On Clinton’s ‘hands-off’ declaration

Some lawmakers in Manila are upset with American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that the United States does not take sides in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. They should know, however, that a declaration of American neutrality in terms of the competing claims in the area is in fact more beneficial to the Philippines.

The American position on the Scarborough crisis, as articulated by Secretary Clinton in yesterday’s Philippine-American ministerial dialogue in Washinton, is actually more nuanced than the supposed neutrality that these lawmakers—and the Daily Tribune— are trying to paint. While Washington does not take sides on sovereignty issues; it has declared that it is against the threat or the use of force, and is in favor of a multilateral approach, in solving the Scarborough crisis. It has also reiterated that it will honor its obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and that it will commit itself to building a “minimum credible defense posture” for the Philippines.

China’s actions in the shoal these past eighteen days have made it apparent that its strategy is to gain control of the territory through bullying tactics, as opposed to the Philippines’ desire to resolve the stand-off through a rules-based mechanism. China also insists that the Scarborough issue is a bilateral matter that must not internationalized, but the Philippines thinks otherwise. By calling for a “collaborative and multilateral diplomatic process” to resolve the stand-off, therefore, Washington has basically adopted Manila’s stance.

Of course, by saying that it will abide by the MDT, the United States is merely being strategically ambiguous, since that treaty does not have an ‘automatic retaliation’ clause. Obviously, Washington intends to keep its options open. This should not be a source of concern for the Philippines, however, since strategic ambiguity also characterizes the American position on Taiwan. Indeed, in the event of an actual armed attack on any Philippine vessel in the shoal, the Americans will surely come to the Philippines’ aid, just as they will come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an invasion from the Mainland. They just have to. Not doing so would make the United States appear unreliable in terms of honoring its treaty obligations, which will surely spook the four other treaty allies in the Pacific and turn away Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and the other Asian countries that the Americans have been trying to win over.

So, when militant leftist congressman Neri Colmenares said that Secretary Clinton’s declaration could embolden China “to start a limited war in the shoal just as it did to Vietnam,” we know that he’s just being, well, a typical militant leftist. This statement, which is a stark contrast to his Bayan Muna Party’s earlier demands for the US to stay off the territorial disputes, reinforces the perception that for the militant left, things are often a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The truth of the matter is that a shooting war in the Scarborough would be more probable had the United States declared support for the Philippines’ sovereignty claims to the shoal. Such a declaration would validate the suspicion held by many Chinese citizens that the Philippines is merely acting as a proxy for the supposedly vicious American agenda of encircling China and containing its rise. The hawks in Beijing– like General Luo Yuan and the Global Times, for example– could in turn use this to further fan nationalist flames, which would extremely limit the wiggle room for the Chinese government to make compromises with its Philippine counterpart. This would make it very difficult for both sides to diplomatically manage the on-going stand-off.

Clearly, despite these lawmakers’ concerns, the Philippines has been able to get the minimum American support it needs. Its negotiators, however, could have done better in pressing for greater American assistance in terms of upgrading the country’s terribly dilapidated armed forces. But that’s for another blog entry.

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28 thoughts on “On Clinton’s ‘hands-off’ declaration”

  1. With trillions of dollars in debt to China, do you really think US would go to war against the Chinks?

    1. The US will not go to war with China, not because it is indebted to China but because it can’t afford a full-scale war with a world power. Same thing with China. That’s why in the event of armed attack on Philippine vessels, or indeed of even an invasion of Taiwan, the response from the US would be decisive but calibrated so that it could be contained and not result in a full-scale war.

      I don’t think US debt would really matter since, as Teddy Boy Locsin correctly pointed out on World Tonight, war cancels all debt. What matters for the US is for China to continue buying US bonds, which China would surely do to keep the US market afloat. Everyone is saying that China is important to the US economically; but so is the US to China. The economic interdependence between the two is a two-way street.

      1. What I meant when I said that the economic interdependence between the US and China is a two-way street is that, while China holds trillions of American debt, it won’t encash those debt yet because it is in China’s interest to keep the American economy afloat. That’s because the US is a very important market for China’s export economy. In fact, I can bet that China would have to continue buying US bonds to keep the American economy intact, if it really cares about its own export industries.

        Bottomline #1 is that China will never call in US debts since doing so would be disastrous to its own economy.

        Bottomline #2 is that, well, war cancels all debt. So if the US goes to war with China (not saying it would), it won’t have to pay its debt to the Chinese.

  2. I agree with anonymous, and also, MDT says the response should follow constitutional process, whioch means approval of Congress since Congress is the only one that can declare war. MDT is useless.

    1. Constitutional process does not necessarily mean congressional approval. The commander-in-chief can order military actions even sans a declaration of war by Congress.

      To analyze how the US would act in case of a Chinese attack on PH vessels on Scarborough, it’s better to look at the political context than the structure of the MDT. Domestically, especially in an election year, public opinion would force President Obama to come to PH’s aid in case of PRC attack. Internationally, the US would lose its credibility to its treaty allies if it doesn’t come to PH’s help. That would result to destabilizing factors in the region like a possible re-militarization of Japan, which would be spooked should US bail out on PH. Moreoever, this would expose US as an unreliable partner, which is bad since the US is currently courting Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, and even Myanmar as part of its “pivot” to Asia.

