[First of two parts]
IT’S the superpowers, stupid.
For all the big implications for international law, national interests, maritime resources, regional security, and environmental concerns, the Philippines’ petition for the Permanent Court of Arbitration to rule on China’s “nine-dash line” claim over most of the South China Sea is ultimately America vs China.
Indeed, it culminates what may be called Round 1 of the dominant big-power rivalry in Asia today. Here’s a truncated blow-by-blow of the geopolitical tussle.
In the two decades before the 2008 US financial crisis cut Uncle Sam a rung or two down from world dominance, America and China were actually friends. By the late 1980s, Western democracy and capitalism seemed to be winning its global Cold War with totalitarian communism, and China was Exhibit A of this ideological triumph.
Under then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms started in 1978, China boomed. The Soviet Union—that’s Russia and the neighboring states it once ruled, in case you missed the communist empire’s breakup—adopted democratic ways before capitalist ones, leading to its disintegration.
In this post-Cold War world, America emerged as the sole superpower. No nation could challenge its economic and military strength. Certainly not China, dwarfed by US wealth and weaponry, and harnessing Western and Japanese investment, know-how and consumer spending for its breakneck growth.
So in 1995, when China seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines, both the US and Japan merely urged a peaceful resolution to the dispute, and Western media had none of its “China bully” rhetoric during Beijing’s Scarborough Shoal takeover in 2012.
Nor was Washington worried by Beijing’s growing ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. China backed Asean in resisting Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia in 1978 – 89, then supported the region in the 1997 Asian Crisis by not devaluing the renminbi. Chinese clout grew further with more trade, aid and investment in the 2000s, prompting some Washington policy wonks to urge greater US engagement in Asean.
America pivots to Asia
That all changed after the 2008 global financial crisis. It severely curtailed Western economic prowess, starting with America, while China continued its world-leading growth, moving to overtake the US as the planet’s largest economy and market.
Indeed, amid the financial debacle, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now vying for President, even visited Beijing virtually cap in hand to ask the Chinese not to dump their $1 trillion in US Treasury bills—the largest hoard of American IOUs abroad—so the greenback doesn’t slump and US interest rates jump, further hobbling its economy.
With Beijing’s economic, military and geopolitical clout surging—by 2013, it displaced the US as the largest trading partner of most nations—Washington saw its seven decades as Asia’s leading power possibly ending, just when the region was set to become the world’s economic powerhouse.
What then emerged is the Obama administration’s Pivot-To-Asia policy for greater engagement in the region. Its key thrusts: “strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening our working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights.”
Under the Pivot, Washington boosted its defense alliances and pushed for what American officials called a “regional architecture” for addressing cross-border issues. It held annual strategic dialogues with major allies, Asean, and China, too. On the economic front, the US launched its Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative to liberalize trade among TPP members—which excluded China.
But what probably got Beijing’s attention the most is the Pivot’s plan to move 60 percent of US naval forces to Asia. Probably the biggest peacetime redeployment of the American armada, the plan surely got Chinese leaders and the People’s Liberation Army pondering the potential threat to China and its major sea lanes, particularly the South China Sea, where four-fifths of its oil imports pass, among other vital shipments.
The Philippines takes on China
The Pivot coincided with the Philippines’ more assertive stance in the South China Sea under President Benigno Aquino 3rd. His predecessor Gloria Arroyo sought to maintain good relations with China, Japan and the US, and even forged an undertaking with rival Spratlys claimants China and Vietnam for a joint seismic survey in disputed waters.
Under Aquino, however, the past tack of defusing incidents gave way to direct and open confrontation. The April 2012 incident over Chinese fishermen caught with endangered species in Scarborough Shoal escalated into a confrontation between the Philippine Navy’s new cutter, inherited from the US Coast Guard, and vessels of the Chinese maritime security force.
After the standoff, China wrested control of the shoal—but at a high strategic cost. For the second Chinese takeover of another Philippine-held outcrop, after Mischief Reef in 1995, gave credence to those warning of Chinese aggression and calling for a greater US military presence to counter it. Aquino took up that very line, and forged the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement boosting American forces in his country and giving them access to its military bases.
Thus, by Beijing’s own grab of a shoal, America got the justification for its military buildup in Asia, plus a vast archipelago to host the massive naval assets it will deploy. It also pressured Asean to reconsider its longstanding policy of avoiding strong criticism of China—especially after Beijing built military-capable facilities on reclaimed land around Fire Cross Reef in the Spratlys.
With Beijing expected to reject today’s arbitration ruling and already planning naval maneuvers to affirm its “nine-dash” claim, it cannot but help those portraying China as a lawless power requiring America to keep it check.
Clearly, Round 1 of America vs China in the Asian geopolitical ring goes to the US. What about Round 2? We’ll talk about that on Thursday.
Ric Saludo, managing director of the Center for Strategy, Enterprise & Intelligence, was Cabinet Secretary in 2001 – 08, and Asiaweek writer-editor in 1984 – 2001. He holds a MSc. in Public Policy & Management from the University of London and a diploma in strategy and innovation from Oxford.