Non-alignment and the US-China rivalry


IN the rivalry between superpowers, nonalignment has proved to be a wise policy. During the Cold War, non-aligned countries profited more from getting both superpowers compete for their support than siding with any of them. The Non-Aligned Movement itself is credited for tempering global and regional tensions during that era. How many more wars could there have been had not members of the Non-Aligned Movement banded together and said “No” to being proxies and pawns in the rivalry between the superpowers?

Even as the Philippines sought to reduce the number of US military facilities on its soil, assert Philippine sovereignty over them, and finally to remove them, the Philippines took steps to associate itself with the Non-Aligned Movement, composed largely of developing countries or the so-called Third World, seeking observer status at first and then full membership.

I was part of the Philippine Delegation, led by the late Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Manuel Collantes, to the Summit in Havana when the Philippines’ observer status was approved by the Movement. Despite arguing that like Guantanamo in Cuba, the US military facilities in the Philippines were a product of colonialism, the Philippine application had hitherto been opposed by India and other countries because of country-hosted US bases in its territory. When the country was admitted as observer, the Philippines had a stronger argument in its favor: it had asserted sovereignty over those facilities, the Philippine flag flew singly over them, and the various aspects of their administration had been taken over by Philippine agencies. Of course, the admission of the Philippines was clinched by the fact that the host of the Summit and banger of the gavel in plenary, President Fidel Castro, had become a great friend of the Philippines after a visit from Mrs. Imelda Marcos at the height of her charm.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a single superpower did not make the Non-Aligned Movement obsolete. The US misadventure in Iraq showed the need for a critical international community to curb superpower excesses. The Non-Aligned Movement may be regaining its relevance. After all, empires fall from overexpansion and armies and their supporting populations tire of constant struggle. While the US shows fraying at the seams, a new superpower is emerging in Asia.

Non-alignment has not ceased to be a prudent position that the Philippines should continue pursuing. Filipinos have been rather indiscriminate in the choice of foreign lands to work and live in. They have been or will be found everywhere, even on both sides of quarrelling countries. Non-alignment consequently recommends itself to us as a default position to take in international conflicts. President Arroyo, who had a list of “realities” instead of a foreign policy, quickly withdrew the Filipino civic action contingent from the US-led Coalition of the Willing after Iraqi call-them-what-you-will kidnapped a Filipino driver and threatened to behead him, triggering popular alarm and putting her shaky hold on power in question. The disengagement of the Philippines from the coalition inaugurated a frosty period in Philippine-US relations.

With time moving fast, it shows more convincingly that the actions of China are directed at more than the considerable resources lying beneath the South China Sea. The magnitude of these resources has remained highly, even wildly, speculative. The falling price of oil as a result of the development and discovery of alternative sources of energy could make exploitation of these resources economically and ecologically unsound. Those actions have more to do with the ambition of its new leader to draw his country into the same league as the United States. The US for its part makes clear that reinvigorating its alliances in Asia has more to do with containing China’s ability to control freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. So far, the refurbished mutual defense arrangement between the Philippines and the US has produced only brave words but has not stopped Chinese reclamation projects in the South China Sea.

Given these indications, we can but fear that we are involving ourselves in a rumble between elephants, and as humble ants we may be bound to be crushed under their heavy paws. Thus goes the classic fable explaining the adherence of members to the Non-Aligned Movement. The superpowers can settle issues between them and leave their lackeys fending for themselves.

The freedom of navigation in the South China Sea can be subject to negotiation and assurances from China that it would be observed. The mutual defense arrangement between the Philippines and the United States may just then prove to be no more than a paper tiger. After the misadventure in Iraq and in Libya, the US reluctance to be involved in new wars could be seen in the situation in Syria and if involved, the tendency to limit that involvement to a miniminum could be seen in the fight against ISIS or Islamic State group.

The problem of the Philippines is that it is involved in a dispute with a close neighbor, not some country as far away as Russia. And the problem is blown up by the fact that the Philippines’ independent and non-aligned posture has not been backed by deterrent military capabilities. Being non-aligned does not mean being a naïve pacifist. Our defense strategists in the past might have made a mistake with far-reaching effect in assuming the country faced no external threats, only internal ones. The strategic geographical location and possession of rich strategic mineral and energy resources make the country ip so facto vulnerable to the ambitions of expansionist powers. While less strategically located and less endowed with natural resources, our neighbors have through the years developed superior military defenses. Farther afield, leading countries in the non-aligned movement, India and Pakistan, to strengthen their defenses against threats on each other, prepared themselves to eat grass to be able to belong to the world’s exclusive Nuclear Bomb Club.

