Small Wars Journal

Small Consumer Wars and Decentralized Resistance to Revisionist Powers

Small Consumer Wars and Decentralized Resistance to Revisionist Powers

Alex Calvo

One of the striking characteristics of the current undeclared wars in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Regions is the high level of exports from China to many of the countries whose territories Beijing covets. A quick look at the statistics provides some surprising figures, with, for example the bilateral trade relationship between China and Japan being “the third-largest in the world, with a US$340 billion trade relationship in 2014”, despite Beijing's claims to Japanese territory. Even without having recourse to such information, the almost-impossible task facing any consumer trying to, for example, buy clothing made in countries other than China, is testament to the depth of penetration of her products in these same countries. The question thus appears whether, as part of their defensive strategy, citizens may choose to boycott them. Given the export-orientation of the post-1979 Chinese economy and the country's social fragility and fear of mass-unemployment, the impact could be significant even if only a portion of potential buyers chose to look for alternative suppliers. The decentralized nature of purchasing decisions means that citizens may choose to organize, perhaps even informally through social media, regardless of government policy.

It could be argued that, even if a portion of consumers in a maritime democracy choose not to buy from a country disregarding international law, they may find it difficult to follow such strategy, given the dearth of choice in many department stores and shop chains. To counter such objection, at least three arguments may be put forward. First, that (mainly out of economic and risk management considerations) although Chinese products remain paramount in many light industries, one can see in countries like Japan a greater presence of manufactures from nations like Vietnam. Second, that consumers may choose not only to individually look for alternative suppliers, but to organize to pressure distributors to offer other choices. Third, that once it becomes clear that a significant portion of the population is no longer ready to uncritically purchase manufactures from a country disregarding international law, entrepreneurs may see this as a business opportunity, rushing to fill the gap.

Given that one of the arguments in any consumer campaign against a revisionist power would be the latter's failure to respect international law, it is necessary to examine whether such action would conform to that same law. The traditional view in public international law is that, when faced with a violation by another country, a state is entitled to react with “countermeasures”. This term basically means permissible reprisals, excluding for example resort to force, with “the injured state” being “legally entitled to disregard an international obligation owed to the delinquent state”. This right is subject to some conditions, such as not applying them immediately and engaging in negotiations before implementing them. They must also be proportionate, not breach the rights of third states, and do not extend to certain areas such as the protection of human rights.[1] However, public international law being mainly based on the figure of the sovereign state, it provides no framework to regulate popular boycotts. We could perhaps say that they are subject to the same conditions and limitations, and that the state in question is legally responsible if these are breached by its citizens. If that were the case, a decision not to purchase Chinese goods, in reprisal for acts of territorial encroachment, interference with freedom of navigation, and the like, may well be seen to fall within the scope allowed by International Law. It would not involve the use of force, would not have immediately followed Beijing's breach of her international obligations since this has been going on for years, and negotiations have already taken place or have been attempted. Although affecting the livelihood and welfare of ordinary Chinese citizens, it could be said that they do not imply a direct attack on their basic human rights. Concerning proportionality, the test is not an easy one, and no mathematical formulae are available, but one could argue that putting a dent on China's foreign is not disproportionate when compared with the attempt to turn international waters into “Lake Beijing”, impose border delimitations by force, and force civilian airliners to provide flight plans even when not bound for the country, just to name a few examples. We can thus say that, from an international legal perspective, a consumer boycott seems to be allowed. 

When talking about small wars, it is guerrillas and insurgents that often comes to mind. However, in a global economy, citizens also have a powerful weapon at their disposal: their wallet. To date, conventional rearmament and closer links among maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific Ocean Region have failed to slow down territorial expansion in the face of salami-slicing tactics. The time may have come to supplement government action with popular resistance by means of a consumer boycott.

End Note

[1]     Antonio Cassese, International Law, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 302-307