Image source: Get Real Post

Although the exact analysis varies depending on whom you ask, it’s generally acknowledged that something like a cold war has settled upon East Asia. On one side is China, the traditional power of this part of the world, a proud country eagerly leveraging its newfound economic influence to reassert itself as a hegemon and woo its neighbors. On the other side is America, the global superpower, the established power ever since World War II with a fearsome navy and business presence. Even though it’s an outside power, it exerts influence in East Asia through an ally network — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia — and is wooing China’s neighbors itself. Especially over disputed territories like the South China Sea, the 2 sides face each other down, outwardly smiling but inwardly tense and suspicious, nervously eyeing each other’s moves and trying to anticipate future developments before it’s too late.

Despite China’s impressive advantages, it’s usually conceded that America has the stronger position in this contest. But recent developments have thrown the whole strategic calculus of East Asia into doubt and confusion, and they’ve come from where most would least suspect it: the Philippines.

Unlike most other parts of East Asia, the Philippines does not have a particularly long history. An archipelago on the edge of Asia, its culture has as much in common with the relaxed lifestyle of the Pacific Islands as mainland Asia. It was a collection of mostly inconsequential chiefdoms isolated from Asia until the 1500s, when Spain conquered it. The Philippines (named after Spanish king Felipe II) remained under Spanish rule for over 300 years, and imbibed a lot of Spanish culture in the process, especially Roman Catholicism.

The Philippines was dragged into the Spanish-American War in 1898. Spain kept a sizeable fleet in Manila, the capital, and America sent a squadron to sink it. Spain’s defeat left a power vacuum in the Philippines, which the Filipinos rushed to fill. America, however, decided that they couldn’t be trusted to govern themselves. (President William McKinley’s fervent religiosity was a factor — he wanted to convert the Philippines to “Christianity,” by which he meant Protestant Christianity). It launched a ruthless war of conquest to annihilate the Philippine government and keep its foothold in Asia. Soldiers fanned out around the countryside, stamping out guerrillas, putting villages to the torch, and conducting sweeping massacres in hard-to-conquer areas. One general ordered his soldiers to kill everyone over 10 years old. Prisoners were tortured, often to death.

This brutal conquest left lasting bitterness in the islands, but by most accounts American rule turned out to be benevolent. A policy of mass education brought ordinary Filipinos in touch with the outside world far more than their counterparts elsewhere in the colonized world. Uninterested in long-term colonization, America fostered a native governing class to ensure a smooth transition of power. The Philippines became integrated into the Asian trading network and found new markets for its agricultural products. Protestant evangelism didn’t make much headway, but America did convert Filipinos to the temptations of jazz music and Hollywood movies.

This all came crashing down with World War II, when Japan invaded and conquered the Philippines as part of its general swallowing of Southeast Asia. Americans shared in the hardships of the Filipinos during this period, suffering the infamous Bataan Death March into inhumane prisoner-of-war camps and coping with privation and discrimination under Japanese rule. An American-Filipino insurgency weakened Japanese authority, which then collapsed in an American counter-invasion in 1944, going out in a horrific blaze of destruction as Manila was bombed and shot up beyond recognition.

After the war, America promptly granted the Philippines independence, but it maintained a heavy influence. Most obviously, it kept a military presence there, especially at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station north of Manila. America propped up the Philippines’ presidents and even covertly engineered the rise to power of one of them, Ramon Magsaysay. The Philippines got a lot of military aid to defeat 2 different Communist insurgencies, the Hukbalahaps and the New People’s Army, and an ongoing insurgency among Muslims in the southern island of Mindanao. American economic interests remained entrenched in the Philippines long after independence, and the US leaned heavily on the Philippine government to leave them alone.

