By Dr Rais Hussin
In a world of words, the saber rattling in any theater of conflict can get all sides to the very edge of war.
Thus the fiery exchange of the United States and China lately, if not half of the European states in the West against Beijing, should be handled with extreme caution.
Wiser counselors/advisors in the State Council of China, such as Shi Chunlong, not excluding the Chinese ambassador to Washington DC, Cui Tiankai, have all urged the "Wolf Warriors" in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to tone down their rhetoric. Among them Chinese spokesmen/women such Madam Hu Chungying, Geng Shuang and Colonel Zhao Lijuan, all of whom are the subordinates of His Excellency Cui.
However, systems of nuclear alert, such as Def Con I to V, or defense confrontation I to V -- with V being the most dangerous stage, where both, or more sides, simply does not exist to alert anyone of the danger of the situation.
On South China Sea, where the maritime borne trade is worth some US$ trillion each year according to William Pesek of Bloomberg, it would be tragic see all sides come to blow.
As recent as a month and a half ago, even the Malaysian Navy, for the first time in its history, had to resort to the act of self-defense to protect its Exclusive Economic Zones, where one illegal Vietnamese fisherman died.
To the credit of the media of both Malaysia and Vietnam, neither sides sin-sensationalized the issues. If they did, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of the people, would throng the streets in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and other major cities, to demonstrate their nationalistic furies.
China is capable of such self-restraint too, when some of its detained illegal fishing vessels were detonated by President Joko Widodo. China did not show any angst or collective national anger; especially when China's vessels together with that of other countries who had encroached into Indonesian waters were detonated, and sank, in front of the international press community.
But such self restraint alone, is now becoming increasingly tenuous and indefensible. Chinese military modernization, resurgence as a maritime power, is almost complete.
Just last month, the second air craft carrier has been completed at the port of Shandong in the northeast of China.
All military analysts worth their grain of salt know, that a second aircraft carrier is meant to back the first in the event of any actual war. In the case of the United States, as and when they have any conflict or escalating of words with Pyongyang in North Korea, the 3rd and 7th fleet of the Indo-Pacific Command based in Honolulu, Hawaii will begin plying the waters of East and South China Sea, either together, or, with one stopping-over in the deep port of Changi, Singapore. This is to show that in the event of any friction that leads to war, the US is cocked and ready.
With the proliferation of COVID-19 in one of the fleets, if not both, Washington DC has learned to keep their sailors socially distanced.
China could take advantage of this adverse situation to consolidate its claims on the South China Sea. But granted that the claim is almost 90 per cent of the contested waters, Beijing should know that it is morally and legally obliged to show all the evidence that the South China Sea belongs to them.
In fact, countries like Vietnam and Philippines are just as responsible. This is because South China Sea was once demarcated as a small, though, significant maritime area by the Manchu Dynasty in China.
One of the few Chinese cartographers who worked on China's legal predominance, were the first to produce the 11 Dash Lines, a concept that was developed in 1947, when Kuomintang was in power in Beijing.
When the Chinese Communist Party defeated the Kuomintang in 1949 -- leading to the discourse in Washington DC, as to who "lost China" -- it was clear that the United States was not happy with the situation then.
To the degree the United States restored some semblance of normalcy with China was marked by events such as 1972, when President Richard Nixon made an exceptional visit to China to consolidate its tie to work closely with Chairman Mao, to form a two-front party against the Soviet Union.
Under the Shanghai Communique, both sides would "acknowledge”, but not recognize, Taiwan as Republic of China (ROC), while the mainland would be regarded as the People's Republic of China (PRC).
By 1979, the normalization of Sino-US conflict would further continue, with the Taiwan Relations Act which obliges the United States to come to the defense of Taiwan too.
Between 2001-2002, both the Republican and Democratic administrations, would help China to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Between 2002-2015 alone, economists in China and the rest of the world would agree that China enjoy the biggest spurts in its growth, perhaps as much as 300-400 per cent in its per capita income. Globalization, obviously, works in China's favor, which is why over the last last decades alone, some 800 million Chinese have been lifted out of absolute poverty.
Given all the gains, China should understand that the world does wish it well; although there are another 600 million Chinese, where President Xi Jinping has promised to totally redeemed through its anti-poverty campaign.
But when things like China Cable begins to leak from China to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) in November 2019, which was further reported in New York Times, where highly classified internal communication had President Xi urging the local communist officials to "show no mercy" against, or towards, the Uyghur Muslims of some 2-3 million people, Southeast Asians are inclined to wonder if this is also the policy mentality of China on South China Sea?
Does that mean President Xi Jinping, whose thoughts are included in the Chinese Constitution, whose role in fact endowed him with the right to rule China forever, may be surrounded by a motley group of hawkish policy advisors too?
