Manila should try to understand how Beijing works, too.

The Philippines holds its ground amidst Chinese bullying.

When China prevented the Philippines from apprehending illegal Chinese poachers caught pilfering endangered marine life in the Scarborough Shoal— in clear violation of Philippine and international laws— it probably thought that the militarily-weak Philippines would meekly submit and call it a day. But as an American expert on Asian affairs said, Beijing has clearly underestimated Manila’s resolve.

For sixteen days now, Philippine and Chinese vessels are in a stand-off in the Scarborough, and neither side is showing signs of blinking. The military power asymmetry between the two sides is beyond obvious. China has an overwhelming advantage. The Philippines, however, knows how to play its cards.

Manila is holding its ground by keeping its ships in the Scarborough while simultaneously rallying international support for its cause and intensifying its military alliance with the United States. Under the circumstances, these are the best insurance to at least maintain the status quo as the Philippines tries to elevate the dispute to international tribunals.

It is true that the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are still reluctant to take a collective stand on the crisis because of their deep economic ties with China, but that doesn’t mean that they are not concerned. Indeed, they have expressed these concerns through Track II diplomacy, and I’m sure that the smarter people in Beijing know that they, along with the world, would condemn China should it unleash its vastly superior navy on the Philippines. Gone are the days when might is right.

The smarter people in Beijing know, too, that taking the shoal from the Philippines by force would push almost all Asian countries to the American orbit. It will intensify the alliances between America on one hand and Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Australia on the other. It could make Vietnam an American ally, and Singapore, along with other ASEAN states, very friendly to the United States. It will totally undo a decade of efforts by China to rein in these Asian states through its “peaceful rise” overtures, and shift the region’s balance further towards Washington.

The Philippines, on the other hand, stands to gain tremendously by merely holding its ground. The longer the crisis drags and the tenser it gets, the more leverage Manila gains in, firstly, negotiating its way to get more military concessions from the United States, which will be pressured by public opinion to acquiesce, and, secondly, trying to rally the world into forcing China to bring the matter before international courts, where Manila stands to win.

Should the Chinese try to end the stand-off by firing the first shots, the United States will be forced to honor its treaty obligations and defend the Philippines. It won’t be different from what would happen if the Chinese invade Taiwan. Washington wouldn’t dare? It would, especially in an election year; and with world opinion supporting it to boot. The smarter people in Beijing know this, too.

Unfortunately, however, the smarter people in Beijing don’t always get to see their views become official policy. With too many different power poles and loose definition of where the lines between these poles are drawn, China’s policy-making can be unpredictable. The smarter people in Beijing form probably just one of these poles; the other poles can be either too myopic to see the dynamics of long-term balance-of-power realpolitik or just too jingoistic, or both.

Indeed, if we believe Gordon Chang, who says that the conservatives in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have gained too much leverage in Beijing’s policy-making circle, or the International Crisis Group, which says that purely domestic maritime agencies struggling for a say on the dispute in their efforts to protect their turfs have been steering China’s actions in the South China Sea; then we shouldn’t expect China to be always rational in dealing with this crisis. Japan realized this painfully when it became a target of China’s soft economic sanctions due to a similar stand-off near the disputed Senkaku Islands in 2010.

In order to avoid dangerous miscalculations, therefore, the Philippines should strive to understand the nuances of Beijing’s domestic politics and bureaucracy, and calibrate its actions accordingly. President Benigno S. Aquino III should include China hands—people like Chito Sta. Romana, for instance—in consultations and discussions on how best to deal with the Scarborough crisis.

If you like what you read here, you will definitely like The Observers, a group blog on politics, society, history, and international affairs. The Nutbox has moved to the said website. 

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14 comments

  1. tongueinanew

    Manila should really be playing its cards like a real poker pro would. Not much fanfare, no media announcements while it weighs its options. Haven’t we heard “We will go to this court and file this…” and as predictable as drought in Sahara, these guys never do what they say. Has any case been filed so far?

    They should follow the lead of the US capitol – declining to give interviews on the real score but reminding everyone of the 2 + 2 meeting in a few days between Hillary and Panetta with their Filipino counterparts. That’s how you do it! Our officials should learn when to answer and when to just shut up.

    • David

      Mr Tounginanew, (nice name btw)
      I think this is exactly when fanfare and lots of media attention are needed. We need to get the world to support us regarding this matter. The author had it right when he said that gone are the days when might is right. If the global media can portray this as the ideal David vs Goliath scenario then we will get a lot of international support, starting with the ASEAN and the US, of course.

