We Filipinos take few things seriously, but tomorrow’s polls will be decisive for the national future. We shall be electing an administration that must chart our country’s way in an increasingly dangerous region.
The Philippines lies at the center of great-power rivalry that is threatening to spin out of control. Despite protracted negotiations at presidential level, China and the United States are failing to settle their standoff on the South China Sea.
As one outcome, the US, Japan and Australia have been intensifying their naval and aerial activity on the peripheries of the artificial islands China has been building on Southeast Asia’s great inland sea. And apparently even Malaysia, like the Philippines and Singapore, now allows US craft the use of its air-and-sea ports.
In the teeth of Chinese protests, President Obama vows that “the United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law assures.”
Changing power balance
The China-US deadlock reflects the shifting distribution of power in the post-Cold War world. They are the new “Big Two.” Britain and France have receded into second-rank status. Meanwhile Russia, shorn of its Communist empire, is losing both population and productivity.
But even America’s moment is passing—not so much from its growing introspection as from the rising relative weight of other front-rank powers: Germany; Brazil in Latin America; South Africa; Iran and Saudi Arabia; a modernizing India; and are arming Japan.
Like all epochal transformations, this transition of the global system from unilateralism—under American leadership—to multilateral balance, with no clear leader—is a delicate and dangerous period.
But the multi-polar system confers one advantage on the middle powers. It gives them an active role in creating—and maintaining—stability in their regions.
In the end, peace in our multilateral world will in large part depend on the willingness of the middle powers to do their part in preventing any great power from imposing its hegemony over any region.
A vulnerable China
A closed land power since the fifteenth century, China aspires to a “blue-water”—an ocean-going—navy.
Not only does Beijing fear for its oil supply: by 2025, it must depend on imported oil for three-fourths of its needs. Equally vulnerable to seaborne attack is China’s coastal heartland, whose prosperity Deng Xiaoping’s reforms have made possible.
Then, too, China still harbors memories of humiliation at the hands of the great powers. Xinhua, its official news agency, notes that, from the Opium War of 1840 until the Communist victory in 1949, China suffered “more than 470 offenses and invasions that came from the sea.”
Will and power
A rejuvenated Beijing sees an ocean-going navy as a pillar of its foreign policy, and “an embodiment of China’s will and power.” Its current war doctrine—once based on Maoist people’s war—now emphasizes offensive sea power.
Over the last 15 years, China’s official defense budget has been increasing by 15% yearly. The Western powers believe actual spending could be from two to four times higher.
The US itself signified its advent as a first-rank power by sailing a “Great White Fleet” around the world in 1907-09. A modern Chinese fleet rounded the globe in 2002.
The long-term issue
Whatever their immediate dispute, this seems the long-term issue between Beijing and Washington: China’s perceived need to break out from under the strategic dominance of the United States, and the US claim to precedence as a rightful Pacific power.
Since the US rose to great-power rank in the 1890s, its Asia-Pacific strategy of “forward defense” has been to prevent a military competitor with a substantial resource base from appearing in the region.
In this contest, the China Sea islets have a major role. China is apparently building up seven artificial islands in the Spratlys group—one of them on Mischief Reef off Palawan—by piling sediment around reefs and shoals.
Apart from serving as Chinese boundary stones, these artificial islands are also meant to be “unsinkable carriers” for naval air- and sea-craft that will defend China’s coastline of 18,000 kilometers and the expanse of ocean, 3.6 million square kilometers in area, it claims.
Since Hong Kong’s return, Taiwan has become China’s major irredentist issue. Most urgently, China needs a robust navy to prevent separatism from rising across the Taiwan Strait—which is three times wider than the English Channel that in the 1940s stopped Adolf Hitler.
Beijing’s immediate aim is to deter US intervention, should tensions with Taiwan break out in a local conflict.
String of pearls
China’s land-based naval warplanes have a very limited flight radius: the airstrips will give them deeper defense in depth. The first three airstrips—some 500 miles east of the Chinese coast—are reported capable of serving large transport aircraft as well as jet fighters. A submarine base on Hainan island gives Chinese warships easy access to South China Sea waters.
To maintain its Indian Ocean routes to Middle East oil, Beijing is also building a series of seaports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. This “string-of-pearls” strategy is inducing India to build up its own blue-water fleet. But China has also become India’s largest trading partner; and the two countries keep similar positions on questions of global trade and global warming.
Keeping the balance
American diplomacy to “contain” China is currently focused on enlisting Myanmar, which is opening its politics to parliamentary processes and its economy to the market.
Fortunately, the two sides still keep themselves open to diplomatic cooperation. This is true of their approach to the perennial problem that is North Korea. Pyongyang is striving to develop its nuclear power—in defiance of UN sanctions, and the opposition of the Big Two.
Over the foreseeable future, we in East Asia must live with a China driving for great-power status—a Japan nurturing a resurgent nationalism—and an America asserting its Asia-Pacific role.
For the middle powers, the primary rule is to keep the strategic balance and not to fall into any one superpower’s sphere of influence.
Is peace possible?
Is a peace deal between the two great powers possible?
American analysts are pessimistic about the near-term future. They see the Obama administration as “losing patience with China’s very forceful, even sometimes belligerent” negotiating behavior.
And they’re still puzzling over President Xi Jinping’s recent assumption of the commander-in-chief role in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).
But the experts agree the two powers should re-negotiate the boundaries of their power and influence—and develop a shared understanding of their global roles and responsibilities.
Orville Schell, of the influential Council of Foreign Relations, suggests that Washington reiterate its welcome for China’s emergence as a world power; while Beijing should reassure America that China does not envision an Asian “Monroe Doctrine”—that it recognizes the constructive role the US can play in the Asia-Pacific.
The Big Two should then exchange guarantees that the US would install neither troops nor nuclear weapons in a united Korea; and China would disavow the use of force on the Taiwan Straits.
For the rest, peace seems the Asia Pacific’s only need. If China’s rise is transforming the world, the global community is also changing China. The regime of free trade and investment Deng imposed has tied China’s economy irrevocably to that of the world’s—while also loosening the bonds of Maoist totalitarianism.
The Communist Party still may monopolize political power, but it no longer controls every aspect of the Chinese people’s economic and social life. Given space and time, they will break free.