Hong Kong, Beijing and the South China Sea


Hong Kong returned to China on July 1, 1997. 23 years after that unprecedented economic, cultural, social and, of course, political event which after 154 years (Treaty of Nanjing of June 26, 1843) saw theUnion Jack from the public offices, it is possible to make an examination of that very difficult marriage, which began with the Chinese promise not to influence the lives of citizens and the recent discovery that, instead, local issues have been treated by Beijing with a heavy hand and the usual authoritarianism.

But what is Hong Kong (or was it)? British pragmatism had given birth to an entity that was neither classifiable nor colony dominion, but defined as a territory where English law was recognized (common law, rules of equity, customary law) but also the Governor's ordinances. An entity on Asian soil with a liberal-democratic economic, social and political structure similar to that of the western world. An entity that over time has assumed its own relevance and weight in the Pacific area, and beyond.

Geographically Hong Kong (or rather Hiang Kiang = the sweet lagoons) is the largest island in the Si-Kiang estuary. In 1860 Beijing made further concessions, allowing part of the Kow loon peninsula to be annexed to Hong Kong. The subsequent agreement defining the 99-year lease in favor of the British Crown refers to the remaining part of the peninsula and the surrounding 235 islets. These new territories would then be recognized as an integral and inseparable part of Hong Kong during the negotiations that led in 1984 to the agreement for the return to China of the whole area.

Then there is China, the territorially largest country in the world, the most populous, economically very strong and, above all, the most homogeneous in culture and language. Mandarin, which was the courtly language of the court, is now spoken by no less than 70% of the Chinese, while the remaining 30% speak seven other very similar languages ​​(such as Spanish and Italian). A process of linguistic and cultural unification that dates back to the Qin dynasty (around 220 BC).

In the document prepared at the time by the two parties (for the United Kingdom Margareth Thatcher and for China Deng Siao Ping) for the formal return of Hong Kong to the Chinese area it says that ... the socialist system and politics (ie Chinese editor's note) will not be applied in the SAR (Special Administrative Region) and the previous capitalist and way of life system (that is, of Hong Kong editor's note) will remain unchanged for 50 years…. We know today, in light of the very sad recent events, that those promises, while constituting an example of conciseness and clarity (on paper), have not been kept.

In any case, the acceleration given by Xi Jinping to the Chinese "normalization" of Hong Kong, in revealing Beijing's desire to burn the milestones in its work of political and territorial expansion, exposes China to the right world political criticisms and predictable reactions, especially from the UK, but not only. From an economic point of view, it would not be bizarre if these strong criticisms also led to a sharp drop in the confidence of the international business world towards the "Chineseized" Hong Kong. A trust that Beijing, respecting the freely signed agreements, had managed to maintain even in the period immediately following thehandovers but that this authoritarian gesture, judged wrong by the rest of the world, could collapse. To understand the current economic value of Hong Kong just remember that it is among the top ten financial centers in the world by volume of trade.

But why this acceleration? A first answer probably lies in the history of the Chinese, in their approach to international relations and in their political culture. In the eighteenth century, for example, when the western powers knocked on the doors of China, at the time still closed in its proud and diffident isolationism, the British Crown sent a delegation to Beijing, full of many and conspicuous gifts. The emperor of the middle empire, the emperor of all the Chinas, replied thanking the courteous gesture of ... submission.

That ultra nationalist approach hasn't changed. An approach that, among others, wants to make us forget a relatively recent past full of humiliations for the treaties considered unfair and for the harsh Japanese occupation. An approach that has as its objective the assimilation of the whole territory geographically pertinent to Chinese thought and way of life, eliminating "dangerous" western drifts. On the other hand, it was illusory to believe that Beijing could long accept that a relatively small part of the country lived according to rules not common to the rest of the country, with the danger that this could create requests for political liberalization that the current Chinese ruling class has no intention of conceding.

In an area as vast and important as the Pacific, liberal Hong Kong has played and could continue to play a very useful role as an economic mediator between different visions of the world, precisely because it is not bound by political or ideological easements. A mediator whose goal was and could be above all development, an indispensable component for the well-being of the populations. But that didn't stop Beijing from making an authoritarian turn to Hong Kong's status, undermining its economy.

