The realpolitik of the China Sea disputes

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The China Sea issue pitting this country against China has to be appreciated within a wider context – the super power tussle over energy. We see two elephants fighting over turf with the grass below in danger of being trampled. We are that patch of green that could be stepped on when the pushing comes to a shoving match.

It is pathetic that we misread the signals. Firstly, China and the US are not going to fight. They are like horse and carriage linked tightly by shared economic interests. Their economies complement each other. China provides a humungous market for US investments and products and chief creditor to the once almighty economy in the West. It is not true what Rudyard Kipling says about ease is east and west is west and the twain shall never meet. In a shrinking and globalizing world connected by the communications revolution all markets—be this commodities or financial are all next door. In this environment China and the US are trying their best to be good neighbors, adopting an open door policy economically speaking.

The good neighbor policy between China and the US is simply a system of accommodation, a modus vivendi that will take care of the interest of both. They operate under the Churchillian concept that there are no permanent friends only permanent interests.

Let us define these. China badly needs energy. For every 1% increase in China’s GNP its energy requirement increases by 10%. The US is better off. It has massive reserves. It is into developing its shale oil deposits and non-conventional energy. The reason why the US has not yet signed UNCLOS or the law of the seas and rather timid about getting involved in the South China Sea dispute is that like Spain and Portugal in the 16th century, the superpowers have already determined their respective spheres of interest in Southeast Asia.


This explains why the U.S is not bothered by Chinese development of disputed oil deposits in the China Sea. It has turned a blind eye on Chinese encroachment in the West Philippine Sea and islands claimed by US, Vietnam and Malaysia. China going it alone is better in US calculus than her embracing the Russian bear. Unfortunately (Ras) Putin has already beaten Obama to the draw. By laying down the trans-Siberian oil pipe, Russia will now take care of the voracious appetite of the Chinese economy. While the US policy has been merely permissive that of Russia has been proactive thus drawing the communist allies to a closer embrace with China supporting Putin’s effort to restore the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and China claiming that vast ocean called by her name.

As a counter- measure in this Cold War part 2 scenario, the US now wants to reclaim its historic occupancy of its bases in the Philippines under the guise of the so-called Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA. The sad part is that while this country has expressed willingness to cede valuable real estate rent-free to the yanks, the latter has in no uncertain terms washed her hands in the unfolding dispute in the South China sea which she claims is outside the orbit of the US-RP Mutual Defense Agreement given that this country formally made its claim over the disputed islands only recently. In brief, we were taken for a ride once again like Aguinaldo at the turn of the century.

The US iron-clad promise to defend its disputed territory of Japan vis a vis China is in stark contrast to its failure to categorical make the same commitment in the case of Philippine claims in the same area. This is understandable given the paranoia of the US over a China-Japan entente cordiale. Can you imagine the second and third largest economies ganging up on the US. It is bad enough that China is back in the arms of Russia.

In the case of the Philippines we are merely a pawn in the geopolitical chess game being played by superpowers whose permanent interests can be sacrificed on the altar of geopolitical expediency. This is a case of realpolitik. As the saying goes “hanggang pier lang tayo.”

In sum, the China Sea issue will continue EDCA or no EDCA. China is expected to go for yardage as in football but will not go for a 100 yard dash all the way to the shores of this archipelago which already belongs to its sphere of economic influence like most of the Asean. Like the fabled Chinese torture using drops of water to break a rock China’s approach will be gradual and incremental but will be unstoppable unless the US will play fullback or goalie which for reasons above is unlikely to do so.

This leaves this country with two options—to lie back and enjoy it or negotiate for better terms. As John F. Kennedy once said “lets us not fear to negotiate but never negotiate out of fear!”

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1 Comment

  1. To fight or not to fight. EDCA or no EDCA. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Ever learning and never learning from history. Lack of leadership, military preparation and corruption over years have led to this. War will come when the sea lanes are blocked. China has made it clear of it’s intention to control access. China saw the weakness and capitalized on it. Obama’s weaknesses are no exception. Absolving yourselves of all responsibility for this potential powder keg and blaming the US is beyond tiresome.