TERRITORIAL disputes are long-simmering affairs. They are not settled overnight. Spain, for example, has been seeking the return of Gibraltar from Britain since 1727. Argentina’s claim to the Falklands Islands (Islas de Malvinas) dates back to 1833. A country faced with such a dispute therefore must adopt a long-range strategy and pursue policies under the doctrine that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Meaning, that policies concerning the dispute must be non-partisan so that changes in political leaders do not change those policies.
The appropriate policy to adopt gets more complicated if the dispute is between nations of disparate sizes. In the West Philippine Sea dispute, we are confronted by China, a nation with a population 12 times our own. As we will note later, this limits our foreign policy options.
‘Know your enemy’
Following Chinese general Sun Tzu’s first rule “Know your enemy,” we should take note of the history of China. It has always been a vast empire with its heartland in mainland Asia. The empire expands whenever a strong dynasty reigns in Beijing; it contracts when a weak dynasty is at the helm. Often the same dynasty goes through a cycle of starting weak, followed by consolidation of power and expansion into neighboring areas, and then decay and contraction of the empire. In fact, there were instances when foreign rulers took over the Chinese empire as the Khans did in the 13th century. It is significant that unlike in Japan where there has just been one ruling dynasty throughout its history, no dynasty has ruled China forever. China’s location in the Eurasian land mass subjects the country to such pressures both internal and external, that no dynasty, even that of the mighty Khans, had managed to hold power forever. The Communist Party of China (CPC), just like China’s previous ruling dynasties, will not thus stay in power forever. There is a school of sinologists which holds this view, that the CPC is just like any of the previous dynasties that ruled China.
All Chinese expansion (and contraction) has been toward the Eurasian land mass. China has never been a maritime power with an overseas empire. The only time China attempted to expand overseas was in Japan during the reign of Kublai Khan in the 13th century and this met with disaster. The invading fleet on two occasions, was destroyed by a so-called “divine wind” or “kamikaze.”
A nation wants to create a mystique that it is defended by Divine Providence. Thus, the destruction of the Khan’s fleet has been exploited by the Japanese and believed by most of the world, through the centuries as brought by “divine wind.” However, sober-minded military experts point out that even if the Khan had landed his invasion force in Japan, there was no guarantee of victory. The Khan’s troops were cavalrymen, and their skills were useless in the mountainous terrain of Japan. They would have to fight as infantrymen, and dismounted cavalrymen do not make good foot soldiers as American general George Custer found out centuries later in the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The Khan and his empire was the superpower of that time, and he certainly had the resources to mount additional invasions of Japan. The reason he did not do this, as some pundits state, is because the Khan was a better general than Custer. He knew the limits of his cavalrymen. The Khan’s abandonment of the Japanese invasion is proof positive that the nine-dash line which bedevils us today, is a spurious claim. China in its history has never established an overseas empire; it has always been a continental power.
What would end Chinese aggression
Having said that the CPC is just one of the long line of dynasties which ruled China, it is unfortunate for us that we are in an epoch when the CPC, just like its predecessor dynasties of China, is in its expansion phase. This is the reality we must face in formulating our foreign policy. Taking the long view, there are three contingencies which would end Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
1. Drastic reform of the CPC – This will be a replication of the events in the defunct Soviet Union, when Mikhail Gorbachev became secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1984. The reform was an outcome of what the CPSU reformers termed “a long period of stagnation.” Economic growth had declined due to overspending in defense and the result was an “economy of scarcity,” with people lining up for hours for basic commodities like bread and milk. China’s shift to the market economy in 1979 created unprecedented prosperity and thus, the problem faced by the CPSU of supplying basic commodities to the Chinese people will not arise. However, prosperity creates an expansion of the middle class and this phenomenon has resulted in demands for democratization. This happened in the countries of early industrialization in Western Europe in the 19th century like Great Britain, France, Belgium, Sweden, etc. and we see these same developments in Asia: Japan after World War 2, followed later by the Asian tigers—South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong—all evolving into democratic societies.
At some point, the CPC will have to respond to this demand for democratization either by increased repression which China is doing now, or as happened in the USSR, by initiating reforms as Mikhail Gorbachev did in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
2. Tiananmen 2 – This development is related to item1 above. Tiananmen is a taboo topic in China. Many have been sent to jail for just mentioning this historic event. The reason for this mortal dread of Tiananmen is because it is one of the fundamental tenets of communism that revolution comes in waves. The progression in the Soviet Union of this revolutionary wave started in 1895 with the assassination of the reformist Czar Alexander 2nd, then the 1905 uprising following the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, and finally the successful October Revolution in 1917 which toppled the Romanov dynasty. Undoubtedly, the final wave that brought down the Tsar was hastened by World War I.
Mortal fear of Tiananmen 2
The CPC is in mortal fear of a Tiananmen 2 because the 1979 uprising in Beijing was mainly a student inspired movement. But another uprising supported by an increasing middle class and happening not just in Beijing but in other parts of China, could have a different outcome. The growth of social media will facilitate the spread of revolutionary ideas. This is the reason why the CPC puts all kinds of restrictions on the use of social media and the internet in China, the morbid dread that pursuant to communist doctrine Tiananmen 1 will, at some later time, be followed by a Tiananmen 2.
3. War – This could be a limited war or a total war. The important thing to note is that in the event of war, our goal is simple: we have to get China out of the artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea. China’s continuous possession of these islands will be a perpetual dagger pointed at our throat. The bottom line is, the present policy of the Duterte administration, trying to make friends with China, will not accomplish the goal of getting China out of the West Philippine Sea.
We cannot be on the same side of China in a shooting war, for obvious reasons. A Chinese victory in a shooting war will solidify and make permanent her possession of these artificial islands. We must be on the opposite side against China to get back control of the West Philippine Sea. Even if we end up on the losing side, we will still be where we are now, with China squatting in territorial seas that belong to us under the ruling of the Hague arbitral tribunal. Thus, the posture of the Duterte administration is not a policy which future administrations can continue. One must also note that under international law, a country must keep on asserting its claims to territory that belongs to it, otherwise it could lose the territory under the doctrine of abandonment. As the weaker power, we should pursue traditional balance of power diplomacy and form alliances with countries with whom we share common interests so we can reclaim the territories that belong to us under the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.
Duterte policy on the wrong track
Any of the above contingencies will not happen overnight. We should patiently wait and adopt a long-range policy which future administrations could consistently pursue. Territorial integrity is a permanent national interest and is non-negotiable because it impacts national security. The West Philippine Sea and its artificial islands should be our defense outposts rather than an advanced base for Chinese aggression against our country and the rest of Asean. The importance of space in fighting a war was confirmed in World War 2.
Our troops resisted the Japanese invaders more valiantly than did the Chinese in World War 2. Nonetheless, we were occupied by the Japanese; the Chinese survived because they could retreat to the vast interior of their country until a Grand Alliance was formed and rescued them in World War 2.
It is evident from the foregoing, that the policy of the Duterte administration trading investments for national territory is in the wrong track. Succeeding administrations cannot maintain this policy as it is contrary to our national interest and survival as a nation.
Ambassador Cruz, a career diplomat, served as Deputy Chief of Mission in the former Soviet Union.