From a geopolitical point of view, Hong Kong is (or was) an economically active part of a large area, that of the Pacific, where four major powers (USA, Russia, China and Japan) and four or five medium-small ones gravitate. However, the Chinese decision to accelerate on the authoritarian route has cracked the already fragile balance of trust. This opens up the possibility of new scenarios, with worrying political, military and economic implications. A not peregrine concern, given that, perhaps to recover votes for the next presidential election, the Trump Administration could find it useful to show the muscles in front of the demonstrations of assertiveness of the Chinese and promote demonstrations of power that could trigger harsh counter-reactions from Beijing .

Demonstrations of power that could definitely ignite an area already home to very strong tensions originated, once again, from the Chinese desire to take on new and more decisive roles and responsibilities within the international community.

In fact, the area of ​​the Chinese Sea has long been the primary theater of confrontation between the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has decided to question the balance of force in the Pacific basin and the related geopolitical and geostrategic concepts, and the powerful US Navy, more determined than ever to to support the principles of freedom of use of the sea as a prerequisite for the development of national economies.

So much so that China has long started unilateral initiatives to "protect" the waters of its strategic interest by trying to prevent, at the same time, the access of the opposing ships to the disputed stretches of sea. Parallel to its qualitative and quantitative growth, the Chinese Navy has therefore shown an increasingly determined attitude in controversies for the numerous islands of the Chinese Sea, important both for the enormous reserves of energy resources but, above all, for their strategic value, being located in position to allow control of the main routes in the area. Such are the uninhabited Senkaku islands (or Diaoyu, as the Chinese call them) disputes with Japan, and the islands ofSpratly archipelago, disputed by Vietnam , Philippines, China, Malaysia, Taiwan e Brunei, but transformed from China into a military base with airways and anti-ship missiles. Furthermore, Chinese planes and ships have exponentially increased their activity in those waters, which they patrol in an increasingly aggressive way, precisely to advise against navigation by "unwanted" units.

The US Navy opposes this approach, thanks to its naval surface and underwater tradition to which a very powerful aerial component of the Navy must be added.. The mighty US fleet has long been ensuring a robust presence in the Pacific, a commitment that is the result of the concept of the use of maritime power in support of a policy that we could call "butterfly wings", where the continental part of the United States represents the body , while the wings extend east (Atlantic) and west (Pacific). The already strong American naval commitment in the area, precisely because of the Chinese attitude, has recently been increased, and this has required a global readjustment of the US presence on the seas of the world.

Even if at the moment China does not seem to have the objective of projecting its political-military force from the other side of the globe, it cannot be excluded that, once the result is achieved in the waters of the Chinese Sea, Beijing does not wish to expand its strategic horizons, intervening with its military fleet in completely new sensitive areas. A taste, after all, has already been with the recent naval exercise with the aim of deepening the joint naval capabilities, also for anti-piracy operations, which took place in the waters of the Indian Ocean (where Chinese military ships are continuously present since 2009) and the Gulf of Oman last December 2019, with the participation of Iranian, Russian and, indeed, Chinese military units. A qualitative, quantitative and operational growth of a Navy which, which quickly became the most important Armed Force in China, appears to be the effective pressure instrument chosen by Xi Jinping to increase, in the long term, the Chinese ability to obtain diplomatic advantages or turn international disputes in his favor.

But on the Pacific theater also plays its part, another regional maritime actor with a modern and competitive fleet, which does not yet deploy an aircraft carrier but, since adequate and ready air and sea cover for every operation at sea is now indispensable, could soon to arrive, also in light of the continuous irritating Chinese provocations. Last March, for example, China carried out some air and naval maneuvers which, as reported by the agencies, also led to penetrations in the Japanese Air Defense Identification Zone, causing understandable alarms. In this context, it should be emphasized that the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has an approach mainly aimed at protecting its commercial traffic and maintaining the freedom of use of maritime routes and a consistency that, at the moment, substantially balances the Chinese one. . Nonetheless, its overall capacity is not expected to grow significantly in the coming years, while China's capacity by 2030 could become no less than 40% higher than the current one.

