anti-Chinese sentiment they are accused of stoking. 

Much commentary has focused on the turbulent and intertwined history of Vietnam and China. The great nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh illustrated Vietnam’s longstanding ambivalence towards their on-again, off-again ally when he declared in the midst of First Indochina War: 

You fools! Don't you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. …  But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French s--t for five years than to eat Chinese s--t for the rest of my life.

However there is a deeper, structural cause to the current conflict that can be explained outside of the unique history of these two nations. It is also an explanation that raises worrying questions for the future of peace in the region.

Despite all pretences of civilisation, modern international relations remain deeply anarchic. Not in the Hobbesian sense that chaos reigns and life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. But rather as an ordering principle, where in our current system of independent states there is no central authority above us.  

If Eastern Ukraine was invaded tomorrow, for example (regardless of the likelihood of this happening), there is no strong, impartial arbitrator that might step in to adjudicate. Each independent state is left to their web of alliances and whatever military strength they can marshal to defend itself. The United Nations might provide a forum for international collaboration but it is hardly a ‘government of governments.’ 

This might be called the night watchman rule. When things go bad, as they have in Tibet, West Papua, Palestine etc. there is no night watchman to swoop in and help out in the same way a modern police force and judicial system does within a nation state. 

The implications of this is teased out in a masterful if depressing work by John Mearsheimer called The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

The best way for states to survive in an anarchic system in which others states … might be hostile is to have more rather than less power. This logic… drives states to maximise their share of world power.

And so the astronomical rise of China is leading to a commensurate increase in defence spending in neighbouring nations. This explains why, when defence spending at a global level has fallen the last two years in a row, in Asia it actually increased last year by 3.6 per cent. China might rise into a peaceful, responsible Middle Kingdom, but without a night watchman to offer any insurance, sovereign states place their assurances in their own armouries. 

Australia is no different. Despite the bloodletting of the recent budget, the Coalition could still fork out some 12 billion dollars for 58 Joint Strike Fighters that might be ‘flying lemons’. Why? Because no one wants to be caught without a big stick in a genuinely dangerous world. 

The tragedy is more than the absence of a ‘government of governments’.  Those seeking a solution in the night watchman should surely recall Plato’s sage observation that ‘this and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector’.

But without it we are doomed to seemingly endless competition. China looks out and sees a ring of antagonistic states.  As it increases its military spending to assert itself – something the US did with great effect following the Monroe doctrine centuries earlier – those neighbouring states will follow suit by increasing their defence spending, which only adds further impetus for China to continue upward defence spending. 

In a world where trust is always in deficit, the only one who wins is the arms dealer.

So the current conflict between Vietnam and China is sadly somewhat predictable. As China grows, its ‘core interests’ will increase. As its ability to project its power increases, so does the likelihood of it taking inflammatory unilateral action.  The potential for dangerous missteps, even with rational actors on all sides, should be obvious. 

This is part of the reality of the Asian Century. Australia will need statesmen and women of the highest calibre to navigate these waters. But ultimately, if we are to secure a lasting peace, we may need to navigate out of these waters all together and create an international order that is actually that; ordered. 


Evan Ellis headshotEvan Ellis is a freelance journalist currently completing his Masters in International Studies with a China major.

Joint strike fighters image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Evan Ellis, China, Vietnam, militarism, Asian Century, arms race

 

 

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Existing comments

Si vis pacem, para bellum. Preparing for war is the best way to secure peace. So the UN is a failed "government of governments". I like that term. And even a "night watchman role" is unavailable. Poor planet, Earth, Terra, Tellus! All we can pray seems to be "Maranatha! --- Come, Lord!" I am 93 years old so I can only warn (?) my children and grandchildren about the rest of the century. []
Gauvain Smith | 20 May 2014


EVAN ELLIS ! In regard to GLOBAL TRUST DEFICIT please provide your Email Address for astonishing Support Evidence ! MHP - Social Research Society
Michael Patek | 20 May 2014


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