“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” – John F. Kennedy
THE Chinese Maritime Silk Road initiative can be viewed as an attempt to create trade and economic relations with the Asean community through trade, port and continental land bridges. In brief, China has a much bigger agenda than just playing bully in the South China Sea, thereby risking going to war with its smaller neighbors and courting a war with the United States and its allies.
Negotiations with China can cover a range of multifaceted relations we enjoy with our neighbor, with an end-view forcing the latter to adhere to the rule of law governing the China Sea, specifically to accept a code of conduct that ensures the freedom of navigation in the disputed area.
Our relation with America in political and economics is ironclad, while our relation with China is genetic with a quarter of our population tracing its ancestry to that mainland. If we went through a bloody Fil-American war during the annexation and put that behind us, if we have treated our Chinese brothers like second-class citizens in this country and they still maintain the friendship and confidence of our people, I am sure that we can manage the current crisis. If the new government can surmount present disagreement in the looming Asia Pacific century, which will surely be dominated by China at least economically, this country will have a very important supporting role within the Asean+China partnership. This win-win scenario will be the fruit of accommodation rather than appeasement.
Diffusing post-arbitral tension over China Sea issue
Given the possibility of this country winning the arbitration case and Chinese rejection of the international court’s decision, this country must embark on a campaign to get the nations of the world to press China to at the very least halt its further encroachment into Philippine territory. This campaign is not expected to influence too many nations given that even Asean members from the Mekong Valley are perceived to be partial to China.
This was obvious when the Asean meeting in Phnom Penh failed to support a Philippine resolution on the West Philippine Sea issue. Neither will countries outside the region that have developed significant trade and economic relations with China come to our rescue over an issue that they may not consider to be vital to their national interest. Even the US is not expected to jump into our bandwagon unless the Chinese interdict US vessels and aircraft in the disputed territory.
Last week, the Asean-China retracted its strongly worded statement referring to Chinese intension in the WPS. This is mute testimony of Chinese influence or the regional groupings.
In the circumstances, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. What is called for is realpolitik driven by creative diplomacy. It will be recalled that this was done by this country in the Sabah issue when this was kept in the backburner as the Maphilindo process was adopted.
We will not be alone in this regard. Malaysia, despite its SCS claims, has engaged China in the OBOR initiative, where she is expected to play a major role. Today, Malaysia has emerged as China’s third-largest partner in Asia. Malaysia also conducted a joint military exercise with China labeled a peace and friendship exercise in 2014. Vietnam, despite experiencing violent incidents with China, has maintained a high-level government-to-government and party-to-party contact with Beijing. Japan has established an “unexpected military encounter protocol with China even as she has sent a 3,000-delegation of businessmen and politicians to Beijing to mark China-Japan friendship, despite close and dangerous encounters of naval assets of both countries in disputed territories.
Despite serious Sino-US differences in both political, security and economic fronts, the US has managed to conclude an army-to-army dialogue mechanism to boost US-China military-to-military ties and conduct an annual high-level bilateral mechanism—the strategic and economic dialogue.
For a post-arbitration scenario given the expected intransigence of China, there is a need for this country to explore possible channels for bilateral as well as multilateral forms of engagement and cooperation with China. The Asean-China free trade area, our membership in the China-led Asian infrastructure and Investment Bank, the Maritime Silk Road initiative dubbed as the one-belt-one road of China and the BIMP-EAGA-China deal are platforms for dialogue and cooperation. As in the case of the Maphilindo, the above institutional cooperation could provide win-win solutions for this country and China that might help to diffuse a situation and promote confidence-building, leading to a satisfactory solution to the West Philippine Sea issue.
The conventional wisdom is that China will exercise soft power rather than territorial imperialism in its desire to exercise dominion over the Asia-Pacific. It will veer away from territorial imperialism practiced by the West in the past that was characterized by gunboat diplomacy. It will be recalled that the Spanish and Portuguese armadas allowed them to conquer the globe, which they divided in half (we became part of the Spanish half). With the wealth obtained from the industrial revolution, Great Britain, with its mighty navy, allowed Britannia to rule the waves colonizing several continents. At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States, with its brand-new steel-hulled battleships, destroyed the Spanish wooden-hulled men-of-war, allowing it to take possession of Spanish colonies in the Americas and this country. In the case of the Philippines, the US motive was to build a jump-off point to the rich market of China. In the Second World War, Japan’s territorial ambition was motivated by the creation of a Southeast Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Today, China’s soft power approach is to reverse the motto “Flag follows trade” to “Trade follows flag.” It substitutes gunboat diplomacy for containerized diplomacy imperialism for neocolonialism and the concept of “territorial imperative.”
What can be expected
Assuming the Philippines wins the arbitration case, the following can be expected:
1. China will not abide by the court decision.
2. Philippine “victory” will be moral but Pyrrhic.
3. Pyrrhic because an “aggrieved” China, which will lose some face, will retaliate symbolically by some economic sanctions, e.g., import and credit controls, but not serious enough to undermine the Asean+China relationship.
4. Philippines cannot and will not enforce court decision.
5. US will not intervene because her economic ties with China far outweigh her partnership with the Philippines in this particular case.
6. The UN will not intervene, as lives are not at stake as in the case of all hotspots like Syria, Iraq, Africa, etc.
7. ASEAN will not support the Philippines. The “Mekong” group are Chinese vassals while in the Maphilindo, Malaysia has become China’s third-biggest trade partner.
8. Europe is too busy fighting ISIS and has no strategic interest in the Asia-Pacific.
9. US and its allies Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia will be sympathetic and will offer to contribute in building a credible defense force of the Philippines because this will bolster their China containment policy.
10. Philippines will try to engage China bilaterally.