And we do seem to be complacent about China knowing the Chinese to be docile, quiet creatures singularly intent on making a living and a success of it. Love of Peking duck and cheap pirated goods should not excuse complacency about China. China itself has a long history of expansionism pursued by rulers taking advantage of the incidental affluence of state coffers. China started as a small state, which by military conquest gobbled up surrounding states. This process has continued from the time of the Emperors to the Nationalists to the current era of the Communists. Chinese nationalism continues to see the country as a Middle Kingdom radiating outward to the limits of its aspiration and possibilities.

China might have indeed invented Asian colonialism and imperialism with its occupation of Vietnam for a millennium and a century before the last millennium. So long ago and for so long! One could perhaps understand better the recent visceral and riotous reaction of the Vietnamese people to Chinese incursions in their claimed waters against the backdrop of their literally millennial struggle fighting Chinese rule. So with the ability proven again in the last century of the Vietnamese to fight wars of attrition.

Others overlook Chinese expansionism considering that China’s pervasive influence in Asia is less due to its military strategists perfecting the art of war than to its considerable accomplishments in the arts and sciences of peace, on the work of its philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, poets, artists and cooks. The Chinese people are almost emblematic of hard work and perseverance. The Chinese mind, too, is not incapable of strokes of genius, the Chinese character of flexibility, compromise and resilience. A clear instance is that of Deng Shaoping’s daring reform of the Chinese economy, which led to the country’s phenomenal growth. Another is China’s reacquiring Hongkong and Macau and governing them on a policy of several systems in one country. China may yet turn out to be a superpower sui generis. One stumbling block on that path might be the tendency of authoritarian rulers and their fawning cabals to listen to the sound of distant drums of conquest and glory.

The Philippines’ chosen approach to resolve its dispute with China peacefully through arbitration is in accord with the tenets of the Non-Aligned Movement, namely mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in domestic affairs, equality, and mutual benefit and certainly the UN Charter the Movement subscribes to. And, if held in mutual respect, so is China’s preferred bilateral consultations. Couldn’t the parties each calmly state their claim to sovereignty, agree to disagree on that point, and then move on to matters of confidence-building and possible areas of cooperation they can agree on?

It is notable that the formulation of the basic principles of the Non-Aligned Movement is credited to a Chinese, Chou En Lai. The Chinese today can abide by them with pride.

In the state of high tension unilateral actions of China that have brought the South China Sea disputes to, the call of Filipinos abroad to boycott Chinese-made products seems par for the course. It may be a non-violent, non-military means to make the hawks and bullies in Beijing think more reasonably. I know of people in Manila who have already skipped buying Made in China products, a difficult task now when the goods sold at the malls owned by Tsinoys with investments in China curiously seem all to come from China. And a global boycott of Made in China is not impossible. Already, Chinese exports to the West have steeply declined, the bullying image of China may be turning off a lot of customers. The high rates of the unemployed in the West have been blamed on investments creating jobs in China. The rise of China as an economic giant has been at the expense of the traditional exports of developing countries shunted out of markets by Chinese goods made exceedingly competitive by cheap labor. Remember our garments industry?


Now retired, Jaime J. Yambao served as Philippine ambassador to Pakistan and previous to that, Laos.


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  1. I believe what you describe has a Chinese name: kow-tow, from Chinese k’o-t’ou custom of touching the ground with the forehead to show submission.

    Is the Philippines ready for a new master? The authors comments seem to indicate it is.

  2. Pete Gabriel on

    In my opinion all your points make a lot of sense. I would also like to add that oil and gas reserve in these waters are not just speculative they are back by scientific studies. Oil and gas reserves are very important to super powers because it is the one that powers up all the industry and military machines that is needed if a country aspire to be a world power. We should never trust the Chinese because no matter how you look at it they are communist. They are after all only interested in having the parties agenda over the pursuit of individual happiness, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and beliefs. China is not interested in individuals questioning the parties desire, they would rather execute you than answer any inquiries, which is what they are doing in the west Philippine sea.