There is an emerging analysis among students of Chinese politics that the heated rhetoric coming from Beijing regarding its stand-off with Manila over the Scarborough Shoal is a ploy to divert the country’s attention away from the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng scandals that have rocked the Communist Party (CCP). Apparently, the party brass deem that this diversion is vital to stabilize the political situation in the midst of the on-going delicate baton-passing between President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping.
The CCP has long used nationalism, along with economic gains, as a pillar to support its legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people, as well as to distract them from its domestic political abuses. This explains why Beijing is encouraging its state-run news agencies to beat the nationalist drums at the Philippines’ expense, with several newspapers seriously advocating war with Manila. According to some friends in Beijing, the ploy has succeeded; the Scarborough stand-off is now the talk of the town, and the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng cases are now old news.
Obviously, Beijing’s leaders believe that the Philippines would be a convenient target of nationalist sentiments since, unlike Vietnam or Japan, it doesn’t have the ability to threaten China back. “This is happening because the Philippines is so weak. The Chinese government can beat the war drums all they want, and as loud as they want, and no war is going to happen. It’s akin to bullying someone in a wheelchair that you know can’t punch back,” says The Comparativist, a Hong Kong-based blog.
But the bullying could go overboard, and if it does, there would be more headaches for China’s leadership.
We have to understand that there are jingoistic actors in China who genuinely believe that the Filipinos must be ejected from the Scarborough Shoal by force. Among them are some conservative officers in the navy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Hainan-based civilian maritime authorities, and even local governments. Can Beijing control these actors? Let’s hope it can, because the on-going state-encouraged nationalist outrage could embolden them to engage in highly provocative actions in the disputed waters. Indeed, they may even construe the saber-rattling from Beijing as a cue for them to do just that.
To illustrate this point, let’s consider the fact that there currently is a small armada of vessels belonging to China’s civilian maritime authorities floating on the waters around the shoal. The local government of Masinloc has reported that these ships are preventing Philippine fishing boats from entering the shoal’s inner lagoon. The Philippine government has advised the said boats to just carry on with their fishing. What would the Chinese ships do should a single, ballsy Philippine fishing boat insists on entering the lagoon? Given the nationalist uproar in China, it’s not hard to imagine that a Chinese sailor there might decide to either fire warning shots, fire at the boat, or sink the boat.
Now that would be a provocation at par with the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010. The world would construe it as cold-blooded murder. It will surely result in an overwhelming international condemnation of China, totally undoing years of delicate efforts by Beijing to project a “peaceful rise.” It will likewise begin the process of pushing almost all Asian countries into the American orbit, hastening the success of Washington’s “pivot” to the East. Heck, it might even spark a regional arms race that could strain the resources of the region and, ultimately, of China itself.
Meanwhile, the Philippines, despite its weakness, would be forced by domestic considerations to respond. The United States, on the other hand, would be compelled by the Mutual Defense Treaty to back it up. Perhaps the Seventh Fleet would sail west of Luzon, just to send a message. If it ever reaches that point, the CCP would have to back down– and lose face in the midst of overwhelming nationalist outrage.