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October 8, 2012
CALGARY, AB, Oct. 8, 12/ Troy Media/ – If Canada’s potential tensions with China are confined to matters such as the purchase of Nexen by the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company, CNOOC, we are the envy of the world.
To begin with, the CNOOC purchase is as close to a no-brainer as you can get. A few columnists in Toronto’s local papers have criticized the review process because it requires the Canadian government to approve the purchase on the grounds of a ‘net benefit’ to Canada. A 60 per cent premium on Nexen share prices looks like a net benefit to this cowboy.
CSIS, Canada’s counter-spy bureaucracy, trying to prove it is still useful, muttered imprecations about Chinese spies. But Nexen, like CNOOC, is an exploration company. Drilling technology is not a military secret. CNOOC already manages about $3 billion in Alberta oil assets. Like any exploration company, it is in the business of finding and selling oil and gas on the market, not selling oil to China at subsidized prices. And what if they did? Besides, as Terry Corcoran in the National Post pointed out, most of Nexen’s assets are outside Canada anyhow.
A few people oppose the CNOOC deal on the grounds that they strongly disapprove of Chinese domestic and foreign policy. But moralism has always had a very limited role in the conduct of rational foreign policy. And when moral issues are deliberately inflated, knowing that the target – in this case, China – will ignore the expression of ‘Canadian values,’ advocates of moralism are just being sadistic. The Chinese have their own values.
But suppose Canada were in Japan’s shoes. Last week marked the 40th anniversary of normal diplomatic relations between China and Japan following decades of hostility and war. Last week also saw an up-tick in the previously low-level confrontation over some disputed rocks in the East China Sea (bearing different names in Chinese and Japanese) that has the potential to escalate if both sides use their claims to enflame nationalist sentiments for their own domestic purposes.
So far neither side has militarized the confrontation and turned it into a conflict. A rag-tag flotilla of Taiwanese fishing boats being hosed down by the Japanese Coast Guard is not the credible prelude to a naval engagement.
However, last week the Chinese did, at long last, formally commission their first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and that event has also led to expressions of deep concern. But for the Chinese this new naval asset also expresses a dilemma.
First of all, it’s not new. Liaoning is the former Soviet Varyag, a hulk inherited by Ukraine as part of their Black Sea fleet. In 1998, instead of being sold for scrap, a Hong Kong travel agency bought it at auction to turn it into a floating casino in Macau – a ruse nobody believed even then. Today, with a spiffy new coat of paint and some engines, it actually looks like a Soviet-era carrier.
It really is a Potemkin warship. At best, as Chinese Rear Admiral Yang Yi said, it can serve as a training platform. Others said it would provide ‘strategic depth,’ which, given Chinese naval strategy in the Western Pacific, makes exactly no sense. Another said it would increase Chinese combat capability, ‘safeguard national sovereignty, and advance world peace.’ Then Premier Wen Jiabao told the truth: Liaoning will ‘arouse national pride and patriotic passion.’
Thus Liaoning symbolizes a major Chinese problem. It reflects Chinese assertiveness – even if it is chiefly for domestic consumption – but to its neighbours and to the U.S. Navy it is a potential threat. But such a threat precedes by many years any actual naval capability. So China’s neighbours, including Japan, which has a long and glorious naval tradition, will take steps to adjust and perhaps counter the emergent Chinese threat.
This means more submarines and anti-ship missiles in the Western Pacific, which used to be called an arms race. The objective this time, as several observers have said, is to build a Maritime Great Wall, not to keep the barbarians out but to keep China in.
Compared to this very real Western Pacific typoon, the CNOOC controversy amounts to waves in a kiddie’s paddling pool.
Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
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