In a Sputnik article last month (republished here) Pepe Escobar sets out a useful appraisal of the conflicting interests of China and the USA in the South China Sea. It’s a well informed piece and I recommend it wholeheartedly …
… though not unconditionally. Escobar begins:
The South China Sea is and will continue to be the ultimate geopolitical flashpoint of the young 21st century – way ahead of the Middle East or Russia’s western borderlands.
Given that I agree with pretty much everything that follows this opener, am I nitpicking in my objection? You tell me.
I travel frequently to Vietnam and agree that territorial rights in the South China Sea, the narrow context of Escobar’s piece – the broader context being Sino-American rivalry – are a sensitive issue for the reasons he sets out. These are as follows. One, western colonialism is responsible for a “currently incendiary battle” in the South China Sea. Two, the late 19th century creation of Asia’s nation states by colonial fiat overlaps with China’s ‘century of humiliation’. That makes current quarrels – be they China’s damming of the Mekong to the fury of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam or its building artificial ‘islands’ in waters claimed by Hanoi – matters as dear to the heart of the man on the Guangzhou omnibus as to China’s ruling elite. Three, while the region’s land borders have not been seriously disputed since Pol Pot’s day, territorial waters less well defined certainly are disputed. Four, that colonial legacy of maritime ambiguity, cause among other things of sharply deteriorating Sino-Viet relations, acquires global significance when we factor in China’s meteoric rise and the degree to which US marine bases, outnumbering those of all rival powers combined, are mission critical to the American Empire. Likewise the corollary imperative of unchallenged US access to them through control of the seas.
(One of the surprises here being a new synergy of US and Vietnamese short term interests.)
Now while I agree that America and China are headed for serious confrontation in the region, and much as I respect Escobar’s work, he is rather given to florid turns of phrase. In itself that’s no big deal – we’re not running literary beauty contests here – but I see it as linked to a more serious problem, a tendency to hyperbole.
The South China Sea is not “way ahead of the Middle East or Russia’s western borderlands” as a potential flashpoint for WW3. All three qualify as joint ‘favourites’ in that respect. Even more important, the challenge to US Exceptionalism comes from China and Russia both and cannot easily be separated, for purposes of severity ranking, when Washington’s decisions push those two powers ever closer.
Here’s an example. In 2013 Russia made a bridging loan to Ukraine. At $3bn it was a small but significant sum by international standards, and on very favourable terms when Ukraine’s credit status left it unable to borrow on world markets except at punitive rates. The loan was due for repayment last December, after the Maidan Square coup that replaced Yanukovych with a semi fascist regime.
Under IMF rules (meaning Washington rules since the US has voting rights in the high forties, China and Russia two or three percent) sacrosanct for decades, a nation welshing on a sovereign debt may not receive a loan from the IMF or any IMF member state. That was the case for Greece last summer. But once that little problem had been put to bed the rules were altered. Now, Ukraine may indeed borrow from the IMF without repaying Russia – nay, stiffing her on the debt is a de facto condition of loan eligibility! Why? Because China and Russia are coming together – the one with its vast surplus, the other its vast energy reserves – to challenge a dollar hegemony going back to Bretton Woods and expanded after the fall of the USSR. That fiscal threat is part of a wider challenge that may indeed take us to close encounters of the thermonuclear kind.
It is therefore right and proper for Pepe Escobar to remind us of the seriousness of the situation in Asia, of the US Empire’s plethora of bases, and of the fact it will do all in its considerable power to maintain its rule over the sea lanes. But whether it is helpful to prioritise any one of the three named flashpoints over the other two; that, my friends, is more debatable when the whole sitch is (a) deeply interwoven and (b) seriously f***ing scary.