The Philippines’ post-colonial history has been relatively smooth, and the country avoided the war, bloodbaths and poverty that afflicted other Southeast Asian countries. But it’s had a persistent reputation as the region’s great underachiever. Unequal land distribution concentrated wealth and limited advancement for farmers, leading to the growth of squalid slums around Manila as poor farmers moved there haphazardly. Although its economic position was originally in the forefront of Southeast Asia, tepid growth over the years has led it to stall around the middle. Politics revolved around personalities and dynasties more than ideology or policy. The aforementioned Communist rebels seized big parts of the country, especially in the south. All of these problems came to a head under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986), who stole billions of dollars while ignoring deteriorating social conditions. In the end he was deposed by a popular revolution led by Corazon Aquino, the widow of a political opponent he had murdered — again on personality alone. To the last minute he was propped up by American president Ronald Reagan, who saw him as a good friend and doughty anti-Communist.

A surge in anti-American sentiment in 1991 led to the transfer of Clark and Subic Bay to Philippine control. The end of the Cold War helped.

As might be clear, the Philippines has a complicated relationship with the US, deeper than any other country in East Asia. For the most part, though, it’s warm and close. On a political and strategic level, America has continued to act as the Philippines’ main patron and military advisor, and Philippine presidents have kept close ties with their American counterparts. The Philippines has been at the forefront of the South China Sea dispute with China and has incurred China’s wrath for being most obstinate and assertive of its claims over nearby islands and the fishing areas around them. Since China is much, much stronger, and cooperation with other countries in Southeast Asia is flimsy, that means it has to lean hard on America for support. America has obliged by offering to move back into its old military bases, which, given their location on the South China Sea, are as strategically vital as ever.

On a cultural level, Filipinos are more closely linked to the US than anyone else in Asia. English, thanks to America’s mass education policy, is widely spoken, and often without the thick accents of other Asians. American movies, TV shows, and music remain wildly popular. Most of the cover bands touring Asian hotels are Filipino. Filipinos are the 2nd-largest Asian minority in America (after Chinese), where they perform a disproportionate share of farming and service jobs like housekeeping and babysitting.

Early this year, the Philippine-American connection seemed closer than ever. An international court in the Netherlands on China’s expansive South China Sea claims ruled in the Philippines’ favor, giving it the legal authority, at least, to stand up to China. One of the candidates in the presidential election (albeit a fringe one), Arturo Reyes, even ran on a platform of seeking annexation to the US.

And then Rodrigo Duterte was elected president.

Duterte was originally mayor of Davao, the main city on Mindanao. Mindanao is the Philippine’s 2nd-biggest island, but it’s historically been a neglected area, mostly because of high crime and the aforementioned Muslim insurgency. Duterte tackled the crime problem by killing anyone involved, including drug addicts, earning him the nickname “Duterte Harry.” It didn’t actually push down Davao’s murder rate, but it earned him a reputation as a politician who gets things done, and that was music to the ears of a population tired of stagnation and crooked politicians. Grandstanding against China, including the vow to jet-ski out to the disputed Scarborough Shoal to plant the Philippine flag, played to nationalist fervor.

As president, Duterte has lived up to his reputation, encouraging cops to gun down gangsters, junkies, and anyone involved (or rumored to be involved) in drug trafficking. The result is a grim death toll (over 3,000 so far) and overcrowded prisons. Duterte approves; as he told reporters in September, “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there are 3 million drug addicts. … I’d be happy to slaughter them.” He isn’t a big fan of journalists either, claiming “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.” The violence has had a chilling reputation on the Philippines’ international reputation, which Duterte brushes off, claiming it as a necessary measure to save his country from “perdition.”


Philippine jails used to be known for staging Michael Jackson dances. Now… Image source: AFP/Getty Images

Duterte may be making even bigger waves internationally. He is deeply, hatefully anti-American, which was first made clear when he thundered at Barack Obama for criticizing his drug war. “Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum,” he yelled — referring to a September summit of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations). He didn’t get the chance: Obama cancelled the meeting, realizing Duterte was not in a mood for talking. The Filipino has since gone on to tear into America for its atrocities in the Philippine-American War and for its condescension and haughty imperialism toward its allies.

