FINALLY, China last week declared definitively that it will go to war with any of the comparatively weak members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)—especially the Philippines—or against any of its neighboring countries which oppose Beijing’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
This was the message that President Rodrigo Duterte revealed in a press conference that he gave after he returned from Beijing. According to him, this is what he said in his meetings with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang: “I really said to their face that (the West Philippine Sea) is ours and we intend to drill oil there. And they told me: ‘Well, we are friends. We do not want to quarrel with you. We want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we will go to war’.”
He made the revelation to silence his critics who accuse him of abandoning the favorable ruling last July of the International Arbitration Court in The Hague that the West Philippine Sea, by international law under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—was not China’s. China has claimed almost all of the South China Sea and caused territorial disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan.
Duterte has been friendly with China and Russia but had negative things to say against the US under President Barack Obama. He visited Beijing last October and again last week to attend the international conference on China’s One Belt, One Road initiative to help developing countries with infrastructure financing and technologies to link with China.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin also attended, but the other major world economies and other Asean members sent their ministers.
It was obviously a move by China to boost its international image as a generous world leader, whose main concern is increased world trade to “help the poor nations” financially and technologically to be prosperous. On the other hand, it can also be used as a tool to influence or pressure the weaker country-beneficiaries to support China on any of the world issues affecting Beijing. That’s reality.
World powers of the past used financial aid, trade and commerce to become hegemons. The US after the last world war had its Marshall Plan for Western European rehabilitation and influence, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for global dominance.
And China is clearly aping this. It is trying to inject into the world trade mainstream its yuan or renminbi; it has established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in direct competition with the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the IMF. Risks of excessive national debt does not faze China because it can merely follow the US case when it detached the dollar from the gold standard and merely incurred more debts by printing cash to fuel manufacturing and consumer spending domestically and worldwide.
China’s railroad network blueprint and financial aid offers are designed to directly carry goods and people from almost all the 10 Asean members, the Near East area through Afghanistan, the Central Asian region, South Asia and Africa.
No one can really accurate predict if China will actually attack any of its weak Asean neighbors over the South China Sea territorial disputes. One argument against it is that the Asean members will not be short of allies to help them fight such an attack, although China has the biggest military manpower in the world.
The US will predictably come in late in any war with China, given the recent “warm and friendly” meeting between President Donald Trump and Xi in Trump’s private resort in Florida. Analysts interpret it as a tacit agreement that it is not in both their interest to fight each other on the territorial claims of China.
History has shown that the US went into World Wars 1 and 2 when its own “national interest”—read American lives—were threatened or lost. In the case of the South China Sea, the US keeps emphasizing its main concern is guaranteed “freedom of navigation and commercial trade and shipping” in what it considers international waters.
But there is nothing to stop the US and China from engaging in a proxy war as in the case of the Middle East violence (Israel vs the Palestinians), the Korean and the Vietnam wars and the Islamic State international terrorist group (particularly in Syria), to cite a few.
Some geopolitical analysts see China as using North Korea to keep the US, Japan and South Korea occupied with the Northeast Asia tensions. And some say China will not hesitate to use its military muscle in a limited capacity against any Asean member, and then offer soft diplomatic dialogue when Beijing sees the need for it.
So what do the Asean 10 need to do now that China has shown Duterte the tip of its iceberg in the hot South China Sea issue?
They must improve their economic data and marketing technologies to expand the Asean export market beyond China. Be an interactive friend and trading partner with all sovereign states regardless of ideologies. Invest more in education, attract more foreign investors and use more production and communication technologies to increase productivity. Balance sustainable environment with the predicted rapid economic development for inclusive growth.
And wait for the official announcements from Moscow after Duterte ends his official visit to Russia, which started today, on the invitation of Putin.