The Waterlord

There is a growing consensus that the next global conflict will be staged in South China Sea between two major powers—China and the United States of America. However, if ever this big boys’ feud for the coveted maritime chokepoint is to represent the conflict of The Great Game that the novelist Rudyard alluded to in his 1901 novel Kim between Russia and Great Britain in Central Asia, I am not so sure that the current game is a rerun.

With smaller and weaker littoral claimant states (i.e., Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan) morally or legally making their ill-feelings known to the world from being harassed by an oversized bully, the major players in the region such as the United States and Japan who are allegedly sympathetic to their respective cries for justice and protection may have whispered promises of support in the vast disputed territory without actually sticking their necks out in a manner resembling a threat of a gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Strategic Asymmetry

And why is that? Well, because of its economic and political asymmetry. That is, the feud produces mutable, measured, and uncertain prolonged self interest outcomes always hanging in balance.

That is why in the absence of a credible and swift retaliatory action against the bully, the affected kids are encouraged to simply sing the campfire’s “Kumbaya” of self-restraint while the bully is allowed to grab unhindered like a claim jumper from camp to camp, so to speak.

Or, while the major players coax affected claimants to resolve the overlapping territorial claims in a civilized fashion of international law and order, China insists it is an ancient and historic sovereignty issue.

Or still, telling the U.S. to butt out, as it is not a party to the territorial row. And to top it all, warning the U.S. of economic repercussions and inevitable World War III if it does not back down from its meddling in South China Sea dispute.

China’s remarkable ingenuity of asymmetrically framing the conflict favors its superpower ambition because it is thinking long term rather than short term. There is no doubt that it is protractedly committed into this conflict for the long haul based on its fundamental strategy of grab and control.

Where does this strategy emanate? What is its foundation? I think China’s approach is founded upon what Lao Tzu observed a long time ago. He said: “the sage transforms the world by controlling water.” While spoken about three thousand years ago, the import of his ministerial admonition could just be as well what is now happening in our neck of the woods. (CONCLUDED NEXT ISSUE)

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