      I agree with the idea that the Philippines is playing its cards right. In fact we did exactly the right thing, that all we had to do is wait be the last to leave the shoal. If the Chinese fired the first shot or simply left the shoal (which would be humiliating for the Chinese hawks), we would have won a morale victory. And the international court is an obvious no-no for the Chinese, as stated earlier.

      However, I have reservations regarding the long wait. We might have been courting international support, but I think it should be done aggressively. I believe we must court those with powerful voices starting in the ASEAN as they would could greatly help in increasing international support at the very least. The primary target must be Indonesia, it has great influence all over the Muslim world and that they’ve been a traditional partner in the Asian region. In fact, we are so close that our Ambassador professors stated that there is a great tendency for the Philippine and Indonesian representatives to be rather close to each other.

      Thanks for the nice read.

      • The Nutbox

        David, the reason why the Philippine government has not yet taken to the world media with an all-out shame campaign against China is because the Philippines is not yet prepared to fully antagonize Beijing. As much as possible, the Aquino administration wants to treat the stand-off as an isolated issue in the over-all Philippines-China relations. We have to remember that the President had exerted a lot of efforts to invite Chinese investments to the Philippines in his visit last year.

        Further, I think the Philippines should think twice before going against China in the world press, as that might only fan the nationalist flame in both China and the Philippines, which could limit the space both governments have for diplomatic solution to the crisis.

        • The Nutbox

          Also, I think even Indonesia does not have much leverage over ASEAN. In fact, I don’t think there’s a regional power in ASEAN that wields real influence over the bloc. The only nations that wield influence are Thailand, over Myanmar; and Vietnam, over Laos and, to a very limited extent, Cambodia.

          The chair can wield influence to a certain extent, since it defines the discussion points in the summits. Unfortunately, this year’s ASEAN chair, Cambodia, doesn’t have any interest in the South China Sea disputes and is seen to be under Chinese influence.

    • The Nutbox

      Tongue, I totally agree with the wisdom of keeping your cards close to your chest. However, I think it was more strategic, from the perspective of gaining international support, to make noise about China’s bullying, which is what Secretary del Rosario and his team have done so far. I also think it’s more strategic to publicly ask China to bring the matter to the international tribunals, for it gives the Philippines added political capital. Of course, the government must remain silent in terms of formulating its legal strategies should the issue be elevated to world courts, and in terms of formulating its political strategies and contingency plans, if any, should the crisis turns uglier.

  2. jaypeesan

    In other words, “market research” should be conducted with the “target market” as a reference on potential impact and effect of strategies to be employed by our government. I like the idea already :)

  3. Anonymous

    Well, if Manila has a modern navy and air force, even the jingoistic among the Chinese officials wouldn’t dare bully the Philippines.

    • The Nutbox

      It’s hard to disagree with that. Unfortunately, building a respectable navy and air force that could deter the Chinese would take years. The Aquino administration is doing the best it can under the circumstances, though. The pace of modernization of the armed forces under its watch has been faster than during the time of all post-Edsa presidents combined. In the two-plus-two meetings between secretaries Clinton, Paneta, Del Rosario and Gazmin happening in Washington today, the Philippines is pushing for its request for another cutter; for the armaments that BRP Del Pilar was stripped of when it was transferred to the Philippine Navy from the American Coast Guard; and for I think a dozen or so F16 jets.

  4. marlon ong

    Based on applicable international maritime and related laws, China knows that if she petitions the United Nations International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to affirm her dubious claim that she owns everything in the South China Sea aka West Philippine Sea — her chances of winning are about as likely as having a snowfall in the Sahara desert.

    Both Courts have proper jurisdictions to settle sovereignty issues between nations regarding marine territories — such as those concerning the Spratly and Paracel islands.

    Let’s imagine what most likely would happen if China does take her case to the International Court of Justice and the representative of China — let’s call him Mr. Lee — is before the Court headed by the Presiding Judge. Consider this scenario:

    Judge: “Please inform this Court of the basis for your claim that the entire South China Sea aka West Philippine Sea belongs completely to the People’s Republic of China?”

    Mr. Lee: “Thank you, your honor. Our claim is based on the historical fact that this entire area has belonged to us since the Han Dynasty.”

    Judge: “How do you intend to prove your case?”

