Understand the Chinese before talking to them


The great Chinese strategist, Sun Tze, wrote in his book, “The Art of War,” that if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Not only in war, even in any business dealing or negotiation, one has to know his own strengths and weaknesses, at the same time try to understand his opponents as much as possible in order to achieve good results.

Applying Sun Tze’s theory to our dispute with China over the islands and shoals in West Philippine Sea or South China Sea, it is essential that before we formulate our strategies, our government should clearly identify our long-term and immediate objectives, and accurately assess our bargaining power. We also need to understand the thinking of the Chinese and evaluate their possible course of actions. Unfortunately, former President Nonoy Aquino and Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario did not bother to understand our opponent, thus they suffered a total debacle in the confrontation with China. On the other hand, former President Fidel Ramos and President Rodrigo Duterte will most likely achieve good results in their dealings with China since they comprehend the Chinese way of thinking.

If we are going to sum up the Chinese way of dealing with other countries, it is quite evident that Beijing is abiding with the principle of “love begets love and hatred begets hatred.” In fact, China magnifies the “love begets love” theory with an old Chinese maxim that “you give me an inch and I’ll give you a foot.” When it comes to “hatred begets hatred,” Beijing is adhering to the teachings of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who professed “we will not offend anyone if we are not offended, but we will definitely retaliate when we are offended.”

Beijing has poured in an impressive amount of resources to assist the economic growth and social development programs of many African and Asia Minor countries, and to some Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar as well. Beijing extends relentless assistance to these nations because all these countries wholeheartedly support China’s advocacy of “mutual respect” and “non-interference” of internal affairs, and they look up to China as a big brother. Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur also show their friendly attitude toward China and millions of Chinese tourists are visiting Thailand and Malaysia every year with Beijing’s blessing. This is how China puts the “love begets love” theory into practice.

On the other hand, we should realize that China had suffered under foreign aggression and oppressions for more than a century after the Opium War, resulting in the formation of a psychological sentiment among the Chinese populace that they should not allow their country to be “intimidated” or “coerced” by the world powers any more. The Chinese leadership demands equal and fair treatments in the international political arena, and China always reacts with vigor whenever she feels offended. Just look at the incidents that happened in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and we will then fully understand the Chinese way of doing things.
In the East China Sea, some uninhabited islands have caused rifts between China and Japan, including that which the Chinese call the Diaoyutai Islands while the Japanese refer to them as Senkaku Islands. When China and Japan normalized diplomatic relations in the ‘70s, the two countries arrived at an understanding that the territorial dispute should be set aside for the time being and joint development of resources should be explored instead. In the name of friendship, China allowed the Japanese government vessels to patrol around the islands for decades. The Chinese leadership even tolerated some Japanese extreme-rightist groups in building a lighthouse and a small Shinto shrine on the islands. Beijing also prohibited any Chinese national from sailing to the islands to proclaim sovereignty.

However, this picture changed completely when the Japanese government disregarded the objections of the Chinese leaders and unilaterally announced the “nationalization” of the Senkaku Islands in the later part of 2012. Beijing then started to dispatch Ocean Surveillance and Coast Guard vessels to patrol the waters around the disputed islands. When Japan persuaded Washington to announce that Senkaku Islands are covered by the US-Japan Defense Treaty, an angry Beijing did not hesitate to immediately declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea. China had demonstrated vigorous retaliatory actions since she felt offended by the Japanese government.

A similar situation has happened in the West Philippine Sea. Although China declares sovereignty over almost the whole South China Sea, Beijing, nevertheless, did not try to change the ecological status of the islands and shoals in the early years. In the name of peace and friendship, China even tolerated certain activities such as land reclamation, construction of airstrips and oil drilling by the other claimants. Brunei continues to occupy certain disputed islands, Malaysia and Vietnam had drilled so many wells and are now producing a lot of oil and natural gas in the disputed areas, the Philippines also reclaimed some land and built an airstrip on Pagasa Island. China did not take any drastic action except serving some ceremonial diplomatic protests. The Philippine navy had often arrested Chinese fishermen for illegal fishing in the region, but the Chinese government had never harassed or arrested any Filipino fisherman in all those years.

However, things changed in 2012 when our Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario chose to internationalize our dispute with China and not to have any dialogue with Beijing. When Secretary del Rosario announced his decision to raise the territorial dispute issue to the International Court of Arbitrations in January 2013, Chinese coast guard vessels started to chase away Filipino fishermen from the Panatag Shoal.

When the Aquino administration decided to invite the US armed forces to come back to the Philippines shores to make use of our military bases, and to stage frequent US-Philippines joint military exercises coupled with joint patrol around the disputed islands, China then started to reclaim land in a big scale to enlarge the islands under her control, and even built airstrips and docking facilities which can be converted to military usage in the future.

Beijing was undoubtedly offended when President Aquino asked the US, Japan and other powers to help us in combating China, and as a consequence, our Masinloc fishermen lost the Panatag fishing ground, which in a way indicates that we lost our sovereignty over the Panatag Shoal. Chinese official vessels dominated the waters in the region and we even had difficulties in sending supplies to our military personnel aboard BRP Sierra Madre docked in Ayungin Shoal. Aside from the fishermen, our farmers also suffered since China started to ban the importation of Philippine fruits.

President Ramos and President Duterte are different. They seem to understand the psychology of the Chinese and they know well that it is only through friendly dialogues that we can gain back what we lost. They approached the Chinese leaders with smiles and olive branches, and most likely they will achieve what we have been aiming for. In his dialogue with Madam Fu Ying and other Chinese officials in Hong Kong last August, President Ramos successfully mended the damaged relationship between the Philippines and China, and reopened the doors for negotiations.

President Duterte will be visiting China in the next few days. It is believed that he will be accorded with the highest honor and utmost importance because he emphasizes “mutual respect” and “amicable dialogue,” which the Chinese leadership is aspiring for. As a response to President Duterte’s courtesy, China has already lifted the ban on the importation of Philippine fruits. In the forthcoming high-level dialogues, China will most likely agree not to harass our fishermen fishing in the Panatag Shoal and other parts of the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.

Among other things, it is also expected that Beijing will promise to import more Philippine agricultural and other products, to cause the strong inflow of Chinese investments to the Philippines and to inject substantial funds into our infrastructure projects, at the same time bring hundreds of thousands or even millions of Chinese tourists to our shores.

To successfully engage China in dialogues and negotiations, we need diplomats who really understand the thinking of the Chinese leaders and the general Chinese population. Let us wish that President Duterte, as a state guest and President Ramos, as a special envoy, will achieve the best results to benefit our country and our people.

(The author: Esteban G. Pena Sy is a student of Asian Studies. He is formerly President of the UP Asian Center Students’ Association and a former lecturer at the University of the Philippines)


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  1. “Chinese have a saying, make friends with change, it’s the only thing you can count on” or so says Cullen Bohannon, railwayman extraordinaire of the AMX series Hell on Wheels.