TO give credit where it is due, if not for the loud protest of the Philippine government against China’s wide-ranging actions to take possession of most of the South China Sea, we would not be seeing the current international uproar and criticism being heaped on China for its massive land reclamations in the area. The dispute would be drowned in all the other international crises engaging much of humanity today, like Ukraine and the Middle East. And the United States would not be as embroiled in the controversy as it is now.
In its own odd way, President Aquino’s inflammatory rhetoric probably contributed to shaping the course of events.
But that said, we will point out that the situation is so grave, the stakes are so high, and the issues are so complex, that our government must now turn to the tools of statecraft and diplomacy. There is no other recourse in order to grasp the nettle of the problem, and avert a catastrophic turn in the situation.
The pot has been stirred to such a point that people on various sides of the debate are now even speculating on the possibility of World War III erupting in the SCS. Some Japanese media organizations have reported that China is moving to position nuclear submarines in the area.
This is alarmist talk. But it is best for China and the Philippines to both cool down the rhetoric and the chest-thumping. As we have already said in an earlier editorial, President Aquino’s characterization of China as reminiscent of Nazi Germany is inflammatory and over the top. But China’s grandiose claim to all of the waters of the SCS merited the rude rebuke.
In his book entitled Statecraft, former US diplomat and peace negotiator Dennis Ross sheds light on how statecraft can be harnessed for the resolution of disputes and crisis situations.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher defines statecraft as synonymous with statesmanship, in a book also entitled Statecraft. Others equate statecraft with diplomacy.
Dennis Ross describes statecraft as “knowing how best to integrate and use every asset, or military, diplomatic, intelligence, public, economic or psychological tool we possess or can manipulate to meet our objectives.”
On the other hand, bad statecraft creates mismatches between means and ends; it also misreads what policies are likely to be sustainable domestically.
The Vietnam War is a classic example of the failure of statecraft for the US.
Through a misguided appreciation of its rights, and a grave miscalculation of US reaction, China could face a massive failure of statecraft in the South China Sea, if it does not amend its policies in the area.
At a media forum last Saturday in Quezon City, security experts and China watchers discussed both the perils that must be faced and the opportunities that are available to parties to the dispute.
The most alarming development is that China’s aggressive project to build a “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea is now being squarely matched by warnings and probes by the US, the EU, Japan and other members of the international community. The danger of an accident is real.
While China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi talks of his government’s rocklike determination to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity, the US Secretary of State says the US will “continue to fully exercise” the right to operate in international waters and airspace.
China and the US, having seen such situations many times in the past, have the wit and skill to avert a mistake that could trigger an explosion. The last thing they both want is a military confrontation.
On the part of the Philippines, our policymakers and strategists should fashion a creative and pragmatic approach to the rapid developments in the dispute. We should support and encourage the “resolute policy” of the US and its allies against China’s actions in the SCS, in the hope that this policy will deter further occupation of disputed areas by China, but without forgetting our national interest. Meanwhile, we should look to winning our case before the Arbitral Panel.
But we need to talk to China. The parties to a dispute cannot resolve an issue without talking to each other. The negotiating table is the best equalizer for both David and Goliath, as our former UN ambassador Lauro Baja Jr. has written in this paper.
We should open and reopen lines of communication with China, an idea to which China is receptive. We should tap our Chinese businessmen to help in this effort. Second Track diplomacy is a proven tool in statecraft.
Ross ends his book with the observation that effective statecraft can help a presidential administration to forge its legacy. But for that to happen, statecraft “requires clear, not wishful, thinking.”
If President Aquino makes the right call, his presidency is more likely to be remembered for its efforts in the South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea), than for its exertions toward creating a Bangsamoro substate.
This is entirely his choice.