At a recent panel hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, I argued that confidence building measures are all for naught because of the glaring trust gap between claimant states in the South China Sea.
Confidence building measures (CBMs) have been a focus point for much of the diplomatic and Track 2 activity in East Asia, which has generated some limited successes, such as the Code for Unexpected Encounters at Sea (CUES), and some high profile failures, such as the 2002 Declaration on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. These failures, and the limited nature of the successes, are a result of the fact that CBMs do nothing to address the underlying sources of tension. The challenge is to go beyond building confidence to building trust—by promoting empathy.
In order to build empathy — an understanding or appreciation of another actor’s worldview — the first task is to identify where the gaps in empathy are. Empathy gaps are simply a mutual misperception or misunderstanding of another’s wants, needs, fears, interests, judgments and perceptions and are numerous between the protagonists in the South China Sea dispute.
First, China’s conception of its own exceptionalism creates an enormous gap with its neighbours. China’s claims are deeply rooted in its history dating back centuries. Historic waters, those within the nine dash line, do not conform to any recognized legal method of claiming territory or of ocean space. Wang Guanzhong argued at the Shangri-la Dialogue recently that China’s claims predate the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and should be grandfathered into customary international law. In this view, China is justified in reacting assertively to the provocations of others and is now preparing to use its considerable capabilities to fully exploit its claimed jurisdiction in the South China Sea, to the detriment of its neighbours. This is what we saw recently off the coast of Vietnam. Whether these claims are historically accurate is for this purpose irrelevant. China certainly seems to believe its claims are grounded in history that predates the ways in which modern states do things. No other country bases its claims this way and as a result none shares the Chinese worldview on this issue.
A second empathy gap relates to perceptions of the historical experiences of other claimant states. We are used to hearing China’s dogmatic line that it will never compromise on issues of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Yet, it is curious that China cannot appreciate the frames that Vietnam uses to refer to its own national territory. In a recent interview, Vietnam’s State President Truong Tan Sang stated, “We are determined to protect every inch of our land and sea from violation. For every Vietnamese, national sovereignty is sacred and sacrosanct.” Likewise, Vietnamese officials frame their resolve to stand their ground as a function of a historical experience of persecution and invasion at the hands of foreign invaders. Indeed, this perception is supported by the historical record. If China thinks it takes national sovereignty seriously, try being Vietnamese. There were no unequal treaties for Vietnam; there was outright colonization. The same is true in the Philippines. Indeed, one could argue that both the Philippines and Vietnam endured greater suffering at the hands of foreign powers than did China. To frame one’s commitment to national sovereignty as China does must surely sound hollow in Hanoi and Manila, as they have had the same experience, yet have not rejected Western legal concepts as a result.
A third set of gaps exist between the United States and China. Although US leaders are careful at every juncture to remind China that their pivot to Asia is not about containment, the Chinese do not buy it. Cheng Li from the Brookings Institution recently reported being struck that a number of Chinese analysts perceived that the US was either encouraging smaller countries to provoke China or attempting to capitalize on regional tensions to justify the rebalance. By contrast, two eminent US foreign policy experts recently suggested in the prominent journal Foreign Affairs that the onus is on China, more than the United States, to improve relations in maritime East Asia. This betrays a lack of appreciation for stated Chinese anxieties about the role of US forces in the region, US military activities near its coast, and America’s relationship with some of China’s neighbours. Indeed, there is a growing sense in China, we are told by Wu Xinbo, that the country feels entitled to greater respect from the United States as befits its newfound international status. China views the pivot as totally disconnected from its own behaviour, while US leaders point out that China’s neighbours welcome its more robust presence.
The Effect of Empathy Gaps
These empathy gaps result in an overestimation of threat, which can fuel the security dilemma and undermine the will to take CBMs seriously. Moreover, the cultivation of empathy can improve signalling, via restraint, and strengthen deterrence. After all, in the absence of empathy, how can one arrive at a mutual understanding of restraint? For instance, some argue that China has been acting with restraint by only using coast guard vessels to enforce its maritime claims, rather than the PLA Navy. From the Philippine perspective this must sound like reassuring someone that they were only slapped instead of punched. Similarly, US policymakers may view a reduction in intelligence gathering operations off the coast of China as a sign of restraint, while the Chinese take issue with the very existence of the program, which is the central barrier to reaching a workable accommodation on the issue. Even if you don’t need to agree with your adversary’s worldview, understanding their worldview can tell you a lot about their resolve, which in turn speaks volumes about their credibility.
The Limits of Empathy
Building empathy is not a panacea; it will do nothing to rectify fundamental differences of objective nor will it ameliorate instances of genuine antipathy. This raises the possibility that empathy building between South China Sea claimants may in fact do little to ameliorate tensions. The United States and China may be on a collision course as long as the former views standing by its allies as a national interest and the latter insists on conducting itself as though it were the only claimant to the South China Sea. If China is determined to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake, then the entire conversation about cooperation should be jettisoned and US policymakers should begin a discussion about whether the US national interest requires this to be prevented and at what cost. In the end, Chinese pundits and scholars are half right: foreigners do not understand China, but no more does China understand its neighbours or the United States. This understanding comes by building empathy.
Next: David Welch on the resurgent Japanese militarism canard.