Here’s a ghoulish game we can all play: guess where the next major war will break out. Or, more apposite; where will Donald Trump start his first war? Not a thermonuclear one with Russia, obviously – this was one of the silver linings attached to the Trumpian cloud. But he seems a man permanently looking for a fight. The bad news is that there are plenty in the world who would give him one.
Although Paddy Power and William Hill have the good taste not to run a book on such things, if it were possible to do so then obviously the smart money would be on Turkey proper (a truly horrific prospect); Iran, now “on notice” from the Trump White House; or perhaps Korea. The Ukraine (round two) and the Baltics (those Russians again) seem unlikely given the whole Putin-Trump thing, though you never know.
But what about the Spratly Islands? Or Paracels? The Scarborough Reef? Nothing to do with the North Riding of Yorkshire, by the way, these are just a few of the tiny collections of islets and rocks that spatter the South China Sea. Virtually none are inhabited, in any meaningful sense, but the various conflicting and overlapping national claims on these micro-territories are the most dangerous set of conflicts in the world today. No less an authority than Steve Bannon, now Donald Trump’s senior adviser, said so some months ago during radio broadcasts for the Breitbart website, well known for its rightist sympathies. Just because it was on Breitbart doesn’t make it wrong, though; and because Bannon is now ensconced in the White House it makes this important.
Here’s what he said last spring: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in the next five to 10 years … There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face – and you understand how important face is – and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.” “They” in this case being China, perceived by the Trump team as dangerously expansionist and increasingly militarised and confident. Alongside their other crimes, such as undercutting US industry and currency manipulation, this idea of a resurgent China is something of a theme in Trumpist circles. It is, one suspects, one reason why the rapprochement with Russia is given such importance. Thinking geopolitically, if they do, the Americans now want to work with Russia in order to push China towards deals on economics and defence. This is in fact an analogy to the Nixon opening to China in 1971-72; on that occasion the idea was to pressure the Russians to do a deal on strategic nuclear weapons limitation and pursue détente more widely. That time it worked.
Will it work this time? It would be foolish to underestimate the red mist that descends on even the most moderate Chinese patriot when faced with any challenge to China’s territorial integrity. That is why the issues of Taiwan and Tibet have always been so sensitive (and before that Hong Kong). China believes that the South China Sea is its own paddling pool, and the artificial “islands” and reefs it has set up reinforce the point. Each of these obscure archipelagos has their own tale, but they usually involve territorial claims by, in various combinations and in varying degrees of viciousness, Vietnam, the Philippines, the two Koreas, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. And, of course, China.
Each is about more than who holds dominion over the bemused and who claims sovereignty over sea turtles and albatrosses that mostly comprise their populations. It is about more, even, than the possible rights to oil and minerals and the safety of some of the world’s most busy shipping lanes. It is about national pride, above all, and, with the most touchy US president in a long time in the White House, it is also about American pride, and that is why the Americans have been increasing their naval presence in the area. The bizarre notion that America might go to war on behalf of what was once “Communist North Vietnam” is no longer quite so strange.
So Bannon is right in his analysis, and he is now in a position to do something to prevent it coming true. Like the disputes in the Balkans before the great War broke out in 1914, these disputes are impossible to comprehend, both in in the sense that they are so trivial and yet so important in terms of the emotions they provoke. No one, pretty much, in Britain, Russia, France or Germany could find Sarajevo on a map in 1914, but that didn’t stop Europe being bled to death for four years. Maybe we should all have a look-see where the Spratly Islands are. Mr Bannon can show Trump where they are, for a start.
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