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Saturday, 31 October 2015

The King and the Spratly Islands – Visions on China

Veni, vidi, vici” – “I came, saw and conquered”

Last week, the Dutch King Willem Alexander has made an official state visit to China, after he already enjoyed an unofficial, short holiday with his family in this country.

With this official visit and especially with the short, unofficial, but nevertheless telling private holiday, Willem Alexander emphasized the warm and mutually beneficial commercial relations between The Netherlands and China, the powerful, economic behemoth in the Far East. China is by far the largest exporter of (cheap) consumption goods and The Netherlands is host to Rotterdam, still the most important sea-port in Europe for container handling.

In other words: China needs the enormous sea-port, as well as the logistical experience and the excellent networks of The Netherlands and The Netherlands needs the constant influx of goods from China, in order to keep its logistical apparatus in motion throughout the year.

And as a part of this official visit, the Dutch business industry organized the biggest trade mission in Dutch history, with over 250 participants from 150 different companies and organizations. Their mission was to put their products and services in the spotlights, sign as many trade orders as possible and reinforce the bonds with their Chinese counterparts: customers, suppliers and the Chinese government.

Both sides – China and The Netherlands – had the sole interest of making the state visit a blatant success, with a lot of happy smiles, large words of praise and mutual satisfaction and wallets full of promises, contracts and orders for all participants in the trade mission. Nothing in the world should get the chance to spoil the party that this state visit ought to be.

Where Prince Charles of the United Kingdom had made a strong statement, by refusing to participate in the official state banquet for China offered by the British government, the Dutch King made an equally strong statement, with respect to China. He did so by spending his private holiday in this country too, apart from the state visit. That is a gesture that will not be lightly forgotten by the Chinese government.

There was no room for criticism of China, apart from a number of obligatory and further meaningless words by the King about human rights and some other things bothering the Dutch. “These were the mandatory parts of the visit, in order to keep the folks at home happy. Well, you know the drill… And now: back to business! We are the best and let’s forget the rest!”.

To call this generally uncritical behaviour of the Dutch “a missed opportunity”, is an understatement. As a matter of fact, it is a strong signal that trade interests come before everything else in The Netherlands, even where this should not be the case. Although the Chinese citizens often are proud about the achievements of their country (and rightfully so) and the increasing role of the country at the global stage, their daily lives generally leave a lot to be desired.

Of course, China has had a troubled past with respect to human rights and the political treatment of minorities and – as a matter of fact – its whole (rural) middle class and lower class population.

People, who go with the flow and exactly say and do what the political leaders want to hear and see, usually lead a decent and tranquil live, when they are lucky and nothing bad happens to them. However, people who have good reasons to disagree with the will of their leaders, are often in for a very rough treatment by the central and local governments: a treatment trademarked by harsh punishments and political suppression.

The ubiquitous corruption, environmental challenges, the sometimes questionable quality of even the most basic, daily foodstuffs and drinking water and the generally failing state of law and order in China pose a problem for many, many people in their daily struggle for survival. The mounting ego, self-satisfaction and deafness for criticism of their political leaders at all levels is another issue of concern, as well as the bulldozer-esque manner in which disputes between the government and the population are solved.

Summarized, the Chinese government is not always the government that the Chinese people deserve, to say the least. And that is not all... 

The foreign policy of China is increasingly aggressive and imperialistical, as it zealously wants to proof this country’s increasingly important role on the global economic and political stage: you could call this the Chinese sledgehammer policy.

China has increased its influence on the African continent and in South-America, by buying their way into the hearts and minds of African and South-American leaders. In exchange for trade contracts and unlimited access to all kinds of fuels, commodities, precious metals, food and minerals, the Chinese build roads and other infrastructural parts, which help the African and American leaders, as well as themselves in the process.

While this is at least in the interest of some of their “beneficiaries”, the Chinese foreign (or domestic) policy is not so friendly everywhere. Remember for instance the troubled past of Taiwan, Tibet and the Uighur minorities in China.

