Monday 23 May 2022 | 23:57 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 May 2022 | 23:57 | SYDNEY

Why China won't compromise at sea


Raoul Heinrichs

1 July 2011 14:41

Andrew Carr has distilled an important question out of our recent paper on maritime security in Indo-Pacific Asia: what accounts for Beijing's ambivalence about maritime confidence building, something which seems so conducive to Chinese interests? After all, such confidence building measures could allay regional concerns and impose greater predictability on maritime interactions along China's periphery.

Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie meets with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore during the 10th IISS Security Summit, 3 June 2011.

Andrew raises the possibility of a tactical ploy, an attempt on China's part at establishing a strong bargaining position by raising the diplomatic buy-in cost to the US. There may be something to this. Anyone who's had diplomatic dealings with China can attest to its reputation for driving a very hard bargain.

It was Chinese diplomats, after all, who achieved the impressive feat of bringing Australia's otherwise indomitable foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, to tears in Copenhagen. Chinese diplomats double blind-sided Washington for years at the Six-Party Talks, ratifying Pyongyang's de facto nuclear status under the guise of an attempt at disarmament. And, despite their country's weakness at the time, they extracted a cracking deal from Nixon and Kissinger in the 1970s which paved the way to a wholesale transformation of China's economy and decades of success.

So yes, Beijing knows how to play its diplomatic hand very well, indeed.

And yet there's something deeper, more fundamental, at the heart of China's reluctance to negotiate limits on its own maritime conduct in the South and East China Seas.

One reason, among others, involves a potent historical narrative that militates against any inclination to compromise. For China, the prospect of sitting at a table with a militarily dominant US, accepting limits, however modest, on its own prerogative and in its own backyard, echoes the most painful episodes in the Chinese national consciousness.

The legacy of China's 'century of humiliation', so called in part because of the imposition by Western maritime powers of unequal treaties that circumscribed Chinese sovereignty, is to be divested as China grows stronger, not reprised. For many in China, particularly the military, the enduring and inherent inequality in its dealings with the US makes such talks a non-starter on principle.

This is a principle that, deep down, the US understands well. In 1812 Washington acted even more extremely on the same rationale. As the Napoleonic wars raged in Europe, the US went to war against Britain in the western hemisphere to preserve its own sovereign prerogative in waters that it considered vital to American security, prestige and economic well-being.

In the face of British maritime dominance, and in the context of increasing diplomatic tensions arising out of an asymmetric balance of power, negotiation (though almost certainly a better option for the US, given the outcome of the war) was deemed unbefitting of an ambitious maritime nation.

China is unlikely to make the mistake of deliberately initiating war before it's ready — and that won't be for a another decade or two yet. In other important respects, however, Beijing is reading straight out of Washington's very own geopolitical playbook.

Photo courtesy of the US Department of Defence.