The prospects of a Third World War are increasing. North Korea is openly violating the United Nations (UN) Security Council’s resolutions, terrorism is running rampant in Europe, and most alarmingly to some, there is the South China Sea dispute. As a dispute that pits the world’s two superpowers against each other, some journalists are saying this issue could be the precursor for global disaster. How should South Korea, sandwiched between the two, react to a dispute that could end in war?
For decades China has been laying claim to the South China Sea and its hidden resources. In 1947, it issued a map illustrating why it had the right to claim all the territories within the Nine-Dash line, a demarcation in the South China Sea. Historically, China contended, it has always had a claim to the territories within the Nine-Dash line, which includes the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal. Using both military and diplomatic means to secure the region, China spent the next few decades driving away Vietnamese, Philippine and Indonesian forces stationed near the aforementioned islands.
The dispute stems from China’s claims to up to 90 percent of the South China Sea. Such a claim enables China to encroach upon the waters of Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) dictates that the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for each nation extends to 200 nautical miles beyond its coastlines, but the Nine-Dash line violates this regulation.
Incensed by China’s blatant violation of UNCLOS and its aggressive military tactics, the Philippines took the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2013, accusing China of flouting international law. China has repeatedly refused to recognize the authority of the PCA and has instead increased its military hold on the South China Sea, spurring the United States (U.S.) to sail its own warships into the region and join the fray. With the inauguration of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, an avowed conservative and nationalist, the Philippines have only become more vociferous. In July 2016, the PCA finally reached a verdict, refusing to acknowledge China’s rights to the territories within the Nine-Dash line. China’s response has been open dissent.
Ostensibly, the South China Sea dispute is purely an economic conflict. Establishing a monopoly over the South China Sea could give any nation unlimited access to bountiful natural resources such as oil and natural gas, not to mention control over the invaluable trade routes in the region. However, its ramifications are not just limited to the economic; they stretch from political to potentially worldending.
▲ The Nine-Dash Line demarcation. Provided by economist.com
The Middle Country
Sinocentrism, a form of nationalism that views China as the center of the world, is far-reaching, all consuming, and the primary driving force behind China’s propensity for assimilating neighboring regions. Perhaps the most famous example of Sinocentrism is the Tibetan sovereignty debate, in which China claimed and the state of Tibet as its own. Tibetans have rallied against China’s advances for many years to no avail, with the Dalai Lama himself eventually settling for Tibetan autonomy instead of independence and many third party nations such as the U.S. now supporting China’s claim that Tibet is not an independent nation.
An instance of Sinocentrism that most South Koreans will be familiar with is the Northeast Borderland History and the Chain of Events Research Project, simply known as the Northeast Project. In the project, Chinese scholars and archaeologists claim to uncover historical evidence or reinterpret history from a Sinocentric point of view in order to assert that Manchuria and North Korean territories historically belonged to China. Even though China’s historical revisionism has received international criticism, China has unabashedly continued with the project, expanding its scope to include South Korean territories as well.
With that in mind, it is easy to consider the South China Sea dispute a form of Sinocentrism as well, especially considering that in occupying the South China Sea, China has now literally become the “middle country,” a superpower on both land and sea. The dispute’s Sinocentric undertones are also evident in China’s justification of the Nine-Dash line, which rests on their historical rights taking precedence over international law.
Professor Lee Shin-hwa (Political Science and International Relations) presented a possible reason for the sudden rise in Sinocentrism. “To China, Sinocentrism is and always has been a part of their culture,” she said. “China has been the underdog only for the previous century, so in a way, the Chinese people feel entitled to the territories China seizes. They do not see China as the challenger, but a victim out to retake what is rightfully theirs.” Sinocentrism thus perceived is the manifestation of this general feeling of entitlement, which explains why it has grown proportionately to China’s international influence.
▲ U.S. Aircraft Carrier in the South China Sea. Provided by asianews.it
Additionally, Donald Trump and the U.S. nationalism he represents could be a potential boon for China’s power play in the region. “Trump may be a blessing in disguise for China,” said professor Lee. “With Trump arguing for a more isolationist foreign policy and even Clinton likely to opt out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), China finally has the opportunity to exert its full power over Southeast Asia as the U.S. pulls out of the region,” she added.
A Clash of Titans
The South China Sea dispute, due to U.S. interests in the region, could incite armed conflict between the U.S. and China, arguably the two greatest superpowers in the world. Journalists from magazines such as The Economist and The Diplomat are writing that the U.S. and China “are destined to fall into a ‘Thucydides Trap’.” The Thucydides Trap refers to a situation where a rising power challenges an established power, which ultimately leads to war. The most famous example of the trap is found in Sparta and Athens’s rivalry, where the two city-states’ conflict led to their rise to power and subsequent downfall. This seems to be exactly where the U.S. and China are headed.
