IN 2017, I came across this fascinating book by Graham Allison, Destined for War, which described the rise of China and its impact on the world, particularly on America’s position as the architect of the international order that has prevailed for seven decades from 1945. Ingrained in this architecture are the basic tenets of Western thought: democracy and the rule of law, free enterprise and global trade — America’s instruments that propelled her to hegemony in the aftermath of World War 2. Intended or not, this role which America assumed for itself brought about an unprecedented era of peace or at least a state of non-war. And this allowed China to reappear in the world stage after an absence of more than 200 years. It may be recalled that ancient China, the Middle Kingdom, was dominant in Asia for thousands of years before it was eclipsed by the West that began during the Age of Discovery in the early 16th century.
Allison proposes that the impact of China’s rise will cause
“…discombobulation to the US and the international order.” He cited Thucydides, the Greek historian who first defined the concept of history in his History of the Peloponnesian War 2,500 years ago. In his book, he suggests that, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this installed in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Applying this to the current status of America confronted with the rise of China, Allison conceived the “Thucydides Trap, a dangerous dynamic that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a major ruling power.” In this case China, the rising power, threatens to displace the ruling power, the United States. Will war ensue, as in Athens versus Sparta? Allison suggests that war is likely but not inevitable.
And this is the underpinning theme of this column: to divine on one hand the direction of Philippine foreign policy in the light of President Duterte’s pronouncements about aligning with China (and Russia) “against the world”; and his unilateral decision to set aside the Hague court arbitral ruling, abetting China’s moves in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) jeopardizing ours and other Asian countries’ claim to some islands within. On the other hand, we can’t arbitrarily negate our close and personal ties with America, forged in the crucible of battles and her tutelage for a century. It seems incongruous that upon the assumption of the Deegong to power, he pivoted us to China at the instance when the outgoing Obama pivoted to Asia.
The Philippine dynamic
At this point, Allison’s book becomes relevant to us as the Philippines is now reluctantly complacent in some ways with China’s “usurping,” developing and converting our claimed islands off Palawan and Luzon into Chinese military bases; and adding salt to the wounds, proposing joint commercial resources exploitation of areas like the Recto Bank, which are obviously not within her exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Mindful of Allison’s warning that war comes from three factors, interest (for real), fear (perception of) and honor (feeling pride and respect), the Philippines, linked to China by reason of geography and the US by reason of kinship, may now find herself in an untenable and delicate position, perhaps unwittingly by hurried personal choices of our political leadership, oblivious to the exigencies of history.
To complicate matters, one of the more compelling ideas advanced in the book is that the Thucydides trap “allows external events and actors who otherwise are inconsequential or easily manageable to trigger cascades of consequences that get you to places you don’t wanna go.”
And these cascades of possible consequences are embedded in the Philippine claim to disputed territories, including Panatag (Scarborough Shoal) in Luzon and the bigger Kalayaan Island Group in Palawan. Also called the Spratly Islands, these are within the Philippine EEZ. And these claims are in “suspended animation” pending our leaders seeing their way clear through our muddled foreign policy.
Previous regime’s incompetence
The blunders of President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s administration taunting China by breaking off an impasse and in effect abandoning Panatag to China has been well documented. (“Aquino, del Rosario begged US to use its military in Scarborough crisis,” Rigoberto Tiglao, Manila Times, Aug. 6, 2018). Be that as it may, the converted islands in the West Philippine Sea are now in effect Chinese garrisons engulfing the Philippines as part of China’s forward defense — preparing for maritime conflict. Allison has cautioned us that “Thucydides teaches us [that there]are the structural factors that lay its foundations: conditions in which otherwise manageable events can escalate with unforeseeable severity and produce unimaginable consequences.”
Some of the “unimaginable consequences” were almost triggered by the unthinking President Aquino, and the bungling of his foreign affairs secretary, del Rosario; then running off to America to invoke the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty. This was an inane and dangerous move, exactly one of the trigger points pointed out in the Thucydides Trap.
The onus has now been passed on to the Deegong. And his ability to appreciate his role will be tested. He is what is described by Allison as the “actor on top of external events, otherwise inconsequential, who could trigger cascades of consequences we don’t want to go to”; in this case, a shooting war between two giants and a nuclear holocaust in its wake. The imperatives therefore would shift to the President’s organic team. Are they armed with enough sophistication and skill in statecraft and international negotiations? So far, what has emanated from Malacañang is the President’s propensity to regard negotiations as a zero-sum game. As I intimated in my past columns, “…the President is unable to or refuses to see options other than that which a butangero in the streets is inured to, reducing the alternatives into a fistfight or flight.
Are China and US destined for war?
Back to the overarching theme of this column. Are China and the United States destined for war? Yes and no! Yes! If we are not mindful of Santayana’s dictum and history’s follies. And the historical odds are bad. Of the 16 cases of Thucydides Trap, 12 resulted in war.
No! If China and US will sidestep the Thucydides trap, internalizing the “…consequential question about our world today. Are we going to follow in the footsteps of history or can we through a combination of imagination and common sense and courage find a way to manage this rivalry without a war nobody wants everybody knows would be catastrophic?”
Perhaps America needs to understand too that China now is compelled to write its own narrative. For about 3,000 years it was dominant in Asia except for the 200 years that the West imperialized and exploited her. She may simply want to reclaim her status quo ante.
And for the Philippines’ role, a caution: “…few of these (16) wars were initiated by either the rising or ruling power but a third party’s provocation forces the one or the other to react and that sets in motion a spiral which drags the two somewhere they don’t wanna go.”
When elephants dance, the ant should give way!
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