Poser over South China Sea

  • Letters
  • Thursday, 28 Apr 2016

THE recent announcement in the China Daily on Beijing’s addition of another lighthouse at the Spratly Islands would inevitably exacerbate the long-standing concerns of the United States that Chinese activity is undermining the international community’s freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Though China defends its lighthouses as “efforts to safeguard navigation freedom and security”, the prevailing US view has since attached to China an impression contrary to the concepts of “international community” and “freedom of navigation”, i.e. that of territorial hegemony and national monopoly.

These perceptions belie a disparity between theory and reality. Chinese intentions have long been determined by non-Chinese policy institutes in geopolitical terms which the South-East Asian layman does not recognise in his encounter with China. To him, the legalistic framework of the Law of the Seas is a foreign language. He may in fact, from his traditional post-colonial standpoint, bear no grudge against Chinese power if indeed, as Western legalists assert, that is true.

But does what the layman think about China’s maritime intentions come closer to the truth than what international think-tanks have proposed? Certainly, the latter’s theories remain unproven.

A similar query was raised by Prof Wang Gungwu recently, and if we consider his 60-year-old thesis that China’s historical interest in the South China Sea is economic, we have a useful framework with which to approach the problem: Why are Chinese and American motives, if both are economic, conflicting?

Two parallel developments in recent years allow us to distinguish two modes of economic thought between the two powers.

The first refers to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Mooted by the US, it binds member countries by contract into a common market and customs union not unlike the early European Economic Community. The second development concerns the Chinese initiatives of the Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road (Belt & Road). Where the TPP is contractual and competitive, the Belt & Road initiative is cooperative and developmental.

The relation between these two modes of economy can be explained historically.

The TPP descends from the modern concept, first elaborated by Hugo Grotius, of Mare Liberum (The Free Sea, 1609). It enshrines as a natural law the idea of “free ship, free goods”, which provided the justifying principle of the Dutch Republic.

Mare Liberum proceeded, Prof Peter Borschberg explains, from the earlier principle of Ius Communicationis (right of communication). Where Mare Liberum was particular in the free conduct of trade, Ius Communicationis described the universal activity of common human exchange, whether involving trade, diplomacy, religion, custom, philosophy, and so on. If China’s Belt & Road initiative identifies with this latter principle of Ius Communicationis, then we can put the collision between China and America into proper context.

Western perceptions of Chinese intentions, formed under the Grotian framework, will fail to understand the broader view Beijing takes, in the context of Ius Communicationis, of the wellbeing of its one billion land-dwelling inhabitants. Central in this view is the satisfaction of common Chinese individuals in communicating and cooperating with each other in commercial, cultural, and intellectual exchanges. Chinese maritime policy in the South China Sea would simply be subordinate to this objective, as it extends common human exchanges to China’s neighbours.

The distinction between Mare Liberum and Ius Communicationis explains why the US and China find it hard to see eye to eye. For necessary to Mare Liberum is the legalist system of reciprocal treaties which, as the memory of the Dutch East Indies will testify, does not guarantee the individual’s security of person and equality of exchange within the freedom to trade.

Mare Liberum defines an international community based on often unilaterally-determined rules of competition. On the other hand, Ius Communicationis expresses an international system of mutual cooperation based on common sense. It reconciles to the economy broader and older considerations than the modern concept of shareholder profit, such as welfare, governance, stability, etc.

In September, China will host the G20 for the first time. In selecting the venue the ancient and inland city of Hangzhou, rather than a modern and coastal port such as Shanghai, the Chinese authority is seen to advocate the bridging of old and new values that is inferred to in Ius Communicationis. It remains to be seen if the symbolism of Hangzhou will translate into a future order of things.

Where such international affairs concern Malaysia, Prof Anthony Milner has described its historical role, perhaps from its natural place at the confluence of the Eastern view and the Western view, as a conduit between the two. For this reason, there is much that is expected of Malaysia at Hangzhou.


Petaling Jaya

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