On Xinjiang, Chinese Foreign Minister has been known to snap back at international journalists for raising any questions of Xinjiang. His usual retort, verging on total arrogance, would often be: "Have you been to Xinjiang? Do you know we have raised 800 million people out of poverty?"
If the top decision makers of China like Wang Yi -- one who is in the Politburo of the top Twenty Five Members of China -- continues to conduct himself in such a way, then the rhetoric of China would be "not one dash line less".
Yet, history shower that what was Eleven Dash Lines of China's South China Map, had been unilaterally reduced by two lines by Chairman Mao, when the Vietnamese Communist Party defeated the French forever in Dien Bien Phu in 1953.
The fact of the matter is none of the member states that are currently at odds with China over the contested waters of South China Sea, are in conflict with any foreign adversaries of China at this stage, nor do they want to. Thus China cannot use the carrot-and-stick or reward and punishment approach on Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam or for that matter, Taiwan, who also wants the whole of the South China Sea.
Granted the current situation now, where China and the United States is locked in various kinds of conflict, not excluding Japan too, over East China Sea, and India up in the Himalaya, nor should one exclude China's deteriorating relations with Australia and Canada, it is clear that China's diplomacy -- whether by design or default -- has led itself into a situation where it is increasingly seen, not as a progressive or status quo power, but a revisionist one.
The latter implies China is out to upend the whole global public order.
As Professor Graham Allison pointed out as early as 2016, when the world confront 16 sets of such conflicts, they will find themselves in the "Thucydides Trap" where the whole world becomes afraid of China, which in more ways, than one, is a closed society, in the upper echelon of Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
China has all the methods or vocabulary of self-introspection in CCP since the very founding of the CCP in 1921.
By 2021, if not sooner, China has to concede that its hardened attitude on South or East China Sea are two causes of great concern since 2006, if not earlier, when former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo came up with the concept of the Indo-Pacific to urge all countries in the Indian Ocean, South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean to think "big" on how to handle China's growing stature. As of May 31 2019, the United States' Department of Defense has come up with the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Australia also has a similar Indo-Pacific Paper.
Even the member states of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean), has the Asean Outlook on Indo-Pacific, where the Indian Ocean and South China Sea are seen as "one contiguous water".
As things stand, the world is roiled in pandemic. Thus the tensions in South China Sea can be, momentarily, overlooked . But if China were to seize on this strategic confusion to push its claims deeper into the area, more and more countries would be naturally alarmed.
Not unlike the fear of the Hong Kongers of the break down of the "One Country, Two Systems," many countries that want to trade with China will also begin to wonder, quietly or aloud, if China has become a super assertive power that needs to be counter balanced in every way that Taiwan has always advised? If the latter were to happen, the concept of one Pacific Asia, would be broken into tatters.
By extension, the whole world would in due course also become afraid of the true designs of the "Belt and Road Initiative," of President Xi Jinping. Is it a form of predatory economy or debt trap diplomacy? The world does not have to concur with the West, for that matter, Germany, that Belt and Road Initiative, can become a Chinese labyrinth, where it is easy to go in, and almost impossible, to come out.
But since the end of 1945, no countries have ever wanted to be colonized by the East or West.
Since 1989, which marked the end of Cold War, no one has wanted to see a second one, especially China itself which constantly urged the United States to get out of its "Cold War" mentality.
But the West and the rest of the world cannot let down its guards of China, if the opening gambit of China is 90 per cent of the whole of South China Sea. Justified or not, that in itself is a form of post-modern or pre-modern colonialist thinking.
There must be a restraint approach. Top presidential advisors of China, such as General Luhut Pandjaitan of Indonesia, has also urged China to do the same. Emir Research does not want things in South China Sea to go awry too. Let's work together to pin down the pandemic.
There is no need to have a difficult relationship with the US or the West to navigate through a world sickened by the pandemic, which according to the WHO, can be one "global gigantic wave", with no summit to flatten. This is as dire a warning as any international health entity can give.
Having missed out on the chance to invite WHO into China quickly to look into eruption of SARS-CoV-2 in December 2019, it is high time China does not merely produce high speed train, or, potentially a high speed vaccine by SinoCan, but a high speed diplomacy based on reconciling their differences with all. The Malaysian and Indonesian culture are based on "mutual forgiveness".
But lurking behind this mutual creed is a total contempt for those who do not take this creed seriously, or, knowing how to say "we are sorry, let's start again.
If this pandemic had started in South Korea or Japan, perhaps their diplomats would be more and more contrite. China, regardless of its size, has to learn how to be more humble. 90 per cent of everything in South China Sea is a sign of how China has made the wrong move.
If Vietnam, for that matter, Taiwan, were to adopt the same attitude, all the member states in Asean would chastise them too, as this is a no brainier to begin with.
(Datuk Wira Dr. Rais Hussin Mohamed Ariff is the President/CEO at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.)