Scholars discuss conflict in the South China Sea

By TIANCHENG LYU | October 12, 2017

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COURTESY OF TIANCHENG LYU Blumenthal and Ott explored maritime competition in the South China Sea.

The Alexander Hamilton Society, a student organization that brings various speakers to campus, hosted Marvin Ott and Dan Blumenthal on Tuesday. Blumenthal and Ott discussed China’s recent aggression in the South China Sea, a geopolitical trade center in Southeast Asia, through which an estimated U.S. $5 trillion worth of global trade passes.

Ott is a Hopkins visiting professor and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a global policy think tank, and Blumenthal is the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy research group.

Hopkins Professor of International Relations Steven David moderated the discussion. The debate explored the various ways the United States can respond to China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Ott began the discussion by addressing the historical and strategic context of China’s maritime developments.

“China is the ‘middle kingdom,’ the world’s oldest civilization with an unbroken continuity. A part of that civilization was to create relationships with surrounding equals, who by definition were less civilized,” he said.

Ott explained that the other civilizations around China paid tribute to express their subordination and keep the peace, a system which lasted until Europeans began making contact with Asia.

At that point he said that China entered a period scholars refer to as the “century of humiliation,” during which the country lost power in dealings with Western countries and Japan.

“History owes China a deep debt, and the time for that payment has come now,” he said. “It is now in a position to reassert its traditional relationship with the surrounding regions and look to an outcome where Southeastern Asian countries are subordinate and compliant to it.”

Blumenthal shared his opinion as an American strategist. He said that the U.S. has been a dominant naval power since the end of World War II and that the U.S. should not only look to protect its own interests but also those of its allies in Southeast Asia.

Blumenthal also discussed the competition between China and the U.S. military.

“That competition has taken on some very serious dimensions,” he said. “Part of the reason China is so interested in trying to control the South China Sea is because it has developed a major submarine base in Hainan Island.”

Looking ahead, he said that the U.S. should help developing countries in the region to bolster the United States’ allied powers and defend U.S. interests.

“Some of these countries are still fairly poor and don’t have much military capacity at all,” he said. “We at least should help our allies have the capacity to see and control their own territorial waters.”

When asked who would be likely to prevail if a military conflict came about in the South China Sea, putting aside nuclear weapons, Blumenthal said that it was impossible to answer.

“The U.S. is a far more capable military force in terms of its individual sailors and marines and pilots,” he said. “However, our defense budget and the number of ships we have is getting very low. For us to prevail, we have to take risks to pull our forces from all over the world while China still has its ‘home team’ advantage.”

After the talk, Yihong Zhang, a freshman from China, said that he thought the discussion was intriguing because the speakers looked at the issue from new perspectives. He said that he hadn’t considered that China might be acting from a place of hostility.

“As a traditional Chinese who has been living in Shanghai for 17 years, I used to think the way my country acted in the South China Sea is more based on self-protection than aggression,” Zhang said.

He added that hearing opposing viewpoints can be beneficial.

“This was a perspective that I seldom think of. I used to believe that most Chinese are humble and peaceful,” he said. “I think these are all interesting arguments and that we should definitely dig deeper into this problem.”

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