When Senator Jim Webb appears on a Sunday morning talk-show its usually related to matters of national security and one is usually well-advised to listen. Webb is certainly one of the most informed and serious voices on US foreign policy in the Senate, which is why it is a pity that he is leaving office after the end of his current term. So when Webb paid a visit to MSNBC's Meet the Press it was widely expected that he might say something interesting or provocative on either Libya, Afghanistan or Iraq. But to everybody's surprise the most controversial point he made was on South East Asian Security, namely on the South China Sea. In so many words he argued that we are approaching a “Munich moment” in the South China Sea and he rightly complained that we are not even having a debate on the issue of Asian security and Western (i.e. American) interests in the region. Gulliver, however, thinks that Webb's Munich moment comment was comparatively stupid. But was it?
Well, Senator Webb wasn't wrong in pointing out that China's behaviour is not exactly a role model in building bridges and mending fences. In fact, the People's Republic has often used small military provocations to test the strength of freshly elected American presidents. It surely was no coincidence that the Hainan Island Incident occurred shortly after President George W. Bush was elected into office and that when Barack Obama became President of the United States Chinese fishing trawlers were harassing the USNS Impeccable. The People's Republic would not have dreamed of, forgive your humble author, testing the waters like that only two decades ago. What is troubling for the United States must be a real worry for China's neighbours. And lets face it, China's territorial claims in the South China Sea are outright ridiculous and if ever accepted would basically turn a seawater state like Vietnam into a practically landlocked country. And against this background more and more of China's neighbours are looking for a counterbalance to the People's Republic by fostering closer relationships with the United States. Look at Vietnam for a moment, a country that during the presidency of George W. Bush has become a de facto US ally. The changing security landscape in Asia does merit, in fact calls for a debate on Western interests in Asia. But does China's aggressive posture and ridiculous territorial claims constitute a “Munich moment”?
The answer is a no, though not a straightforward one. Put differently, in contrast to Gulliver, I would not dismiss the point out of hand quite so quickly. There is a credible narrative here that could allow such a conclusion. I just don't think that narrative gives the whole picture. In fact, China is investing heavily in its armed forces, its first aircraft carrier will be put to the sea and start sea trials this year and it will soon have more submarines in the Pacific than the United States (which led to a remarkably ill-informed debate on subs here). And since the Chinese leadership keeps saying that the military build-up is not directed at the United States, regional leaders have every right (and good reason) to ask: well, against whom might it be directed?
But on the other hand China is still clinging to some sort of a peaceful rise and much of the perceived aggression is due to the lack of transparency in Chinese foreign policy making and the awkward nature of Chinese civil-military relations. And for the moment China is still gaining strength and hence accumulating leverage when it comes to negotiating on the territorial claims in the South China Sea. Though the Chinese leadership has probably misjudged the offset-costs by underestimating the willingness of regional powers such as the Philippines and Vietnam to look for the United States as a counterbalance. So, well, the situation is not nice and certainly not nearly as cordial as in the Baltic or the Mediterranean, but it is not on the verge to open hostilities and warfare either. It ain't pretty, but it ain't Munich.
But Senator Webb is right in as much as we need to have a debate. Because, simply put, if conventional military competition in the Atlantic (and the Indian ocean for that matter) is something we need to prepare for, well, than we need a different sort of defence planning and buy totally different stuff. Less MRAPs, more frigates, to be precise for a moment. And the time to have that debate is in fact now.