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 in consultations and discussions on how best to deal with the Scarborough crisis.