    Mr. Lee: “I will present to this Court an almost two thousand year old Han Dynasty map that indicates the limits of the Han Dynasty kingdom.”

    Judge: “Let’s assume for purposes of discussion that the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and other surrounding countries were provinces or part of the Han Dynasty during its time even if the map you hold may just actually be a navigational map which does not really define the limits of the Han Dynasty. Now my study of China’s history indicate that the Han Dynasty lasted from 206 B.C. To 220 A.D. Is this correct?”

    Mr. Lee: “Yes your honor.”

    Judge: “I assume Mr. Lee that you are familiar with Alexander the Great, the young Macedonian king who conquered much of the ancient world.”

    Mr. Lee: “I am, your honor.”

    Judge: “At the time of his death in 323 B.C., Alexander’s kingdom included Greece, Syria, Persia now known as Iran, Egypt and a part of India. Are you aware Mr. Lee that Macedonia, Alexander’s country — is now known as the Republic of Macedonia?”

    Mr. Lee: “If you say so your honor.”

    Judge: “Good! You appear to know your history. I assume you are also familiar with the Roman Empire which existed for over a thousand years.”

    Mr. Lee: “Thank you your honor, I do read history.”

    Judge: “You are then aware Mr. Lee that at its height, the Roman Empire included most of Europe and parts of Africa and Asia.”

    Mr. Lee: “I am aware, your honor.”

    Judge: “Now Mr. Lee, since the time of Alexander, the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty — through the course of time and historical events, various independent countries have emerged in Europe, Africa and Asia — which now have their own respective territories. This is a reality which we all have to accept, wouldn’t you say?”

    Mr. Lee: “We cannot deny reality, your honor.”

    Judge: “Now Mr. Lee, another undeniable reality is that Alexander’s empire, the Roman empire and the Han Dynasty kingdom are no longer existent — am I correct in my observation?

    Mr. Lee: “You are correct, your honor.”

    Judge: “Now Mr.Lee, in all candor, do you seriously believe that if the Republic of Macedonia and the Italian government were to come before this Court and petition us to affirm that they own the territories of these now independent countries because they were once a part of Alexander’s empire or the Roman empire — that we would be persuaded to grant these petitions?”

    Mr. Lee: “I understand what you are getting at, Judge — but most of what we are claiming as ours is marine area and not land.”

    Judge: “The Spratlys and the Paracel islands are not land? Anyway, isn’t it a fact that China is a signatory to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which she ratified on July 6, 1996 thereby agreeing to be bound by its provisions — and part of which is that anything within 200 miles from the baseline of a country belongs to that country?”

    Mr. Lee: “China did agree to those provisions at a time when it was not yet aware of the far reaching consequences of UNCLOS to her national interests.”

    Judge: “I will not mince my words Mr. Lee. What you mean is that at that time, the world, including China, was not yet aware, that vast deposits of oil and natural gas were to be found within the territorial limits of neighboring countries. Now because of this awareness, even if China knows she is trespassing and violating international law, she is using the coercive might of her size, military or otherwise — to grab these enormous reserves of petrowealth from the territories of her smaller, weaker, poorer neighbors — who badly need these assets to improve the plight of their own people.”

    Postscript: In view of all the facts and existing applicable law, the likelihood is that the UN court will find China’s petition to be without merit.

    Notwithstanding requests from the Philippines, neighboring countries and the United States to bring West Philippine Sea sovereignty issues to the United Nations, China has steadfastly refused to do so. Instead, it is constantly involved in mind games, using scare tactics, insisting that everything in the whole West Philippine Sea is theirs and that this issue is non-negotiable.

    By so doing, the gigantic oil hungry dragon seeks to condition the national minds of her neighbors to forcibly accept inequitable bilateral settlement agreements — without United Nations or United States involvement. The Philippines, Vietnam and other neighbor countries must not fall into this trap. They should unite and create an alliance and insist — with the aid of the global community, with military means if necessary — that China should respect their rights and leave their national patrimony alone.

    The most loudly applauded part of President Benigno Simeon Aquino’s State of the Nation speech was his strong affirmation that what belongs to the Philippines stays in the Philippines. Everyone understood his meaning: The Philippines will stand firm against China’s bully tactics and mind games in trying to grab our energy and marine resources.

    What a big difference to have a trustworthy President who provides moral leadership and looks after the interests of the nation instead of one ready to sell out the country’s patrimony for personal gain.

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