Under normal conditions, according to public relations professionals, the little guy or weak side (David) has a fair chance of winning a public relations war against a vastly stronger adversary (Goliath). Public sympathy instinctively lines up on the side of the underdog because he is puny and weak. And there is instinctive rooting against the stronger side.
The rule rings true in international politics, business and sports. Wherever public opinion and sentiments have a say, the pendulum gravitates toward David. Nobody loves Goliath.
I think about the biblical story as I see our country increasingly thrust into a very public spat with China over some islets in the South China Sea. And I dearly hope that international opinion will favor David in this spat, as it has in other international disputes.
For instance, in the Holy Land today, the lesson of David-vs.-Goliath still rings true. The Palestinian people, in their struggle to have their own state on their native soil, is clearly winning the battle for international public support against the vastly superior might and economic muscle of Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks like a heel when stood up alongside the benign-looking President Mahmoud Abbas.
You know who’s going to win if the two sides ever come to blows. But you also know for whom hearts and minds will bleed if they do. They will bleed for the Palestinians judging by the drift of international opinion and the record of voting at the United Nations.
The Amateur vs. Hitler
The analogy does not necessarily apply in the current dispute between the Philippines and China in East and Southeast Asia, although China is clearly gigantic compared to our smallish country. The dispute has become more heated judging by the fever of words that have recently been issued by both sides.
President Aquino’s famous mouth set off the latest fireworks, when in an interview with the New York Times, he compared present-day China to Nazi Germany, branding China’s claim to certain territories in the China Sea as similar to Hitler’s claiming Sudetenland in 1938 from Czechoslovakia. He sought to stir and rally international opposition to China’s nine-dash-line policy, warning that the expansionism will not stop unless it is stopped by the international community.
Aquino declared: “If we say yes to something we believe is wrong now, what guarantee is there that the wrong will not be further exacerbated down the line?
“At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough?’ Well, the world has to say it. Remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II,” he added.
Aquino’s provocative line immediately got the desired attention from China. Last Thursday, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua blasted President Aquino for his “inflammatory approach” in dealing with China, and branded him an “amateur politician… ignorant of both history and reality.”
In his commentary, Xinhua writer Ming Jinwei declared: “Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III, who has taken an inflammatory approach while dealing with maritime disputes with China, has never been a great candidate for a wise statesman in the region.”
A battle of public diplomacy
As things stand, the issue is less a PR war, and more of a battle of public diplomacy.
Both countries have to employ public diplomacy to effectively communicate with publics around the globe in order to get their policies or positions understood and supported by the international community. Alan K. Henrikson, Professor of Diplomatic History, defines Public diplomacy as “the conduct of international relations by governments through public communications media and through dealings with a wide range of nongovernmental entities…for the purpose of influencing the politics and actions of other governments.”
In this battle, China’s resources and reach are sweeping. Strictly speaking, the Philippines engages in little public diplomacy today. Much of our effort appears directed to US media and publics, owing to the public relations services provided by hired US PR firms and the assistance of the US government.
Little has been done so far to set out cogently and persuasively the Philippine position. It is disturbing to note that the most that we have really done is substitute the name “West Philippine Sea” for a tiny portion of the China Sea where our territorial claims are located. No map or Atlas today uses West Philippine Sea. If asked to locate the WPS, a Filipino is bound to answer that it is located in the South China Sea. We are not going to win many arguments this way.
It is absurd to assume that we will win this PR battle just because we are David. We may be overmatched more than we realize.
PR experts opine that the Philippines should not lose this battle – as long as we do not overplay our small hand. The expression is from poker, where players are warned of disastrous consequences that can ensue from foolishly overplaying or bluffing with a weak hand.
The Aquino administration fantasizes that it has a strong hand to play because of the country’s Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, which obligates the US to come to the defense of our country in the event of war with another country. Confidence in this may have encouraged President Aquino to adopt a provocative tone.
This is misguided because the Philippines is mistrusted by its neighbors to the degree that we trust too much to America’s protection and hew too closely to America’s line. Indeed, in America’s current pivot to Asia, many fear that we are America’s Trojan horse in the Asia-Pacific.
The US is another Goliath
This implies a conundrum in our applying the David-Goliath analogy to our situation, because our David will be a proxy for another Goliath – which may be an even bigger Goliath.
This tells us how much public diplomacy and study we still have to undertake before we can fully fashion a coherent position and strategy in the South China Sea dispute. This calls for serious statecraft and serious historical research.
It takes more than posturing and name-calling to secure our neighbors’ support and understanding of our position in this increasingly rancorous relationship with China. we may be sure that China will not tire of pushing for support for its position within the region, and in other regions. That’s what a Goliath usually does.