Our country lies at center of rivalry that threatens to spin out of control


    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.

    Unsinkable carriers
    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.

    Exchanging guarantees
    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.


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    1. Amnata Pundit on

      The Americans did not raise the interest rates as they said they would, and it looks like they have no intention to in spite of what they say is an improving economy. The Financial managers of America are afraid of Chinese threats to drastically devalue the yuan, and are actually cooperating with the ECB and the Bank of Japan to give the Chinese room for “backdoor devaluation” through the Euro, Yen and GBP valuations. The U.S FED has no intention of engaging China in a real financial slugging match. What is the relevance of this to the Spratlys situation? Since it is the financial lords of the U.S FED who provide the money for the salaries of these generals, and the money they need to wage war, it follows that all these war posturings of America against China are just a public relations campaign for the benefit of America’s colonies like this country and Japan, because any sign of weakness might send the Philippines and Japan and the other SouthEast Asian countries running into the very generous arms of China. Besides, freedom of navigation is another false issue, just like human rights which is always selectively applied. The Chinese are not doing anything to limit the flow of navigation, the Americans know it and the Chinese know that the Americans know. All these is just a charade, and we are as usual the ones being made to sacrifice for it by destroying what was once a good relationship with China. Stupid, isn’t it?

    2. The title of the article is not appropriate with the content. In fact, it seems that the matter is fait accompli. It details nothing about how Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam feel about the matter as if the SoUth China Sea is something that should be left to the Big 2 alone. It also does not dwell on the positions of the presidential canddates. Perhaps 2 or 3 installments would have been appropriate. The position of the other candidates are clear enough. Duterte’s is vague. Indications point that he is more open to talks with China.

    3. Although its not nice, but if the war is the only option to stop chinese ambition. Let there be war to preserve the peace.

    4. David Southall on

      Laughable- The Philippines should do everything in their power to help the USA. China will never tell the truth, ever. If the RP wants to do nothing, China will grab all the contested Spratly’s, Paracells, etc.. And then slowly choke off the Philippines. The dumbest thing you ever did was kick the US out of the Philippines, now what have you got?

    5. Surely, another good thing to do. We want our government to do so many things but the country’s resources are very limited. We must rank and agree on the priorities we want the government to address, i.e., poverty, economic growth, drugs, crime and lawlessness, slow justice, corruption, dispute with China, MRT/LRT/traffic, infrastructure, agriculture, smuggling, peace in Mindanao, NPA, gap between the rich and the poor, etc.
      We are much better off now than we were 6 tears ago but we are still unhappy. Note that change is a 50-50 proposition. Let’s see who gets elected and make an evaluation 6 years later. However, we must agree of the factors to measure performance and not change the basis as we go along.

    6. Mariano Patalinjug on

      Yonkers, New York
      07 May 2016

      This Manila Times Editorial of 07 May 2016 expresses the sanguine hope that China and the United States could reach what amounts to a detente as far as sharing control is concerned in Asia in general and the East China Sea and the South China Sea in particular [through which an estimated $5 trillion in trade passes annually, including oil from the Middle East, is concerned.

      I personally seriously doubt it.

      Even as these lines are written, a rising China [in both economic and military terms] is already clearly challenging what for a long time has been United States hegemony in the Pacific
      In the East China Sea, China has already imposed an ADIZ which requires all aircraft intending to enter the zone FIRST to submit their flight plans to the PLA in Hunan province and when ALLOWED into the Zone, “TO FOLLOW CHINESE INSTRUCTIONS”

      In the South China Sea,China has already illegally appropriated maritime structures specifically in the Spratlys archipelago and the Paracels chain on which it has hastily made “reclamations” and “constructions” which, OMINOUSLY, it has already MILITARIZED, signalling to the whole world that it has HEGEMONIC designs over the South China Sea!


      To back up its Word the United States has already inaugurated its FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION OPERATIONS in international waters in the South China Sea, but scrupulously within the 12nm limit of the Spratlys archipelago–in a bold and direct challenge to China which has warned “that it will never tolerate any country from violating its airspace and waters in the Spratlys archipelago!”

      The conclusion is inescapable that China and the United States, IN FACT, are now sinking deeper and deeper into a THUCYDIDES TRAP of old when a rising Athens challenged Sparta for hegemony among the city-states of the time, a confrontation that eventually led the two city-states to a war which lasted 27 years.