      So, at the end of the day, I still think that the US would respond and help PH in case of Chinese armed attacks.

        1. I’m not sure about what US laws say about the President sending troops to foreign soil sans Congressional approval, but I know that the POTUS can send troops on his own. President Clinton sent troops to Bosnia. President Bush sent troops to Iraq and Aghanistan. I don’t even think the Gulf War was a congressionally-declared war.

  3. This is a stupid article. How can someone call himself a journalist when all he do is copy and paste all that he sees and hear on television and the internet. Check your facts man. Have you ever heard of the word logic? Don’t talk man, think!

    1. Dear Mr. Ambion: I did not copy-paste anything in writing this blog. I don’t engage in plagiarism. I also never called myself a journalist, and all my facts are accurate. Now, could you elaborate on why you think this is a stupid article?

  4. 建設的な意見も述べずに名を隠して非難する人は馬鹿を通り越して能無しだね。自分がもっと考えようよ。非難を受ける可能性があっても懸命にブログを書いてる人に対するそれがあなたの礼儀なの?

    1. ありがとうございます。実は僕みたいなブロガーにとってコメントが貰ったらなんか嬉しいです。建設的な意見じゃなくても平気です。

  5. Interesting Analysis. You always give the full details of the issue in order to be understood by the reader. Not only that, you always present both sides of the issue thus giving the whole picture. Cheers to you!

    Very interesting read and highly recommendable. 😀

  6. 日本語できるんですか?すごいですね。どうして?いつも楽しく読ませてもらってます。コメントこれからも書かせてもらいますね。フィリピンは何度か行ったことがあるんですよ。今度行く時には是非お会いしたいですね。

  7. Thanks for your comments in propinoy. We have a similar take on the issue. However, I think a skirmish over Panatag or the Spratleys is not so far off. As for the US defending the Philippines, I think it would be very difficult from a domestic political standpoint at this time because the US is still involved in another war and its economy is in bad shape. Any interference from the US would have to be justified not only from the “helping an ally” angle but more importantly from a national interest rationale. US leadership will have to convince the American people that China’s encroachment on the Philippines involves not only freedom of navigation but also the threat of Chinese hegemony in southeast asia.

    1. Thanks MB for your inputs re: domestic political context in the United States. I think it is hard to predict how the American public would react. On one hand, there are those who, as you said, are tired of foreign wars and would therefore demand that American intervention in the Scarborough shoal be justified from a national interest stand-point. But on the other hand, there are also those who are wary of China and would not want China to bully a long-time ally.

      I may be wrong, but my guess is that President Obama would be forced to defend the Philippines, since he can’t really afford to give Governor Romney and the conservatives some ammunition, and to antagonize the Filipino-Americans (who would be holding rallies this Friday that will hopefully capture the attention of the global media and win sympathy of the US public).

      At any rate, I think any American intervention would be calibrated and that, should a shooting war actually breaks out, all actors– Manila, Beijing and Washington– would move to contain the incident (although Beijing can be quite unpredictable in this regard).

    1. Mr “Z” was merely saying that it’s unfortunate that there are anonymous haters who post comments that are not very constructive (probably in reference to the comment of Mr. “me,” who is a leftist activist I know personally). I told him bloggers like me appreciate comments, even if they are non-sequitur. He then said he visits the Philippines often, loves the country, and would love to meet me if given a chance.

  8. Interesting comment on The Diplomat:

    “Philippines is not an orphan. That 2+2 with the reporters was just a facade. Obviously Hillary was or her way to China that night and does not want to rile the Chinese before she comes so they release the same things and was well guarded.

    “The following day was different between the defense secretaries. US already had lined up an agenda to make sure they are able to blunt the Chinese even to the next decade when a couple of Chinese carriers are operational already, assuming they have figured out how to launch a bomb loaded J-15 without ski jumps. Even the Italian defense staff was there to make deals with the US and the Philippines.

    “Just watch the next few months how these whole thing will evolve. The Italians, Spaniards, Koreans, Japanese and even the Australians will make a pitch to make sure Philippines will have credible defensive structure even with Chinese carriers. I think China will find out how many friends Philippines has especially once China gets exposed in the ITLOS hearings.”

  9. I can’t understand why CHINA is threatening an economic sabotage to the PHILIPPINES… China is an exporting country to the PHILIPPINES… Majority of businessman in the Philippines are chinese..The Philippine is only exporting food to china, and minerals..if Philippines will stop those export, how could china feed himself..if CHINA stop exporting their fake and sub standard products to the Philippines, it will surely help the Philippine economy…

    1. Actually, the Philippines exports food, raw materials, and electronic components to China. I’m not sure about the minerals. Also, the Philippines is not the only source of these exports; therefore, losing them won’t make too much of a dent to the Chinese economy.

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