THE world is not really back to the days of the Cold War, the bipolar word of the past. All countries, except for a few not tied up to global trade, are pledged to openness and cooperation of some sort, more so when that supposed commitment to openness suits their trading agenda. Just look at China zeal for openness when it comes to its exports. But do not expect the old antagonisms to just fade away. Do not expect China—and Russia for that matter—to honor the international court rulings and international mediations that do not favor their self-interests.
Belligerence has been part of China’s stock-in-trade relationship with the world despite its pledge to be a part of the global order. Ditto with Russia. Right now that the two giants are facing major economic challenges, expect intensified belligerence, not reason and sobriety. And the main strategy to defy the norms of the so-called Free World is to annex territories on the flimsiest of reasons. Then brazenly defy the international courts sought to mediate on their territory-grabbing binge. The nine-dash line, or the basis of China’s claim over the West Philippine Sea, belongs to a cartographer’s wildest fantasies. It is pure and unalloyed territorial fiction. But look at how tight China clings to that fantasy.
So after the favorable ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration, at The Hague, which essentially sides with the Philippines on its territorial dispute with China, the latter’s reaction would be to fast-track its military and infrastructure buildup in the areas deemed as part of Philippine territory. The Chinese patrols will intensify. The harassment of Filipino fishermen in the disputed area will increase in frequency. So-called Chinese intellectuals will run tons of intellectual garbage at the state-controlled media outlets to disparage the Court’s ruling.
Chexit? It is just like the Politburo relaxing its grip on power to make the urgent, transitory steps to turn China into a fully representative democracy. It is just like Vladimir Putin dropping out and fading away from the politics of Russia to take a more relaxed job of judo instructor.
The defiance can be fully explained. You don’t need to go deep into sophisticated geopolitics to find out the fundamental reasons that drive, that undergird, the defiance.
If there is one thing that passionately stirs nationalist, nativist fervor, it is the act of annexing a territory. The annexation of Crimea by Putin through force, on the flimsy basis of “self-determination,” gave China’s leader an instructional on how to pursue its naked ambitions over the West Philippine Sea.
Putin saw the turmoil created by the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014 as a chance to grab Crimea, put in place a puppet government and declare a farcical “Republic of Crimea.” There was even a stage-managed referendum to supposedly show the majority vote for the annexation.
Crimea and its strategic location was not only Putin’s prize; there were more, which China’s leaders took note of.
The annexation, for once, unified Russia. Even the most militant of Putin’s political foes fell in line with the Russian leader on that decision. Whatever troubles Putin then faced were brushed away by the surge of nationalist fervor that was the aftermath of the annexation.
With his resources-based economy now in deep trouble, Putin is now stirring more of that nationalist fervor to divert attention from his country’s economic woes.
That has not been lost on China.
The global condemnation of China’s acts of aggression within the West Philippine Sea gives comfort, not unease, to the Chinese leadership. Annexation brings about a sense of national purpose, stirs a sense of pride and fervor, on the aggressor. With the economic growth of China now stalled, with its prodigious manufacturing and exports now hurt by a global slowdown, China can no longer rest on its title as “Factory to the World” to give its citizens a source of extreme pride. There has to be something else.
So it has to find a new sense of national purpose. And claiming territories based on the flimsiest of claims but through acts of aggression, puts in place a new national narrative that the citizens can rally behind with all the enthusiasm and fervor. With the aid of a state propaganda machine that churns out all those scary stories on US military bullying, citizens now believe deeply that China is the bullied party and the Court at The Hague is part of the conspiracy against China.
Even China’s internal dissidents have been quiet on China’s baseless territorial ambitions.
China is bold because of its superior military, about two decades of rapid military buildup and a standing army of over 1 million. The Philippine military is a puny thing that can’t fight on land, on air and on the sea.
Without support from outside, the Philippines can’t even defend itself in case of war. China, within hours, can turn the whole country into siomai.
One last word on the China issue: Let Justice Carpio talk on what the Court’s ruling is all about. The rest just muddle up the issue.