The most blatant example of the current expansionist policies of China are the Spratly Islands in the South Chinese Sea. These “Islands” traditionally led a quiet live as reefs without strategic meaning; that was at least, until people discovered that the sea surrounding the Spratlys was laden with consumable fish and further contained large oil supplies.

Then the Chinese came, saw and conquered…

Position of Spratly Islands in the South Chinese sea
Picture courtesy of Google Maps
Click to enlarge

Even though the Spratly reefs are much closer to countries like Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, like the picture above shows clearly, China nevertheless ran the gauntlet with their territorial aspirations. The country asked dredging companies to create a number of artificial islands, by wading sand upon the vacant reefs and thus the Spratly Islands were born.

After their creation, these islands were filled with landing strips for planes and a few odd buildings as well as some additional infrastructure and they were subsequently claimed by the Chinese government. Everybody, who came too close to the islands was “politely asked” to get the hell out of there, or else…

Some small, Philippino fishermen saw their boat and only source of income attacked by Chinese ships and war vessels, who did not want competition in their newly acquired territory and did not scare away from using brute force against those "intruders".

Countries, like the Philippines and Vietnam, started international arbitrage procedures against the Chinese government (among others in the Dutch City of International Justice, The Hague) for wheedling the Spratlys away from the other Asian countries. However, the Chinese government told them to “get lost”, by stating that they would not accept any verdict by the International Court of Justice and by claiming that this court was working far beyond its jurisdiction, by accepting this case.

And now the latest leg in this increasingly dangerous international crisis, around these small islands in the South Chinese Sea, is started by the arrival of an American war vessel at the Spratlys. This ship is sent by the United States, in order to let the Chinese sing a different tune to the American allies The Philippines and Vietnam. On top of that, this war vessel must probably be seen as the front-runner of an emerging American fleet in the region.

The signal, emitted by the US war vessel, has been very well heard by 'Beijing'…

However, instead of acting as a means to hush up the tensions and settle the emerged differences in order to prevent from an international confrontation, the opposite happened. Currently, the Chinese are threatening the US at an increasingly shrill tone of voice. Their claim upon the Spratly Islands is final and the Chinese are willing to defend their claim, using lethal force against anyone else in the world: even the United States.

This is a very dangerous development indeed and it should wake up the Dutch government from its gold-plated dreams about trade and prosperity. The events around the Spratly Islands prove very clearly that all the current political certainties and economic agreements in the world can disappear at very short notice, as a consequence of the mounting imperialist aspirations of the Chinese government. And although I’m not particularly pessimistic that the events around the Spratlys might lead to a very large and uncontrollable war, it is an undeniable fact that China is not planning to give in to their neighbours, as well as to the United States.

Within the Dutch government, however, and in their trail the Royal House of Orange, this crystal-clear message seems to have fallen upon deaf ears. And, as a matter of fact, it also fell upon deaf ears within the British government, which was also very eager to negotiate itself into one lucrative contract after another with the Chinese government.

Except, of course, for that “stubborn old fool” Prince Charles who did not want to show a toothpaste smile at the Chinese leaders, in exchange for some contracts and cash ... 

But heck, who is Prince Charles anyway?! He will probably never be king after all, and his son William seems to already have more diplomatic skills than his aging father, in spite of his young age…

Nevertheless, I find it an unwise attitude of the Dutch royal house, government and business industry to close their eyes for the imperialist aspirations of the Chinese leaders. Just like they so often closed their eyes in the past for the reprehensible sides of other large Dutch business partners in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and other countries.

While the Dutch King speaks his soothing and swollen words of peace and friendship and emphasizes the role of business as a means for communication, development and mutual prosperity to his benevolent Chinese listeners, the Chinese government is fighting a pruning hard battle for the absolute power in their region and far, far beyond.

Not even to speak about the enduring domestic battle against the unwilling elements within the Chinese population, who stand up for their rights and reject the almighty government of President Xi Jinping and PM Li Keqiang. Often, while risking their own lives and the lives and future of their families.

The Dutch King, however, does not care about that… He is back home safely, among his family and friends, satisfied with a job very well done. And so are the Dutch government and business representatives. 

What will happen in the South Chinese sea or in China itself? Who cares…?! Really?!

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