As a logical result of this anti-Americanism, Duterte has rapidly pivoted towards China instead. On his first trip there last week, he boldly announced his “separation” from America. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia,” he told a roomful of Chinese businessmen. “It’s the only way.” The tangible benefits of the visit were a lifting of sanctions China had placed on the Philippines for standing up to it; the Philippines can now sell its delicious fruit in China again, and Chinese tourists will no longer be discouraged from traveling there. The Philippines also signed $13.5 billion in trade deals and was promised a $3 billion development loan and more lucrative trade deals to come. In return, it’s more or less ceded Scarborough Shoal. (Duterte’s brushed off the jet-ski thing as “hyperbole.”)

Just to make things interesting, Duterte has also cozied up to Japan on his trip there this week. He spoke warmly about the Japanese people and invited more Japanese investment and economic exchanges with the Philippines. He avoided committing any outrages that might offend the sensitive Japanese. But he also invited Japan to play a role in mediating the South China Sea dispute (which it really has no interest in) and continued to thunder against the US, fervently wishing for the day when he “no longer see[s] any military troops or soldiers in my country, except for Filipino soldiers.” Since Japan is Washington’s second-most staunch ally in East Asia, this will mean some tricky 4-way balancing in the future.

So how has America reacted to all of this? With bewilderment, for the most part. American officials seem stunned, confused, and patient. Despite Duterte’s personal animosity against their country (which might stem from sexual abuse he got as a boy from an American priest), there was very little indication that this would happen. 92% of Filipinos have favorable opinions of America — more than any other country. America paid dearly to free the Philippines from Japanese occupation (although some Filipinos grumble that Japan wouldn’t even have attacked if it weren’t for the American presence). Previous Philippine presidents have been friendly to America. Duterte’s underlings add to the confusion, since his statements haven’t been followed up with governmental actions yet. His trade minister denied that the Philippines is really “separating” from America, and shortly before the China trip, his foreign secretary reaffirmed the Philippines’ “special relationship.” Even after Duterte said he wanted American troops out of his country on his Japan trip, his foreign secretary explained that “There is no reason at this time to terminate our agreements because our national interests still continue to converge.” American remarks have mostly condemned Duterte’s rhetoric without retaliating in any meaningful way, suggesting that officials are waiting and seeing what happens next.

It is hard to tell what will happen next. Duterte has thrown the whole region into disarray. Will the Philippines become another Chinese vassal? Will Vietnam — another country with a big dispute with China and a complicated relationship with America — become America’s next best friend? Will Filipinos stand for a major break in relations with America (or continued bloodshed, for that matter)? Will Duterte, given his macho tendencies and preference for China, become another tough-guy dictator? How will America patrol East Asia without reliable bases in the Philippines? Will other Southeast Asian countries maintain the will to stand up to China in this context?

The opening of Myanmar and its subsequent turn towards the West beginning in 2011 was the 1st big change in Southeast Asia this decade. Duterte might be the 2nd. Or he might be overthrown, or impeached, or face serious resistance from his bureaucracy and Manila’s powerful business community. It is frankly hard for most analysts to imagine Pinoys casting off a relationship that has brought them a lot of benefits (close economic ties, a security blanket, a second home for many) to snuggle up to a country feared and mistrusted by most of its neighbors and without historically close ties with the Philippines.* But until the matter is cleared up, Duterte will serve as an important warning for other countries about what happens when you elect assholes.


There is a significant and old Chinese community in the Philippines, but culturally the 2 countries are quite far apart and Filipino opinions on the Chinese have generally not been high.


ASEAN leaders

ASEAN’s leaders always have to do this at each summit. For extra nerd points, name the country each one is from! (Here’s a hint for #2.) Image source: Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines

In the name of unity, strength, and expanded markets, countries have been banding together into regional unions since World War II destroyed colonial empires and discredited old-fashioned international relations. The European Union (EU), with its common currency, multi-armed bureaucracy and regional parliament, is the most famous of these, and justly so — it’s the world’s 2nd-largest economy (or #1, depending on whom you ask) and has its own foreign relations. But there are other regional unions, too, with their own distinctive identities and cultures.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN; pronounced asean, not eizien) is probably the 2nd-most important of these, even though only Southeast Asians and foreign policy wonks seem to know about it. But it’s an increasingly relevant and interesting group, so it’s high time for us to check it out.


