After the UN ruling, it’s US vs China, Round 2

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[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.

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17 Comments

  1. ben victoria on

    Give US a week or two to define it’s position and strategy as regards PCA rulings favouring Philippines and which china is ignoring and threatening to continue their illegal activities, then go from there.

  2. NOMER OBNAMIA on

    You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Each time the country gets into trouble, Filipinos call on the Americans to save their butts. Clark AFB and Subic Naval Base endanger Philippine security so the bases were closed and the people cheered in victory from American imperialism. However, the same stupid people who are so protective of their sovereignty only allow limited American military presence in the country under the current military agreement.
    People have no inkling of how war plans are made. Just the logistics alone is so massive and expensive it’s beyond Filipino imagination. The different specialties that comprise a logistics group to support the warfighters are massive. An army does not just arrive to its objective without logistics planning. No army wins a war without effective logistics support- ammo, food and medicine, gas and lubricants, spare parts for weapons systems, communication and intelligence, movement of large number of men and equipment to the jump off point- transports, on-hand supply of needed spare parts, mechanics and repair equipment, and a lot more that ordinary non-military person does not know are needed by soldiers to deploy and get ready for war.
    War is very expensive enterprise that only a rich nation can afford to undertake like the USA to go to foreign land to free people from tyranny and restore their lost liberty. For the Filipino people to taunt the USA to go to war with China, that we know is well equipped with modern weapon systems, is utterly irresponsible. The past administration neglected a wise foreign policy with China and now Duterte is faced with this crisis. Duterte is wise to acknowledge that his government has no military capability in challenging China’s well-armed PLA and the only option left for him is DIPLOMACY. And the blubbering fools who are calling for war with China are cowards who will not take up arms if shooting war erupts and would ran with their tails behind their backs calling for America to come to their rescue. War is messy, full of collateral damage, and it destroys lives and property.
    So I’m calling for cool, wise heads to prevail in this tricky situation with China. China is savvy in diplomacy; has powerful position is the useless body called United Nations (United Nothing), the UN president is a wimp who will not come up with anything constructive in diffusing the tensions between PI and China, the USA is near bankrupt and the Obama administration has neglected the military and his foreign policy is that of appeasement (remember Neville Chamberlain?) and will not think twice in giving China what it wants. His policies in the Middle East resulted in the current upheavals and terror that he threw away the success of prior administration in Iraq and Afghanistan by letting Jihadists to take over, and the current crisis that resulted in massive refugee movement in Europe was the result of bungled foreign policy led by incompetent Hillary Clinton. So don’t rely on Obama to do the right thing but be mindful that he will sell out PI- don’t trust him.
    Mr. Duterte has very limited options left. PNoy did a great job in delivering the reefs to the Chinese. By the way, is PNoy Chinese (if you trace his lineage)?

    I wonder if the writer is aware and knowledgeable of how military logistics work?

    • karina gonzales on

      So ok lng sau n unti unting sakupin ng china ang pilipinas hanggang pati yang tinitirikan ng bahay mo eh pag-aari n rin ng china. I prefer to go against china’s bullying if it means war. Its my country. I will defend it. C duterte kc friendship ng china. Kaya nga no comment xa s pagkapanalo ng pilipinas s international tribunal kc nabulilyaso ung deal nila n railways in exchange of scarborough shoal or spratley. Ska d masikmura ni yasay at duterte n aquino administration worked so hard for 3 years for this matter.

  3. Joshua Schneider on

    “There is nothing permanent except change”.
    Heraclitus Philoshoper of the 4th century BC

    Why oh why do we even think that this is about the US vs China. Maybe in the 1960’s and 1970’s when the US decided it was their turn to waste human lives on the killing fields of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Only to be shown what real killing was all about when Pol Pot aka Saloth Sar showed the world how to really kill millions without the US even raising a “excuse me” question did the US really worry about China.

    Fast forward from the 1990’s to the Obama and Hillary Clinton show of lets pivot to Asia. With a economy that has grown less under the 7 years of Obama than the Philippines has in the last year they can only offer empty promises and they hooked the Philippines into a wasted effort to “teach China a lesson” in the world court. It turned out just as all of that dynamic duos efforts have. The US has two carrier groups in the South China Sea now for one reason only. The optics at home for the upcoming election. Soon the carriers will be gone and the Philippines will once again be on their own.

