I still remember very clearly sitting in a contemporary issues class during my senior year of high school in early 2003. To spark a discussion, the teacher asked who supported the imminent US invasion of Iraq. All 25 of the students raised their hands except two – myself, and a German exchange student.
The others listed plenty of reasons for their support: Saddam was a mad man, he was building weapons of mass destruction, he’d killed his own people and he may have had a hand in 9/11. I wouldn’t have been so bothered if I’d felt those were the real motives for nearly the entire class wanting war. But the flimsy and uninformed way many of them made their arguments suggested those reasons were just convenient excuses they were all too happy to latch on to. Quite simply, we had a badass military and it feels good to watch your country flex its muscles – especially when you have almost no chance of being personally affected by the collateral damage.
A few weeks ago I felt déjà vu from that day when I was speaking to a class of 20 Chinese grad students in Beijing. We got on the topic of the South China Sea and I expressed concern that a military conflict would break out there someday soon. One girl replied by saying, “I would welcome that.”
Other students chimed in, agreeing that they’d like to see China attack Vietnam or the Philippines. Some wanted to solidify territorial claims; others just wanted to “teach them a lesson” without specifying what exactly that lesson would be. If there were any dissenters in the class, they didn’t speak up.
Over the past few days tension has been rising between China and the Philippines over a disputed island. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed its readiness for battle, and a slew of editorials have said things like “peace will be a miracle if [Filipino] provocation lasts.”
This is nothing new. Brinksmanship over Chinese territorial claims happens pretty regularly. But after speaking with that class and looking at other current events, this time feels especially dangerous. Let’s pretend for a moment that we’re the Chinese government and weigh the pros and cons of going to war with the Philippines – ordered from least to most compelling.
- Loss of Chinese soldiers.
- International condemnation – would seriously undermine China’s claim of a “Peaceful Rise.”
- This would push China’s other neighbors (Vietnam, Japan, India, Korea) further into the arms of the US and encourage them to increase their defense capability.
- Possibility of a direct US military intervention.
- China would control the disputed island and surrounding waters.
- It would send a message to other neighbors that China is serious about enforcing its territorial claims.
- It would end the impression that China will back down from potential conflict with the US. This would be useful internationally – especially with regards to Taiwan – but even more so domestically, to show the people that the government has the backbone to confront the US.
- It would greatly please the hawks in the military – a base which is absolutely essential for the CCP, as they’re the only real guarantors of continued authoritarian rule.
- As with most any war, it would consolidate nationalistic support from the people firmly behind the party, which would be a godsend amidst turbulent domestic issues (ie – economic turndown, rough leadership transition).
China probably won’t act militarily in this particular situation, but if I’m in charge of the country right now, that pros list is looking more attractive by the day. As wild as this year has already been with the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng incidents, it’s possible that we ain’t seen nothing yet. If any more destabilizing events take place in the lead-up to the power handover, it may become very tempting to finally step over the line from saber-rattling to actual military action in the South China Sea – a line many Chinese have been pressuring the government to cross for years.