Image source: ASEAN UP

Southeast Asia, above all else, is characterized by its diversity. Thanks mostly to its geography — with most of its people living on a series of islands scattered around the sea and the long Malay Peninsula being the only land link with the river-based kingdoms on the mainland — Southeast Asians went through most of their history without a sense of common identity or much interest in their neighbors. The Khmer Empire and, later, Siam might have dominated the mainland, and Srivijaya and Majapahit may have dominated the islands, but there was no pan-Southeast Asian identity until recently. Even religiously, the region isn’t on the same page: the mainland is fervently Buddhist while the islands mostly prefer Islam. The Philippines was converted to Christianity by Spain; Vietnam has its own religion strongly influenced by China.

The colonial era gave Southeast Asia a new sense of identity simply because almost everyone was colonized. India, to the west, was dominated by Britain; China, to the north, remained independent. Southeast Asia came under British, Dutch, French, Spanish, American and Portuguese rule. That marked it off from the rest of Asia, but it still didn’t do much to unify it. The real dawn of a sense of “Southeast Asia” came during World War II, when the region was finally unified by Japan. Even then, “Southeast Asia” was a term mostly used by foreigners.

In the postwar period, though, some Southeast Asians began to see common links and interests among them. The big concern then was Communism; Communist insurgencies plagued most of the area’s new countries after the war, and Indonesia had one of the world’s biggest and most active Communist parties. A Communist regime took power in North Vietnam in 1954 and went on to destabilize and interfere with its neighbors. The innately conservative leaders of Southeast Asia were worried about social unrest, economic collapse and an impending Commie takeover. America threw together a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in 1954 to guard against this, but it only included Thailand and the Philippines (the rest were all foreigners!) and never amounted to much. Besides, after the struggle against colonists and Japan, Southeast Asians were eager to throw off foreign domination.

There were other impetuses behind the group’s formation. Indonesia and Malaysia went to war in 1963 over who would get northern Borneo. Malays in southern Thailand launched an (ongoing) insurgency in the hopes of secession. With the Communist threat looming, Indonesia’s new dictator, Suharto, was annoyed at the thought of petty squabbles like these distracting local leaders. He wanted to focus on the Communist threat and purged his country’s Communist party in 1965. He was the figure behind ASEAN’s creation in 1967.

Beyond the political motivations, ASEAN’s founders also had economic ambitions for their new union. It was meant to promote trade links and eventually create a common market for local goods. The original members — Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines — all had close links with the global economy and often their old masters and wanted to promote openness and cultural exchange. Tariffs were gradually reduced and protected sectors opened up until a free trade area was declared in 1992. (Meanwhile, tiny Brunei joined in 1984.) These ambitions ran into some difficulties due to basic economic realities, though: like the rest of the developing world, Southeast Asia is mostly rural, and depends on commodities and raw materials for its foreign exchange. It buys manufactured goods in return. This led it to try tricks like industrial investment projects involving components from different countries in ASEAN; they didn’t turn out very well.

Meanwhile, Communism was indeed held at bay (although the extent to which ASEAN was responsible for this is dubious). North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam and Communists took over Laos and Cambodia, but the results were stagnant, and none of the Communist insurgencies elsewhere in the region ever caught on. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Communist countries of Indochina had no leg to stand on. They opened up their economies, privatized many of their state-owned enterprises, and reversed collectivized agriculture. In the late ’90s, ASEAN’s old enemies joined the club, implicitly endorsing its liberal agenda. In a move that surprised many, even Myanmar, a non-Communist but closed, repressive, and impoverished country, joined in 1997. This makes ASEAN almost complete, encompassing all of Southeast Asia except East Timor.

ASEAN regularly holds summits and meetings of its members’ ministers, and occasionally meets with important foreigners (Americans, Indians, Chinese), but its meetings have a reputation for being staid, boilerplate and overall uneventful. But it made headlines recently for finally inaugurating the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015… on the very last day of the year.

