The Coming Global Disorder

Woody Island is a speck of land in the middle of the South China Sea, not quite a square mile in size. Over the past 80 years it has been occupied by French Indochina, Imperial Japan, the Republic of China, the People’s Republic of China, South Vietnam, and, after a brief war in 1974, the People’s Republic again. Now known as Yongxing to the Chinese (or Phu Lam to the Vietnamese, who still lay claim to it), the island has an airstrip, a harbor, and a few hundred Chinese residents, none native-born, many of whom make their living as fishermen.

An obscure tropical island may seem an odd starting point for an essay on the coming global disorder. Yet great conflicts have been known to flare over little things in faraway places. “On the morning of July 1, [1911,] without more ado, it was announced that His Imperial Majesty the German Emperor had sent his gunboat the Panther to Agadir to maintain and protect German interests,” wrote Winston Churchill in his history of the First World War. The proximate causes of the German foray to this deserted Moroccan bay “were complicated and intrinsically extremely unimportant.” But the real purpose of the kaiser’s move was to test—and, he hoped, to break—Britain’s alliance with France and, perhaps, scope out the possibility of establishing a German naval base in the north Atlantic. “All the alarm bells throughout Europe,” Churchill recalled, “began immediately to quiver.”

Could another Agadir crisis be lurking in the South China Sea? On July 24, 2012, Beijing decreed that henceforth the little village of Sansha on Woody Island would be considered a “prefecture-level city,” complete with a mayor, a people’s congress, a military garrison—and claims to administer the 770,000 square miles of surrounding waters, an area larger than the Gulf of Mexico. Beijing’s coup was protested loudly by Vietnam and more quietly by the U.S. State Department, which fretted that the move ran “counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences” in the South China Sea. In response, Beijing called a U.S. embassy official to the carpet and demanded that the United States “shut up.”

China’s leaders are fond of advertising their country’s “peaceful rise,” and the pro-China chorus in the West has sought to engage Beijing as a “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs. Yet in the last three years alone, Beijing has provoked quasi-military confrontations over disputed waters with Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and even the United States, all the while insisting that it has “indisputable sovereignty” over nearly the whole of the sea. “China is a big country and other countries are small countries,” explained Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi at a regional summit in 2010. “And that is just a fact.”

What is also a fact is that the South China Sea sits on estimated oil reserves of 213 billion barrels and equally massive reserves of natural gas. Fully one-third of the world’s overall volume of trade passes across the sea every year. Each of the sea’s other claimants has reasons to accommodate Beijing even as they resent its bullying habits. China, it is sometimes noted, sees the sea not just as an economic resource and an extension of its sovereign domain, but as the natural basin for a 21st-century version of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, this time under Beijing’s sway.

The United States also has core national interests at stake in the South China Sea. America has long stood for freedom of navigation and flatly rejects China’s territorial claims to the waters. A 1951 mutual defense treaty binds the United States to Manila, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act binds the United States to Taipei, and a 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement formalizes a defense relationship with Singapore. U.S. military ties to Hanoi have strengthened dramatically in recent years. Thousands of U.S. service members are permanently based in nearby Okinawa, Guam, and, as of this April, northern Australia. As part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, the United States plans to deploy more than 60 percent of its naval power to the Pacific by the end of the decade.

This would suggest that there is a limit to what the People’s Republic can hope to achieve in the South China Sea. In what seems like a textbook illustration of the balance of power, Beijing’s aggressiveness has alerted its neighbors to the common threat and drawn them closer to Washington. Perhaps all that would be required to head off future Chinese encroachments is an unequivocal message from Washington that the United States will not tolerate them. During the Agadir crisis, then Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George famously warned the Germans: “If Britain is treated badly where her interests are vitally affected…then I say emphatically that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure.”

That declaration did not, of course, prevent the ultimate outbreak of war. But it did help end the immediate crisis, reassure France that Britain would be at her side, and move statesmen like Churchill, soon to be at the Admiralty, to prepare for what was coming. Today it is hard to imagine the Obama administration speaking in a similar vein, which all but guarantees fresh provocations by Beijing in the months and years ahead.

Alarm bells should be quivering after what happened on Woody Island on July 24.

The frightening thing is that they are not.

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How does global order come undone? How do the arrangements and understandings through which war is generally avoided, commerce generally protected, and the cause of civilization generally advanced, cease to function?

Historically, there is no single template. Appeasement was much to blame for 1939, but in 1914 Britain and France were nearly as ready for war as Germany. The two decades preceding the Second World War were economically bleak, particularly in Europe: Depression bred disorder, and vice versa. Yet the two decades before the First World War were exceptionally prosperous, with per capita GDP rising by about 20 percent in the UK, 30 percent in Germany, and 50 percent in France. The crises that led up to the assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 represented a failure not only in, but of, the balance of power. What failed in the 1920s and ’30s was collective security, in concept and in practice. The kaiser and his generals anticipated a short, decisive, brilliant campaign in 1914; it is hard to imagine that even the most hardened Prussian militarists would have wished for the cataclysm they wound up provoking. By contrast, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Tojo summoned the whirlwind with their eyes wide open. Germany’s ambition in 1914 was to redraw the borders of Europe and its colonial possessions. Germany’s ambition in 1939 was to remake the face of man.

Still, a few common threads emerge. Revisionist regimes—states that want to overturn the established global order—will spy an opening through which they believe they can improve their international position, and jump. Those openings can be made possible by the inattention of the would-be keepers of global order, or by their wishful thinking, or by their lack of means to protect what they are supposed to protect and suppress what they are supposed to suppress. Global order can collapse when its keepers cease to believe they have the political obligation or the moral right to enforce that order against its challengers. Global order also collapses as a result of simple miscalculation: A regime assumes its opponents are fools who can easily be had; a government realizes too late that it cannot negotiate its way to peace.

Whatever the precise cause, global order has come undone in the past and may soon come apart again. The undoing will be preceded by a number of seemingly unconnected events and trends whose significance and direction become clear only in the wake of some spectacular event. What might some of those events and trends be today? And what might some of the spectacular events look like in the not-so-distant future?

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