The posture of the Chinese fleet also appears to be directed towards the projection of power and the possibility of acquiring and controlling maritime areas of strategic interest, as demonstrated by recent Chinese naval exercises, characterized by amphibious assault activities, which took place from 1 to 5 July. lasted in the waters between the island of Hainan and the archipelago of the Paracelsus islands (stolen from Vietnam in 1974 and still subject to litigation). A clear signal that makes it clear that Beijing has no intention of softening its approach in those waters. The event, which did nothing but increase regional tensions, immediately raised strong reactions and criticisms from the coastal countries with which China has been in disputes for many years, in particular Vietnam (obviously) and the Philippines, which they filed formal diplomatic protests. Even the United States made its voice heard, through a harsh note from the US Department of Defense, with which it declared "...concerned about the People's Republic of China (PRC) decision to conduct military exercises around the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on July 1-5. The designated area where the exercises are due to take place encompass contested waters and territory. Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability. The PRC's actions will further destabilize the situation in the South China Sea. Such exercises also violate PRC commitments under the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability. The military exercises are the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea. The PRC's actions stand in contrast to its pledge to not militarize the South China Sea and the United States 'vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms. The Department of Defense will continue to monitor the situation with the expectation that the PRC will reduce its militarization and coercion of its neighbors in the South China Sea. We urge all parties to exercise restraint and not undertake military activities that might aggravate disputes in the South China Sea... "1. The facts followed the official note: the aircraft carriers Nimitz (CVN-68) and Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) were sent to the area, together with their respective escort ships.

The US Navy will therefore continue to play a fundamental role in fighting a still young (and in many ways inexperienced) Chinese Navy, by virtue of the possibility of deploying a very powerful fleet, which can boast eleven nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (the largest and most powerful ships military forces existing today), against the two conventional ones in China (one of which was launched last year). The most recent US units, Gerald Ford class (a total of 10 are planned and the first was launched in 2013), have a displacement of over 100.000 tons fully loaded, boast an autonomy limited only by supplies of food, weapons and from the fuel for the planes and they embark 75 F-35 in naval version, besides other aircrafts and helicopters. An impressive power when compared to the current Chinese consistency. Beijing, however, expects that by 2030 it will be able to deploy four aircraft carriers and that, by 2049, it will have an active force of ten aircraft carriers.

In the meantime, Russia, downgraded from a global interpreter to a regional power, but whose Navy has recently been experiencing strong growth in quality, observes the contenders and weaves its web of alliances in the Indo-Pacific area, waiting to be able to return to being leading actor in that theater. After the problems of the last decades, which had led to a reduction of one third of the fleet in the Pacific and the destruction of all ICBM missiles east of the Urals, in fact, the Russian fleet has reorganized itself with new ships, so much so that the Voenno-Morsky Flot, although recently it has been numerically outclassed by Chinese Navy, still represents one of the most powerful and numerous war marines in the world.

The dramatic events in Hong Kong and the naval exercises in the South China Sea, therefore, seem to be only the last two, in order of time, important clarifying elements of the direction that Beijing is following in regional issues. An area that has been the scene of a complex for decades puzzle of territorial disputes that see the countries bordering (China, Japan, Vietnam. South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei) claim invisible borders and the right to use the treasures (that stretch of sea is rich in oil, gas and of course fish) who are there and see the US Navy committed to enforcing the principles of free navigation, to protect international law and its national interests. On those waters, in fact, a third of global maritime freight traffic passes, for a value of about 5 trillion dollars a year. And a quarter of those goods are American.

The 2016 Hague Arbitration Tribunal's decision that Chinese claims were a violation of international law was of little use. Beijing has always pretended nothing. Thus, in that geopolitically more and more crucial area, the tension continues to rise, creating the danger of a regional armed conflict, from which the US Navy could hardly escape.

There is no doubt that the recent Chinese military exercises, carried out in this particular moment of tension increased by the events of Hong Kong, have a highly provocative character and that they can constitute the fuse that could trigger potentially devastating actions and counter-reactions for the security of the area, such as there is no doubt that the amphibious assault maneuvers feed the fear that the Chinese territorial appetites have not yet been satisfied.

It is therefore clear how this delicate area today represents one of the hotspots in the world, with new contrasts that add up to the old and never dormant grudges, increasing the risks of the current new geopolitical context. In the future, it represents the node of great economic and strategic interests that could have consequences on other areas closest to us, or on matters of our direct interest.

cv pil (res) Renato Scarfi