The economic community was a long time in coming, although few predicted that it would actually come together in time. It aims to forge ASEAN into a single market and production base, encourage competitiveness and equitable development, and further integrate Southeast Asia into the global economy. And indeed, 70% of trade in the region is tariff-free. There are international rail, road, and energy infrastructure projects. The standards for some skilled positions have been unified, creating a common labor market and giving employers access to a broader base of talent.

To get the community going in time, though, involved a bit (O.K., maybe a lot) of fudging. Lim Hng Kiang, Singapore’s Minister of Trade & Industry, described ASEAN as “Like the swan, we do not always move forward. We sometimes go in rounds – but always gracefully.”

Non-tariff barriers to economic integration remain, from language tests for those skilled workers to quotas. There are still lots of protected sectors, even ones that are supposed to be open to competition across ASEAN — Indonesia protects its airlines, for example, and Malaysia shields its car industry. Except in Indochina and the Singapore area, few of ASEAN’s international transport links have come to fruition. The ASEAN Power Grid and Trans-ASEAN Gas Pipeline are only half-complete.

Southeast Asia’s biggest businesses tend to have cozy ties with the state, either via what’s called “crony capitalism” (as in Malaysia) or through state-owned enterprises (as in Vietnam). Industries are still in their infancy and governments feel obliged to protect them. Most of Southeast Asia’s businesses are small or medium-sized and can’t compete on a global scale. For all these reasons, ASEAN leaders only enact trade reforms when they want to. Intra-ASEAN trade still doesn’t make much economic sense, either. Singapore has been the local trading hub ever since it was founded in 1819, so it has been in the forefront of the drive to liberalize trade, but other countries trade more with China, Japan, or the West. Most Southeast Asian economies are part of a manufacturing chain with China, and there’s only so much lowering trade barriers can do.

As a result, ASEAN has developed its own culture of taking it easy and not enforcing the standards it sets. There is no penalty for breaking the rules. Unlike the EU, there is no political requirement — it started as a dictators’ club, and countries like Thailand and Vietnam are still staunch authoritarians. There is virtually no Brussels-style bureaucracy, just a small secretariat in Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia, ASEAN’s giant) with 400 employees and a budget of $17 million. ASEAN values consensus and harmony and avoids criticizing its members. This has led many (perhaps most) foreigners from writing it off as toothless.

Although ASEAN is primarily an economic union, it also has a big political component, which is why such a weird collection of economies has grouped together in the first place. It has been caught in the geopolitical tremors caused by the rise of China. Many of ASEAN’s members (Vietnam and the Philippines, and increasingly Malaysia and Myanmar) are worried about China’s growing assertiveness and its arrogance in diplomacy with the region. Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, are embroiled in a dispute with China over the sea and islands between them and have been visibly drawing closer to America in response. But everyone also has close business and diplomatic ties with China and is nervous about too sharp of a break. Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, in particular, are very poor and heavily dependent on China for infrastructure projects and development aid. When Cambodia hosted the ASEAN summit in 2012, Chinese pressure kept the group from issuing its usual joint statement. The same thing happened with a defense summit last November.

Part of the problem is a lack of leadership. France and (especially) Germany are the clear leaders of the EU, but history, geography and the aforementioned culture of consensus mean that the 10 countries of ASEAN rotate the chair each year and have equal power. Indonesia, with 40% of the area’s population and by far its biggest economy, would seem to be in a better position than Germany to dominate, but it lacks a history of imperialism, has a culture of diplomacy and persuasion, and is mostly inward-focused anyway. In fact, it’s been shown up by the small city-state of Singapore, which has a large, professional, English-speaking and culturally savvy diplomatic corps, a vision of economic and cultural integration, and a multiethnic composition that keeps nationalism out of the way. Thailand has been distracted by its political problems; Vietnam is a rising star catching up with the bigger economies, but still mostly focused on internal development and its relations with China and America.

This lack of cohesion, enforcement mechanisms, common culture, and failure to hold itself to strict standards has led foreigners to dismiss ASEAN as only a “talking shop” for heads of state to get together and compare notes with. It’s definitely nowhere near as coherent as the EU and doesn’t present much of an obstacle to Chinese ambition. If ASEAN wants to be taken seriously on the world stage, it will need to unite a little more.

