Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dealing with A Bully: China, the Philippines, and the South China Sea

Russia’s incursion into Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula has the same kinds of portents for the Philippines as it reacts to China’s geostrategic claims and dictations in the South China Sea. There is no contradiction in drawing parallels between these two separate issues, issues which are half a world apart. One hegemonic power (Russia) has taken it upon itself to occupy the region of another country (Ukraine). Who is to say that another hegemonic power (i.e. China) would not, under the right circumstances, do the same to smaller nations such as the Philippines?

Throughout history, powerful countries and civilizations have felt the urge to dominate their weaker neighbors. The Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines certainly feel that way about China which has been accused of regional intimidation as it asserts its territorial prerogatives in the South China Sea. These acts of intimidation on the part of China have increased over the last few years and are bound to bring rival claimants in the region to an impossible choice: either cave in to Beijing’s claims or be prepared to go to war over them.

Despite the Philippine government’s protests against Chinese intimidation and incursion in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Beijing’s military presence continues to haunt the region. Let us not kid ourselves: China’s growing presence is not going to go away anytime soon, nor will it be easily alleviated by diplomacy and compromise. The fact of the matter is that Beijing wants all of the Spratlys, not just some of them. What the Philippine government should take away from Beijing’s attitude is that it will eventually have to make the tough decision between giving its giant neighbor what it wants and in the process leave itself open to accusations of appeasement, or remain steadfast in resisting China at the risk of conflict.

So far, the government of Noynoy Aquino has chosen a middle path between these two extremes: the path of rhetorically standing up to Beijing in the media and in diplomatic circles but also simultaneously avoiding direct confrontation with it. The Aquino administration’s pragmatic stance is understandable but may prove to be costly down the road. Look at the United States’ and Western Europe’s tactfully incremental approach towards expanding NATO eastward in Europe over the last 20 years. The expansion is proving to be, despite the organization’s best intentions, an iniquitously thorny issue for Russia which sees the expansion as a growing threat to its security. The expansion sowed the seeds for Moscow’s Anschluss of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. By the same token, the import of Manila’s currently subtle actions regarding China and the South China Sea may not have as much meaning now as they will have in the future.

It’s a risky proposition no doubt, but the Philippines will have to at some point, show some real spine in defending its territorial rights against China lest the Middle Kingdom run roughshod over them the way Russia has done over Ukrainian land. I fear that the Aquino government has been tepid in responding to Chinese incursions in the Spratlys, particularly when it comes to areas which are legally under Philippine sovereignty. This is not to say that Manila should precipitously seek war with China. Diplomacy, no matter how difficult and ultimately unlikely to succeed as it is, is still the preferred option on both sides of the issue no matter what the hawks in Beijing say. But constantly stepping on eggshells to avoid China’s wrath is no stance at all and can be said to be a cowardly one. Some of those disputed islets are according to international norms, part of the Philippines. Therefore, it is the duty of the Aquino government to defend Philippine sovereignty over them.

Even as China has deigned to grace the South China Sea with its ominous presence, the outgunned and outsized government in Manila can be rest assured that it has a real ace up its sleeve that Beijing has to be wary of before it decides it can run rampant over the area. That ace is the United States which is treaty-bound to come to the defense of the Philippines if its territory is attacked. Having said that, that option presages a frightening situation in which two nations with hundreds of nuclear weapons would confront each other with 100 million Filipinos caught in the middle.


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