    But this time we have someone who is not a pawn of the US and is taking it upon himself to try and come up with a working solution with China. If successful the Philippines will enter one of the greatest periods of economic growth in the history of the country. Not because of the US, but because of us.

    http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-usa-election-china-idUKKCN0ZR2MR

  4. The Philippines biggest mistake was trying to overcharge the USA for use of Subic and Clarke Air Base leading to USA withdrawing 20 years ago.

    Had the Philippines not been so greedy back then and not so anti USA hina would have not even ventured into the region how it has.

    The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunai, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan all need the backing of the USA Military.

    It is smart to allow the USA to use their funds and assets instead . Welcome the USA with open arms and support them or The Philippines could over run by China within 24 hours at anytime. China is not peaceful.They are building military bases 200 km right off the Coast of Manila!

    • Now the Asian region is the fast growing in the world. It is like the second European. This is of course not what American want to see if there comes another EU-like organization. China is growing also other countries in this area. What if they all could union? It would be a biggest rival for the Uncle Sam. To make trouble in Asia can save Americans ass for a while but not forever.

  5. Ignacio Balbutin on

    Don’t forget the history of China beginning from its dynasties that it is bent on conquering and acquiring new territories and it is continuing even up to this time. It has trouble with Japan, Indonesia and even in the caribbeans. So the choice is who is the lesser evil between the two. Basing on the alliance of the US and the Philippines we have been an ally since WW!!. We fought side by side with the US soldiers against the then occupying japanese forces. For me it is still safe to be on the side with US to counter the bullying of the chinese and to take back what is ours not by force but by any peaceful means.

  6. Wishful thinking on the part of the Philippines if it thinks the US gets involved in territorial disputes. This is between China and the Philippines. The US only wants free movement in international waters. Perhaps this is the time for the Philippines to stand up for its rights. Stop trying to pin everything on the US.

  7. Mariano Patalinjug on

    Yonkers, New York
    12 July 2016

    Two Nimitz-class Nuclear AIRCRAFT CARRIER STRIKE FORCES, led by the USS JOHN C. STENNIS and the USS RONALD REAGAN are already engaged in drills in the Philippine Sea.

    Why?

    You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to get the idea that they are there for any eventuality with China, after the expected PCA ruling today which by consensus could be favorable to the Philippines–but which China will arrogantly and recklessly refuse to honor and obey.

    More likely than not the US is taking upon itself the great responsibility of keeping completely open international waters in the South China Sea through which an estimated $5 trillion in trade passes annually–in effect challenging China’s arbitrary “Nine-Dash Line” and enforcing the Ruling of the PCA under the terms of UNCLOS.

    MARIANO PATALINJUG
    patalinjugmar@gmail.com

  8. After UN ruling, it’s still PH vs. China and not China vs.US. PH should stand firm on it’s rights and sovereignty at all cost. What our President should do is like what he said earlier that he will take a jet ski and plant our flag on those islands that are within our 200 miles EEZ. He needs to lead the protest march to Chinese embassy. If China will not get out of those islands then we have to raise the issue to the UN, boycott their products, etc.
    Whilst it’s true that US is interested to contain China I am not sure whether they will kick China out of Spratley. The only way to kick the Chinese out is if PH will take over the islands and expand and improve our military presence on 7 or 8 Islands that PH claimed. If we are attacked then US as they promised will come to our aid and protect our country. This is clear to me and millions of Filipinos.

  9. Please remove YASAY on DFA, ipapahamak nya tayo.. Duterte Administration is a CHINA lover or nabayaran na ng China. Ma karma sana mga traydor!!

  10. The tribunal decision would concretize the world’s perceptions of China’s South China Sea assertion. Asian countries with common claims on the islands would now have a basis to speak more aggressively in the world stage. This would impact the confidence of China. Their next step would be further bullying but with added reservations.

  11. Amnata Pundit on

    If the US won round 1, pano tayo na nag-pagamit sa mga Kano, did we also win?

    • You’re confused! Round 1 is PH will win on the case…Nagpagamit is an insult to Filipinos perhaps you should use, what’s it for US?
      PH is there first line of defense of US. Full stop!

  12. Pres duterte should continue afp modernization even if he plans not to confront China . he should learn a lesson from predecessors neglecting the afp and next thing we know China is in our door step. So what’s next ? We just surrender?.