I personally do not share the Western consensus of dismissal of ASEAN. It definitely has its problems, as I’ve pointed out, but sometimes I think the comparison with the EU gives rise to unrealistic expectations.

The EU has a fundamental common heritage and a shared trauma of conflict to pull it together. ASEAN lacks this. Myanmar’s people speak different languages, worship different gods, and have different cultures from, say, Filipinos. If ASEAN had stricter rules and standards, it would not have grown as fast as it did. ASEAN’s leaders welcome the club because they are treated fairly (as they perceive it) and face no overt pressure.

ASEAN’s founding declaration emphasizes things like “collaboration… on matters of common interest” and “assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities.” It’s meant to provide for closer links between its members, which helped prompt a sense of common identity and gradually spread the ideal of open borders and free trade among its members. In this sense it has made great strides since its founding. When ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, it can look back on decades of peace, economic dynamism, and the successful integration of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam — some of Asia’s poorest countries when they joined in the ’90s. No, it doesn’t have a common currency, but how could it? The gap between Myanmar (with $23 billion in trade) and Singapore (with $783 billion in trade) is just way too big.

Europeans also need to keep in mind that Asia has different cultural values. Democracy and public participation is not cherished as highly, especially not among the governing classes. Consensus and community are important. Cracking down on troublemakers and trying to clarify its culture and goals might alienate some members and even drive them out. ASEAN prefers to lead by example. It may lead to cheating and frustratingly slow progress, but I’m not convinced that it’s an ultimately ineffectual style. With the EU now mired in crisis and mutual hostility, ASEAN may even have something to teach the rest of the world.

ASEAN flag

The ASEAN flag. Guess what the bound stalks represent. Image source: World Flag Database


South China Sea

Image source: The Economist

The rise of China has unsettled much of the world and especially its neighbors, since like most rising powers it’s making its newfound strength and influence felt overseas. Chinese investment in Africa is so substantial at this point that it’s propping up entire countries. The Chinese alliance with Pakistan is tighter than ever, and China wants to build an oil pipeline across Pakistan to open up a backdoor route for its precious oil supply. China’s support for North Korea keeps that rickety regime erect despite international fury over its temper tantrums and crime. China’s hatred for Japan flares up from time to time through territorial disputes and complaints about Japan’s handling of its own war history.

But most of all, it’s the dispute in the South China Sea that disturbs the region, since more than anything else it shows that China wants to be the regional hegemon (dominant power) and doesn’t care who stands in its way. Let’s look at how this dispute flared up and consider whether it’s serious.

East Asia is fundamentally different from, say, Europe, because of its geography. The area is much bigger and more spread out. China takes up the bulk of the landmass, India most of the rest. Aside from the 5 countries of mainland Southeast Asia hanging underneath China, the rest of the countries are islands and peninsulas separated from each other and with very different histories and outlooks. In the center of Southeast Asia, though, is the South China Sea, which connects China with Vietnam, the Philippines, and, at the southern end, Borneo. It’s always been a very important stage for trade, since it’s easiest to approach China from the south (unless you’re northern nomads). It’s also how China has historically projected its influence over Southeast Asia. Chinese trade binds the region together, and Chinese settlers play important roles all over Southeast Asia, including in Vietnam and the Philippines, the main South China Sea countries. But for the most part, the countries ignored each other; there was never a Chinese imperial expansion southwards into Southeast Asia.* The countries mostly developed according to their own rhythms and cultures.

BUT… There are two groups of tiny islands in the South China Sea, and both of them are far enough away from land to make them hot-button issues to fight over. The Paracels are located between China and Vietnam. The Spratlys are pretty much in the middle of the sea (but pretty far from China). (Both of these groups have other names in local languages, which I won’t use here to be neutral.) To be blunt, it’s unclear who controlled these islands in premodern times. Most likely, it was nobody; they’re far from land and mostly of interest to passing fishermen. But there are overlapping claims and conflicting historical records that have fueled an ongoing dispute.

