China: A bully like Wilhelmine Germany?

South China Sea where China and its neighbors dispute control over strategic islands and energy resources.  Source:  Google Images
South China Sea where China and its neighbors dispute control over strategic islands and energy resources. Source: Google Images

People like the analogy.  The rise of Germany after 1890, mismanaged by Germany and its adversaries, and the rise of China today — mismanaged or well-managed?  A NYTimes article today discusses the conflicting claims over rich offshore oil resources in the South China Sea among China and its much smaller neighbors, notably Vietnam, with which China fought a war in 1979 (though that was over Cambodia).  These conflicting claims on China’s flank remain unresolved.  Tension in the South China Sea bubbles dangerously below the surface, not unlike the way Morocco and the Balkans did for decades before WWI.  The US takes no sides in these disputes, but the South China Sea constitutes a potential flashpoint for tension between the US and China, in addition to Taiwan.  Some estimates put the quantity of shipping that takes place through the strategic sea lanes in the South China Sea at around 50% of world shipping, depicted with arrows in the map shown above.

Vietnam is pursuing the negotiating strategy of the weak — internationalize the conflict.  This reminds me of Yasser Arafat’s never-ending call back in the day for an “international conference” over the Arab-Israeli conflict; whereas Israel, like the Chinese, always preferred bilateral talks.  Both China and Israel resist international conferences where smaller countries can gang up on them.  Recall the Madrid Conference on the Mideast in 1991, cobbled together by the Bush administration (with the gifted handiwork of Sec. of State  Jim Baker).  Israel was isolated and ganged up on in Madrid.  Israel ultimately preferred secret bilateral talks with the Palestinians in Oslo.

In any event, the South China Sea issue won’t go away, and one wonders if, like Wilhelmine Germany, China will succeed in alienating everyone with its bullying tactics or will seek to find a mutually beneficial solution.  It is hard to find such a win-win solution in a dispute over territory and resources.

(from a Feb. 5, 2010 blog post.)

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