If I was not spending much of my free time these days immersed in research about America’s Civil War as part of a book-writing project, I might have missed a couple of unexpected and interesting parallels between the increasingly testy dispute between the Philippines and China and my own country’s epically tragic history.
On December 20, 1860, in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of the United States, a convention held in South Carolina approved an ordinance of secession, formally declaring that the state was no longer a part of the United States. On December 26, US Army Major Robert Anderson transferred his small command from Fort Moultrie, which was on the shore of a wide river mouth that forms the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, to Fort Sumter, an island at the mouth of the harbor. On January 9, 1861, an unarmed merchant ship named The Star of the West attempted to deliver supplies and men to Fort Sumter, but retreated after the ship was fired upon by South Carolinian troops manning the former Federal fortifications around the harbor.
Does that sound vaguely familiar? Last Saturday, an unarmed Philippine supply ship—whose name, unfortunately, does not seem to have been noted by the press—attempted to deliver supplies and men to the grounded old amphibious ship BRP Sierra Madre, the erstwhile military station on Ayungin Shoal (also known as the Second Thomas Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea. Unlike The Star of the West, the plucky Philippine vessel didn’t back down when threatened by hostile forces, instead using its smaller size to outmaneuver the two Chinese Coast Guard ships sent to stop her. It was a small victory, perhaps, but a victory nonetheless; an earlier resupply mission on March 9 had been turned back, and to make Saturday’s successful operation even more significant, it was conducted in full view of an audience of about 20 journalists on board the supply ship and at least one US Navy patrol aircraft watching from overhead.
The incident was also significant because it happened at just about the same time as the Philippine government filed its “memorial,” or legal argument, to support its claims made in the case brought against China before a UN tribunal in January of last year. China earlier attempted to dissuade the Philippines from filing the extensive memorial, saying that the Philippines would face “consequences” for persisting in its appeal to international law against China’s territorial claims. Because China has already refused to acknowledge the authority of the UN tribunal—a position consistent with its qualified acceptance of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) —with respect to territorial disputes, there are two possible outcomes to the UN arbitration. If things are going the Philippines’ way, the tribunal may issue a summary ruling in the Philippines’ favor, having received no response from the Chinese government. Or the tribunal may decide to delay the decision until a Chinese response is received, in which case the legal proceedings will be completed approximately never. The incident at Ayungin Shoal on Saturday, however, might just make the former outcome more possible; having demonstrated a determination to peacefully maintain its physical toehold in the disputed sea, the Philippines may have earned itself a favorable international endorsement.
So that’s good, right? Well, not so fast. In studying the American Civil War, an exploration of the causes of that conflict quickly leads one even farther back in time, to the economic and social atmosphere in which the Revolution that created the United States took place. There one finds another historical parallel with current events half a world away, one that can be described with just two words: Common Sense. Common Sense was the title of a popular pamphlet written by the radical revolutionary Thomas Paine, who by using plain language produced one of the most effective pieces of propaganda for inspiring public support for the rebellion against England. The “common sense” the pamphlet referred was precisely this: At the time (1775), even though the colonists were already engaged in battling English forces, great efforts were being made to reach some sort of compromise with England. In Paine’s view, this contradictory attitude defied common sense, and he said so.
And doesn’t that also sound familiar? In the midst of engaging in a battle of wills with China that has already come perilously close to resulting in shots fired in anger, the Philippines is still trying to compromise, and in the process is putting itself in a position not to be taken seriously. Rather than demonstrate the firmest intentions by presenting a real show of force at Ayungin Shoal, the government sends a message with the rusting hulk of a World War II-era landing craft manned by a ragtag contingent of Marines who more often than not have to fish for their own meals, a message that can only be interpreted as insincerity. It’s the same message the US government (then under outgoing President James Buchanan) sent to the rebellious South by leaving the brave Major Anderson and his men unrelieved and unsupplied, and there is no good reason to hope—given the disparity in military strength between China and the Philippines—that it won’t have a similar result here: When the newly-formed Confederate government finally got tired of US insolence in remaining at Fort Sumter, they shelled Anderson’s command out of the place.
Rather than prepare for the reality that is obvious to everyone except the wise heads occupying Malacañang and the offices of the Department of Foreign Affairs that no one else on the planet will sanction, let alone militarily challenge, China on the Philippines’ behalf, the government pours its efforts into pursuing a legal case at the UN. That’s fine if, for some reason, the government feels it needs to have its claim to the moral high ground confirmed in writing, but it is of absolutely no practical value otherwise. Interviewed on ANC on Monday morning, former senator and career diplomat Leticia Ramos-Shahani was exactly correct in saying that the Philippines ought not look to its Asean neighbors or the United States to stand up to China on the Philippines’ behalf; that is the reality of geopolitics and the global economy.
But the part of the Philippines’ approach to trying to defend its sovereign claims from Chinese encroachment that most defies common sense is the continual assertion that the dispute “does not affect the good relations between our two countries,” meaning the flow of commerce heavily balanced in China’s favor. Incredibly, even in the midst of a contentious dispute with China, the Philippines strives to maintain deep economic ties with the Big Red Menace, and even to pursue new ones that cast aside all concern for guarding the sovereignty of the nation—projects like the recent announcement that the State Grid Corporation of China, which already has an alarming degree of control over the Philippines’ electric supply network, would be tapped to help construct the “smart grid,” which could potentially be even more easily manipulated by hostile agents.
The Philippines’ attitude towards its conflict with China defies common sense. China is either an invader encroaching on territory that is rightfully a part of this country, or it is not; it is high time the government decides which it is and then acts, and compels the rest of the country to act accordingly. The successful supply mission to Ayungin Shoal last weekend could be a win for the little guy, but only if the country keeps up that level of determination. If it does not, we may yet see another parallel in history: Major Anderson and his men surrendered Fort Sumter and evacuated the post, handing the South its first victory and encouraging it to resist the Union at all points. The result, of course, was the most vicious conflict in American history, a war that cost more lives than every other war Americans have fought combined. Having some “common sense” just might help the Philippines avoid that kind of tragic chapter in its own history.