The disputes have raged on and off throughout the 1900s, but the stakes have risen in this decade as the countries around the sea have gotten more aggressive in defending their claims and sailing into the troubled waters. All involved are guilty of a certain degree of stubbornness, unrealistic claims, and arrogance, but one country has rattled more nerves than anyone else. I’ll bet you can guess which one.

Going by pure geography, China has a fairly weak claim to the sea — it has a smallish coastline along it and it’s far from the Spratlys. It does have historical records claiming the islands, but without settling them it’s hard to prove a strong connection. Also, China’s conception of foreign relations was a bit different in the imperial era; it saw itself as the only country that mattered, with most others as tributaries or satellites, and claimed places that would be surprised to be considered Chinese today.

Sand 1

Chinese dredgers expand a reef in the Spratly Islands, and widen its entrance, from 2012 to 2015. Image source: Center for Strategic and International Studies


But China has a strong claim in another category: raw military strength. Where once the occasional Chinese fishing boat sailed, coast guard ships patrolled instead. Now the Chinese navy roams the sea, intimidating other navies and muscling them out. (It kicked South Vietnamese soldiers off of the Paracels in 1974 when their country was falling apart and North Vietnam was too dependent on Chinese help to object.) Its navy has occupied Scarborough Shoal, a shoal not very far from the Philippines, since 2012, after reneging on an agreement for both China and the Philippines to pull back. An airstrip and city administration (that governs maybe a thousand people) has been built on Woody Island in the Paracels. The navy has been engaged in large-scale dredging operations in the Spratlys for the past 2 years, most likely to make the shallow atolls and inlets there into full-fledged islands, capable of housing…?

It should not be too hard to understand why this territorial dispute is the hottest one China’s involved in now. Look at the map above. China’s claim is by far the most aggressive, covering 90% of the sea. It basically restricts the other countries around it to their own narrow coastlines. It’s the equivalent of a big guy coming over to a table ringed by squabbling customers and scooping up all the food there. What makes matters worse is China’s haughty attitude toward the complaints it gets: it both thunders that there is no dispute to talk about and explodes when foreigners are found in “its” waters. China’s aggression has united the other countries in opposition to it, and they regularly complain about Chinese maneuvers in the region’s various forums. These never go anywhere and often degenerate into bickering and bad blood on all sides.

Why is China — and for that matter, everyone else — acting so assertively? In part, it’s nationalism. After enduring a century of humiliation by unexpectedly stronger foreign powers, China is determined to carve out a bigger place for itself in the world, and the South China Sea is a tempting target. Heck, it even has China’s name on it. Nationalism is a powerful force in other countries as well, and it makes it hard for any government to back down when it looks like it’s being pushed around. But the South China Sea is also a vital passageway, even more so now than before. Europe and East Asia are 2 of the world’s most critical economic regions, and most of the maritime traffic between them passes through the South China Sea (1/3 of all maritime traffic in the world, actually). Arabia and Iran are also west of China, and that means their precious, precious oil passes through the South China Sea. 80% of China’s oil comes through these waters. Finally, the South China Sea is rich in natural resources. There’s a medley of fish swimming through the ocean to tempt Asia’s seafood lovers, but also a bounty of oil and natural gas. China estimates up to 130 billion barrels of oil might lie under there.

The military aspect of this whole conflict is what makes observers increasingly nervous. The Chinese navy easily outclasses all of its rivals in the area. All the dredging and land-expansion could be put to use for military purposes. If the Paracels and Spratlys are turned into Chinese naval bases, China would be able to project its power into Southeast Asia and engage in a bit of old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. Its attitude has basically been to ignore international law (it didn’t even show up in court last year when the Philippines sued it over its claims and activities) and rely on force to get its way. Since it’s way stronger than any of its rivals, this is a dangerous tactic. It’s pushed the members of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the region’s multinational grouping) closer together than ever before – but that still might not be enough to face China down.

