Taking on the leadership of China is an all-consuming task. The domestic challenges are so vast, so diverse and so pressing that they far outweigh anything that is happening outside the country.
In this context the most prudent strategy should be to ensure there are no confrontational foreign affairs issues – and particularly not in the immediate neighbourhood. However, China has 20 neighbours by land and by sea and is in disagreement with at least 12 of them.
These disagreements are almost entirely concerning issues where China wants something from the neighbours rather than the reverse. There is nothing China’s neighbours want from Beijing except for matters to be left as they are. Unfortunately, China is the power seeking to change the status quo.
China would like some rocky islands which Japan is administering. From the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, Beijing wants recognition that in future China can assert its possession of seas and islets very close to their shores – which it has not in the past.
The Philippines has taken China’s claims to arbitration http://globalnation.inquirer.net/73119/intl-arbitration-panel-ready-to-hear-ph-case-against-china under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea but China, a fellow signatory, has refused to recognise arbitration, choosing instead to move its warships into the disputed area.
The fact that North China is the largest piece of water-short land in the world, that overuse has drained the aquifers under China’s cities and that misuse causes vast water loss each year, means that Beijing is considering some extreme engineering projects and geopolitical measures which trouble its neighbours. China has military control over the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas from which major rivers such as the Brahmaputra, the Ob, the Salween and the Mekong flow and which thus provides around a third of the world’s population with its water.
Countries benefitting from these huge water flows include Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Beijing has dizzying engineering plans to divert large amounts of water from those rivers along newly built channels to refresh northern China and its great cities such as Beijing and Tianjin. The drawback to this herculean project is that downstream neighbours worry for the river flow levels that they have been used to and also the ecological effect of damming the rivers. Diversion can reduce the flow of drinking water, reduce navigation and have a major environmental impact on industries and lives. To date, China has scarcely discussed these subjects with its neighbours.
There are jurisdictional disagreements with South Korea and border disputes with Bhutan. There are reckoned to be over 1,600 warheads aimed at Taiwan. Apart from the localised Vietnam War and then the short Sino-Vietnamese War, East Asia has been seen for 60 years as a stable region, safe for business and investment, and this perception has contributed mightily to its economic success.
China’s regional disputes range from wishing to divert regional water flows, threaten Taiwan and assert a wider sovereignty in East Asia. They are contributing to a rapid Asian arms race and the fact that Asia is now the top arms-importing continent in the world. Indeed of the top five arms importing countries in the world, all are now Asian. Eventually this could start to affect international perceptions and thus investment flows and trade patterns between East Asia and the wider world.
There are other courses of action open to China. It could recognise that the largest use of water in China is agriculture – over 60 per cent – and over half of all agricultural water is wasted before it gets to the point of use. Second, China uses four times as much water as the G20 average to produce the same unit of GDP. More attention to conservation would be cheaper and less conflict-prone than diverting water from terrified neighbours.
The Chinese empire at times held sovereignty over Vietnam, Okinawa, parts of the two Koreas, half of Burma and over half a million square miles of today’s Russian Far East. Quite rightly Beijing is not asserting any of these occasional historic conditions today. Why then is it so important to national interest to challenge the neighbours over the uninhabited atolls and islets of the East Asian seas?
China could change its mind on the South China Sea and propose that it becomes international water and that it will play a serious role in preserving freedom and safety of the seas with regular naval patrols. The same could be proposed to Japan.
Because China is the most powerful player amongst the East Asian nations, it must be part of the solution. A problem is the pernicious influence of school history books which poison the vision of Chinese schoolchildren, in a similar way to those of Japan. The difference is that no one sees Tokyo starting a war. Thus there is a huge responsibility on President Xi to defuse the rising tension in East Asia, encourage regional stability and then concentrate on the serious domestic challenges which China faces.