I wanted to understand China’s interventions in the South China Sea — and ended up with a scary scoop, in an ethical pickle, on a disputed tropical island.
By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
“I’m going to show you our plans. I trust that you will be discreet with the information.”
My host was Horace Wee, chief executive officer of Nanyang, the newest Special Administrative Region of China.
I was way out of my comfort zone.
* * *
Usually I seek out the curious, the esoteric, the eccentric quirks of life in Asia.
This time I was dining with the big boys.
* * *
Let’s back up a few steps.
While researching a story on China’s role in the trade in tigers and snow leopards, I had met Hong Nei-yi, who is deputy minister of the Chinese equivalent of the attorney-general’s office.
Hong told me what his office was going to try to shut down the trade — the laws they had passed, the beefing up of customs inspectors, the crackdown on traders, the educational campaigns aimed at consumers, the financial and technical support to the countries where tigers and snow leopards are found.
And I sort of believed him, at least enough to write a balanced article for The New York Times.
Hong and his colleagues appreciated that, with my conservation background and loud mouth, I had given them a chance to explain their side of the story and had treated them fairly.
Now I was in Beijing trying to meet senior officials in the Ministry of Defense to attempt to understand the psychology of China’s massive interventions in the South China Sea.
* * *
China is big. It seems silly to say that, but everything about the place is huge.
Just off Tiananmen Square, one of the world’s largest open urban areas, can be found government ministries that feature huge auditoriums, massive murals (romantic representations of the inherent goodness of the peasants is a common theme) and lots of meeting rooms where the chairs are covered with starched white cloth and green tea is poured in endless quantities.
It was in such a meeting room that I met Horace Wee.
Wee offered me cookies, asked after my family, joked about English football (like me, he roots for Arsenal), made fun of Donald Trump and told dirty jokes in quite good French. We bonded over our favorite Beatles songs.
If he had been any more friendly I would have thought he was American.
He is in his forties, and speaks with an American accent, not surprising since he did his undergraduate degree in history at Princeton, then an MBA at Wharton, and worked with Microsoft for 10 years and Boeing for three, soaking up the good vibes of Seattle.
“I’m going to the South China Sea tomorrow. You’ll come with me.”
It would have been churlish of me to refuse.
* * *
We flew in a military jet to the brand new military airport in the Spratly Islands, roughly equidistant from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, the southern Philippines island of Palawan and the Sultanate of Brunei on Borneo.
The Spratly Islands have been one of several South China Sea locations where China has colonized scattered small islands and considerably enhanced their real estate value by enlarging them through extensive land reclamation. They have created dozens of new islands where previously there was only coral outcrops.
This quiet takeover of a strategically and economically vital region has resulted in complaints, whining and teeth-gnashing by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines, all of which have various territorial claims.
Mosquito bites on an elephant.
The U.S. armed forces have rattled their sabers, but the Chinese smugly continue their grand engineering projects knowing that the Americans, for all their bluster and B-52s, aren’t going to precipitate a shooting war.
* * *
The Chinese are creating a new form of empire building.
Instead of marching into other people’s territory and taking over, à la Napoleon, Hitler or Genghis Khan, the Chinese are simply creating new territory (albeit on stretches of almost-empty sea claimed by others).
And by occupying these territories and creating infrastructure (and what is more infrastructural than a military base, or the world’s gaudiest shopping mall, or a national tourism office?), other nations have no choice but to acknowledge China’s sovereignty.
This tactic is “geopolitical genius,” according to C.L. Ovis-James, a senior U.S. diplomat with extensive Southeast Asian experience.
* * *
We flew into the military airport in the center of the Spratly chain, using only a fraction of the 3,000-meter-long runway.
Horace Wee and I were billeted in the brand new international hotel, the first of what no doubt will be numerous joint projects. The hotel was not yet fully operational, but we settled in at the Nine-Dash-Line coffee shop for a bowl of quite-good Penang laksa and Coke Zero with plenty of ice.
“Welcome to Nanyang!” Wee said brightly.
“Nice hotel for a military base,” I replied.
“We get a lot of high level visitors from Beijing,” Wee said. “They might be Communists, but even senior Party officials like a few comforts.”
* * *
(To read Chapter Two, click here.)
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer whose books include An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles, Distant Greens, Curious Encounters of the Human Kind, Redheads, Share Your Journey and Soul of the Tiger (with Jeff McNeely). This satirical piece is excerpted from Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia, which will be published by Explorer’s Eye Press in late 2017. Paul can be contacted at: www.sochaczewski.com.