So what stands in the way of China exerting mastery over the waves? America, the post-World War II guarantor of stability in East Asia. America, despite its close alliance with the Philippines, doesn’t officially take a position in the dispute. But its attitude has tilted it decidedly against China. It wants to preserve freedom of navigation in the sea, which basically means letting its ships sail through it unhindered. A UN convention backs it up on this, but China claims the area around the Paracels and Spratlys as its territorial waters and harasses any ships that sail through them. This hasn’t stopped America from doing so in the past year, even though the diplomatic reaction from China was fierce. America has also sided with ASEAN in the regional forums that it can participate in. (Awkwardly, America itself hasn’t even ratified the UN convention on this.)

This does put Southeast Asia in an awkward position, though. As angry as it is at China and its “What are you gonna do about it, punk?” position, it can’t reasonably stand up to it. China is the dominant power in the region, after all. It has become East Asia’s economic dynamo. It has major commercial ties and investment throughout Southeast Asia. As galling as it may be, Southeast Asia would probably rather cede the sea than risk war over some sand. ASEAN’s M.O. has always been to emphasize geniality and commonality rather than address conflict, and it doesn’t have many levers to pull against China. All it can reasonably do is rely on America — and despite what some Americans say, its interest in the region is debatable, whereas for China it’s a core national interest.

Whether China actually seeks to dominate Southeast Asia as an imperial power is in doubt. It could just be trying to secure shipping lanes and planting the flag in a few specks of sand in the middle of the sea. But countries with growing economies and increasing worldwide investments tend to take steps to secure those investments with force. The relevant historical analogue here might be America itself 100 years ago. In 1898, it threw Spain out of its last colonies in the New World, Cuba and Puerto Rico. It then colonized Puerto Rico, set up a naval base in Cuba, and instigated a revolt in Panama so it’d be allowed to build a canal there. The Caribbean Sea became “an American lake” – a sea patrolled by the American navy, which was used to back up American investment in the Caribbean’s islands and even attack them when they didn’t do what America wanted. Along with America’s annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines, that was how the US took its first steps toward becoming a superpower.

Of course, at the time the US had presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, who crowed about American supremacy and took active steps to subjugate the Caribbean and Central America. China has steadily preached noninterference in foreign matters and denies any imperial intentions. After moving an oil rig into Vietnamese waters in 2014 provoked anti-Chinese riots, it’s come to realize the costs of its aggression and has been trying recently to present a kinder, more understanding face to Southeast Asia. It might not be too hard for China to portray America as the aggressor in the conflict – or, you know, for the US to actually be the aggressor, given its record.

The South China Sea dispute is a complicated issue. Figuring out how to untangle the overlapping claims and defuse the roiling national pride there would not be easy. (I haven’t even mentioned Taiwan, who also makes China’s expansive claims on the grounds that it, as the Republic of China, made the same claims back when it controlled China. Even though it doesn’t really border the South China Sea now.) It’s also important to recognize that China already is the dominant power in East Asia, and Great Powers usually look after their strategic weaknesses and hot spots carefully. But the international consensus, even outside of Southeast Asia, is that China is behaving aggressively and even imperialistically. Its coded message seems to be that might makes right. Its refusal to even discuss the issue screams that it lacks regard for its neighbors, some of whom (like Vietnam) have historic distrust of China already. For all the misgivings Southeast Asia collectively has about American military power there, it’s obviously leaning towards America in the overarching Sino-American showdown. (Vietnam has been noticeably cozying up to it, and the Philippines is welcoming American forces back there after a 2-decade absence.) The American-led international order has served it well since World War II, and China is an unknown, and somewhat worrying, factor.

So when America speaks of “pivoting” or “rebalancing” its attention towards East Asia, the South China Sea is definitely an area of concern. Like Ukraine, it’s not an issue America (or anyone else) really wants to inflame into open war, but also like Ukraine, America sees it as an important test of its will to stand up to cocky, unfriendly rising powers. Unless someone backs down, open war is what it might come to.

*The exception being Vietnam. There was also a Chinese invasion of Java at one point, but it failed and that was when China was under Mongol rule anyway.