2016-11-05 By Danny Lam
Western Foreign policy towards China have been focused on interactions with Peking since the Jesuits found a place in the Ming Court at the expense of understanding the dynamics of the vast civilization nominally ruled by present day Beijing.
Extending diplomatic recognition and permitting the PRC to assume the UN security council seat continued this pattern. For a brief period after the communist victory early in 1960s until the mid 1970s the Beijing regime can be said to maintain a credible grip on the Chinese civilization and dealing with Beijing was both necessary and sufficient for the problems of the time.
By the 2000s, Beijing’s monopoly on power has diminished to a more traditional arrangement whereby PRC based in Beijing retained only a monopoly on legitimate power in China except Taiwan.
Provinces, beginning with the coastal areas, began to break loose from Beijing.
Few Western observers noticed the increasing divergence, culminating in the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 that had modest, if little impact in the relatively prosperous southern provinces.
Within the past decade, the divergences in interests and policies between Beijing and the coastal provinces have escalated.
The disputes over South China Sea in the 2000s have regional drivers and origins that are ill understood outside of China. The western “China expert” priesthood, by focusing on interactions with Beijing, have largely missed this regional dimension.
In order to better understand regional dynamics, western analysts have to develop linguistic skills, contacts, and analytical perspective native to the Guangdong / Southern China region. Yet, few of the China priesthood are fluent in languages like Cantonese, tagalore, Bahasa, etc. – the lingua franca of south china sea nations.
Whereas it is generally reckoned that every electronic device within Zhongnanhai is in theory capable of being monitored, resulting in a good understanding of the personnel and decision making processes in Beijing, there is a paucity of intelligence as to the actors, motives, and intentions that are driving the moves attributed to Beijing in the South China Sea.
In many instances, we do not know much beyond the names of military commanders except for the top officials of the military region or regional constabulary (which is most likely a Beijing appointee).
Without details as to the personnel down to the third or lower tiers of command, their relationships to other interested parties (e.g. Coast Guard, Fisheries Patrol) and the businesses that have interests in the issue, particularly the local PLA/PLAN owned or controlled firms, and their relationship with regional counterparts, it is difficult to understand their behavior and policy making process.
For example, we cannot judge the relative weights of fisheries, hydrocarbon resources, local (vs. PRC) defense considerations, vs. face, pride, institutional momentum, and other motives that is driving the ostensibly PRC-Beijing policies for land reclamation and other sovereignty assertion activities.
Consequently, western analysts are strained to explain how the PRC can declare an expansive AIDC in East China Sea, and apparently have little interest to do so in the South China Sea that they claim as “blue earth” worthwhile enough to invest substantial resources to reclaim land and fortify.
Nor do we understand how the 9 dash claim was inherited by the PRC, with Beijing endorsing and adjusting the claim by placing it on passports and maps.
A plausible explanation of such divergences in behavior is there are at least three different local governments / local PLA/PLAN driving maritime policy, with different calculations and thought processes and different interactions with Beijing who strain to explain this as a consistent policy to the “barbarians”.
Thus, while the Shanghai clique have traditionally driven the policy of non-negotiable claims regarding sovereignty over Taiwan by Beijing, there is little impetus to push on the issue of Okinawan independence as an issue for Beijing from the local governments (Tsingtao/Qingdao) or the new Northern Command military region directly concerned.
Similarly, the deafening silence on PRC’s claims to lands ceded to Russia that in fact, have a stronger basis in their renegotiating opposition to unequal treaties is a contradictory policy that cannot be understood without consideration of local policies and calculations of cost and benefits.
The keys to solving these puzzles is recognition that the People’s Republic of China’s Beijing regime has evolved very much into a classical Chinese regime where the power of the central government is more symbolic than real.
It is, in that respect, best understood as a Master Franchisor in a relatively loose franchise arrangement with individual Provinces or local governments or military regions as franchisees.
The Franchisor have the power to command obedience on a limited number of highly visible and obvious issues that signal the symbolic obedience to the Beijing regime: flying the PRC flag, having the approved local government or military organization on paper, and the right of Beijing to name top local officials and occasionally, selectively enforce a few draconian laws. But what actually happens at the local level on a day to day basis is very much left to the devices of local governments or PLA regional commanders.
There is a striking parallel with the Ching Dynasty diktat that all adult males must shave their forehead and braid their hair into a queue as a symbol of obedience to the Ching court. Failure to comply with the Manchu queue was obviously visible and punished by death.
With the exception of those rare instances where the Ching dynasty was willing to enforce a diktat (e.g. banning cheap British opium imported from India that was undercutting Chinese opium), which directly led to the Ching Dynasty losing the opium war and compelled to settle on unfavorable terms, the Ching regime largely left the autonomous provinces alone provided that they remitted requisite taxes to the court. The real foreign policy of southern China was locally determined largely by the Cantonese themselves, with the wealthy merchants being key players.
This picture of de facto highly decentralized “foreign policy” leads one to ask very different questions as to what would work in working with the local authorities that are presently driving Chinese foreign policy in the South China Sea.
Pressure on Beijing, per se, is counterproductive in two ways:
First, if pressure on Beijing managed to induce Beijing to act (after Beijing negotiated many concessions on issues that is likely irrelevant to the Southern Chinese provinces) and watered down the demands, it is likely to last only as long as Beijing pressure on the relevant actors are intense. That will come, and like any Chinese government campaign, go after a brief period, and then it is business as usual.
Second, a Beijing centric policy ends up strengthening Beijing, which directly countering western interests compared to the alternative of a more diffused China with competing interests that can be more reasonably dealt with.
Western foreign policy have a long tradition of pragmatism: dealing with counterparts that can credibly and reliably deliver the goods irrespective of their official standing or reputation for brutality or barbarism.
In this vein, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill saw nothing wrong with working with Stalin to defeat the greater evil of Nazi Germany.
Nixon and Kissinger exploited the divisions between communists to weaken the Soviets.
In this vein, working with the local interests and authorities that can deliver an acceptable solution to the South China Sea disputes that preserve the substance of UNCLOS may be more important than the symbols.
In order to do so, it will require a fundamentally new orientation away from the present Beijing centric strategy.