Miscalculation in Manila

That’s how the Philippine Daily Inquirer describes the Philippines’ move to withdraw its ships, purportedly due to a typhoon, from the disputed Scarborough Shoal last week.  It’s now apparent that the Chinese side has no intention of reciprocating Manila’s move, and that the status quo ante will not be restored anytime soon.

Instead, the Chinese have used the typhoon to strengthen their already overwhelming presence in the Shoal. Citing the need to assist the Chinese fishing boats in the area amid bad weather, Beijing deployed another vessel, increasing the number of its ships in the Shoal and leaving Philippine officials flabbergasted. Most observers agree that Manila may have overestimated Beijing’s desire to de-escalate.

Philippine officials may probably be forgiven for misreading China’s intentions. After all, both sides had agreed on a re-positioning of their vessels last week in an apparent attempt to de-escalate. It certainly is in China’s long-term geopolitical interest to see an end to the months-long stand-off. The smarter people in Beijing know that China’s assertiveness in Scarborough is squandering the gains of painstaking diplomatic efforts to project a peaceful rise, and is alienating the Asian neighborhood enough to make Washington’s strategic “pivot” successful. Unfortunately, however, the smarter people in Beijing don’t always call the shots.

But what’s probably unforgivable is Manila’s recklessness. There appears to have been no attempt to negotiate the pull-out, probably in adherence to Manila’s stubborn position of resolving the stand-off multilaterally instead of bilaterally. It appears that Philippine officials blindly thought that China will reciprocate a Philippine withdrawal– their only basis being nothing but the premise that it also is in China’s long-term interest to end the stand-off.  Apparently, no thought was given to China’s domestic political dynamics and how they are currently shaping Beijing’s policy. How dangerously naive.

The lesson of this episode is that, again, Manila should strive to understand how Beijing works. It appears that policy-makers there remain myopic; they still see the Scarborough dispute as a convenient ploy to divert their domestic constituents’ attention away from the ruling party’s shenanigans. This is a dangerous game on China’s part, as it could lead to an adverse situation for the Communist Party if it’s not played well.

As I have said in a previous post, how China would respond to the Philippine withdrawal could be indicative of who’s gaining the upper hand in the on-going national debate within the Middle Kingdom on how China should behave as an emerging power. As things stand, Beijing’s hawks appear to be winning that debate. If so, Manila should brace itself. The next battle will be the Recto Bank, where Philippine companies are set to drill for natural gas soon. That area is a vital core interest for the Philippines, whose expanding economy is bound to create greater demand for energy in the immediate future.

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2 thoughts on “Miscalculation in Manila”

  1. The space mission and the female astronaut was big news. And it got the Chinese proud and patriotic and all that. It is in Beijing’s best interest to rev up that kind of positive patriotism instead of the negative one that is Panatag. Then again maybe internal dynamics involving funds going into space programs versus militarization could be in play

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