The strained relationship between the two superpowers was only exacerbated when China chose to disregard the PCA ruling and continue military construction in the South China Sea. The decision to place Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles in South Korea, which China vehemently opposed, was another recent contributor to the heightening hostility between the U.S. and China. The THAAD incident, coupled with the South China Sea dispute, could possibly “bring about a new cold war,” as South China Morning Post so eloquently puts it.
Fortunately, it is improbable that the dispute will become violent in the foreseeable future. Reportedly, China announced that it has “no intention of going to war over the South China Sea,” and its military presence in the waters is merely a means to “alleviate the public’s nationalistic fervor.” Professor Lee identified the primary reason behind China’s reluctance for conflict as a wariness of the U.S. “It is unlikely that all-out nuclear war will erupt between China and the U.S. because China still recognizes America’s global superiority,” she said. “The dispute might escalate to a naval skirmish, but it will not go further than that.”
Still, there is much to worry about. That the upcoming U.S. administration will possibly interfere less in South China Sea matters, as mentioned above, does not mean that it will not interfere at all. The Obama administration has embraced a more lenient stance when dealing with China, but professor Lee said she believes this will be reversed if Trump becomes president. A tougher, no-nonsense approach from the U.S. concerning the dispute may be the final catalyst for military conflict in the South China Sea.
▲ Professor Lee Shin-hwa (Political Science and International Relations).Photographed by Kim Ji Won
Stuck in the Middle
There have been some beneficiaries of the South China Sea dispute, namely China itself, but South Korea is definitely not one of them. Ever since the outbreak of the Korean War, South Korea has been stuck between global superpowers, be it Russia and the U.S. or China and the U.S. As of now, South Korea is abiding by China’s recommendation that it stay neutral, or implicitly support China by not accepting the PCA ruling. Considering the sway China holds over South Korea, it is understandable why the Korean government is so reluctant to support the PCA ruling and risk estrangement from China.
China’s threat to South Korea is a very tangible one, as China has previously demonstrated that it has both the ability and the willingness to severely impede South Korea’s political and economic status. For one, China, being one of South Korea’s largest trading partners, can regulate the amount of South Korean investment and imports to devastating effect. Most notably, China restricted the importation of South Korean cell phones and polyethylene in 2000 to coerce South Korea into lowering safeguard measures against Chinese garlic. South Korea’s position as a member in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) further indicates that China can heavily influence South Korea’s economy.
Popular opinion in South Korea is favorable toward China as well. Victoria, Fey and Chaoru, Korean celebrities of Chinese descent, have come forth on social networking service (SNS) websites to publicly announce their support of China in the South China Sea dispute. The looming threat of North Korea means that the South Korean media is also wary of upsetting China. Indeed, when it comes to matters concerning the relationship with North Korea, the media often makes sure to advise against any action that could provoke China.
In contrast to the prevalent pro-Chinese sentiment, professor Lee brought up the dangers of alienating the U.S. “South Korea is currently hewing closer to China by acquiescing to China’s demands in the South China Sea, but it must never lose sight of the fact that it is a U.S. ally first and foremost,” she warned. “If South Korea withdraws from its alliance with Japan and the U.S., it will likely be left all alone, since there is no guarantee that China will welcome South Korea as its ally once it leaves the U.S.”
So how exactly should South Korea react to the South China Sea dispute going forward? “South Korea should heed the example of Australia,” professor Lee suggests, explaining how Australia was able to maintain neutrality by publicly supporting the PCA ruling while using the upcoming Group of 20 (G20) summit in Shanghai as a bargaining chip to remain in China’s good graces. Her proposition is the most sensible one yet. Whenever the South Korean government makes an important international decision its rationale usually involves how the U.S. and China would perceive it, as seen during the government’s decision to leave the TPP, join the AIIB, and place THAAD missiles. In these cases, South Korea was not exercising agency; it was submitting to authority.
Australia is a good role model for South Korea precisely because it has the conviction that South Korea sorely lacks. Even though publicly supporting the PCA ruling was a surefire way to antagonize China, Australia devised a clever plan to make sure that it still remained neutral. While its precarious situation with North Korea and the presence of the U.S. military in the country prevents South Korea from becoming a completely neutral nation like Australia, South Korea should still take notes from Australia’s example on how to balance turbulent foreign relations while not being beholden to any superpower. The day when South Korea abandons its submissiveness and develops an astute, tenable foreign policy strategy is when it will become a truly autonomous nation.