A QUESTION from three friends over breakfast last week prompted me to write this column. One is an assistant general manager of a food manufacturing firm, the other the logistics manager of a hospital in Makati. The third is a senior researcher of a headhunting firm. Their common question: “Must China continually bully the small or underdeveloped countries of the region by sending its aircraft carrier into the Pacific to show its muscle or intimidate us Aseans? Isn’t it enough that President Duterte has agreed to be friends with China (at the expense of the US)?”
This pointed out to me that the some, if not most, of Asean middle management people hardly know much of geopolitics and international hegemony, or how world powers use the tools of persuasion (read: influence or pressure) on small or militarily weaker countries. Of course, these business management people are expected to be efficient in their fields so they probably merely concentrate more on their job requirements to keep on top of their career paths.
In this globalized world, international politics and economics cannot be separated from education, technologies (especially information technology), trade and commerce, demographics or population (growth, age differences among nations), diplomatic negotiations, military and weapons build-up, and the environmental degradation due to the First World’s industrialization and economic competition. And each of these industrialized countries want—and they work very hard at it—their national interests to prevail.
My answer to their question: China believes the 21st century is China’s time to overtake the US as world leader, since the end of World War I in 1918 with the discovery of oil in US territory. That put the US on top as an industrialized country. China is now the world’s second biggest economic power, with the world’s biggest consumer population of 1.3 billion people, which the Americans want as consumers of their exports.
The military buildup of China is necessary to “defend” its territory from any “aggressor”. In fact, China’s President Xi Jinping said last month, at the National University of Singapore, that “all islands and reefs” in the South China Sea are “our territory…to maintain the sovereignty and proper, reasonable maritime rights is a responsibility the Chinese government must take on…”
“Right of passage or flight has never been a problem and will never be a problem, because China needs the freedom of passage in the South China Sea the most… Though some islets over which China has sovereignty have been occupied by others, China has always committed to solve the problem by peaceful negotiations.
“China is committed to working with countries with a direct stake in the issue to solve the dispute on the basis of respect of historical facts, according to international laws and through discussions and negotiations.”
Xi conveniently did not mention the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan as the sovereign countries that are claiming rights—not ownership—over the Spratly island group, the West Philippine Sea corals and reefs under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to exploit, develop and benefit from. The UNCLOS areas are within 200 nautical miles from the nearest land point of the signatory country. The Spratlys are at least 400 miles away from China’s Hainan island and the West Philippine Sea is at least 800 miles from China.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague had ruled in favor of the Philippines on the West Philippine Sea issue—that China has no historical right to claim the West Philippine Sea region but Beijing totally ignored the court’s ruling. China signed and ratified the UNCLOS, thus it violated the convention, which by international law is part of the domestic laws of China.
It is reasonable to deduce that China is now testing how the outgoing Obama administration and the incoming Donald Trump presidency in the US will react to its naval exercises in the Pacific Ocean. Nothing is coming from Trump so far. In fact, Trump has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for not expelling American diplomats last week in retaliation against President Barack Obama’s expulsion of 53 Russian diplomats from the US. Obama believes these Russians diplomats were directly responsible in tampering in the US elections, which Trump won.
Expectedly, China will continue increasing its military expenditures in the coming decade past the US$600-billion level. Under Obama, American military budgets had decreased from the US$700-billion mark annually to a couple of billions. China is also using its current financial resources to influence the poor nations of Africa, South America and Asia-Pacific. Beijing’s offers of infrastructure assistance to these countries attest to that. It also buys full-page ads in Manila’s major newspapers extolling China’s “silk route” for trade links with Beijing.
It’s nothing new. The Americans did it to us after Washington bought us from Spain under the 1898 Treaty of Paris, when the US “gave” us “independence” in 1946 or signed a “mutual defense treaty”.
The ASEAN 10 could benefit by monitoring closely in the first half of 2017 the geopolitical and economic statements from President Trump vis-à-vis China, Russia, the Northeast Asia-Pacific countries, the European Union and the Middle East. Recognize the impacts of the differences between his words and actions.
Russia is the third world power that bears watching. In the December 29, 2016 issue of the Manila Bulletin (page 11) is a statement from Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who gave a glowing history of Moscow’s foreign policy history—a full-page publicity—going all the way back to Peter the Great and Catherine the Great who gave the push for Russian territorial expansion east of Poland and the Baltic states to East Asia and Alaska. (Alaska was bought by the US from Russia during the term of President Abraham Lincoln.)
The salient points of Lavrov’s revelation are: 1) Because of its vast geographical territory (the world’s largest), Moscow’s foreign policy is to be the “link” between Europe and the Asia-Pacific region; 2) The Russian October Revolution (the 1914-1917 Bolshevik Revolution) which saw the massacre of the Romanov family in St. Petersburg is a continuous struggle—until today–of the Russian communist ideology of a welfare state versus the populist democratic state and free enterprise.
Lavrov blamed Russia’s perpetual enemy, the US, for the Cold War and the proxy wars (US allies versus Russia’s client states) between 1945 and today’s civil wars in the Middle East, just as Washington blames Moscow for the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960s, the revolts and destabilization in South America, the Russia annexation of Crimea, the Berlin Wall, the Korean War, the victory of Mao Zedong’s communist troops against Generalissmo Chiang kai-shek who fled to Taiwan in 1949, and the Iranian nuclear arms violations.
In short, Asean 10 citizens must be prepared for wars between these three world powers in the long run, in different forms or using all the tools available to win. I strongly suggest this preparation include the collaborative inventory of the region’s total resources and continuous diplomatic negotiations on a bilateral or multilateral basis, but always prioritizing their national and regional interests.
Undoubtedly this is hard work considering the different colonial backgrounds of the Asean countries. But it can be done only with regional union through the planned socio-cultural, economic and political integration.
Let me greet our readers, friends and all the best wishes that this 2017 be a more peaceful, profitable and unifying future for everyone. As we individually strive to achieve our goals in life, I hope we can all help push the national and institutional changes we need for a better Philippines. Happy New Year!
(Comments and reactions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Gil H A Santos is president of the Center for Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management and teaches journalism and geopolitics at the Lyeum of the Philippines University).