Of course we’ve every right to be regally pissed off at China and register our outrage in the most vociferous ways. To say that China’s recent moves have been belligerent is to say that Israel’s threats against Iran, and vice versa, have been belligerent. In recent weeks, those have included, in quick succession, issuing passports that trot out a Chinese map claiming the disputed islands, and threatening to board foreign vessels sailing through the area. In the emotionally charged atmosphere between China and Asean today, that’s as open a provocation as you can get.
The government deserves praise for taking a strong role in rallying Asean into taking China head on, if only diplomatically, which may be the only weapon we have but is a weapon nonetheless. The Philippines and Vietnam have already declared categorically that they will not stamp the passports that carry the modern-day reinvention of the Middle Kingdom. And while the other Asean countries haven’t said anything, they sympathize with it. Except for Cambodia, of course.
Just as well, the Philippines and Vietnam have also declared that they would not be cowed into desisting from sailing in the disputed sea but would stand their ground, or water, amid threats of boarding. While neither country, or both, can confront China militarily, they do not lack for other weapons to make China think twice. This is the age of YouTube and instant communication, neither of which China seems to have discovered, and can make acts of iniquity, as much of heroism, viral within minutes. As China will have rammed home to it if it tries clambering onto what it perceives to be offending vessels.
We have every right to be regally pissed off at China, but we also have every reason to be regally careful in our responses.
One is getting the United States embroiled in the fray. That requires a nuanced approach. Do we need to internationalize China’s belligerence? Yes. Do we need to bring the issue to the attention of the United Nations and the international courts? Yes. Do we need to get the American government to issue statements warning China against its encroachments? Yes. Do we need to remind our neighbors we see ourselves as an American protectorate? No.
The first three are a necessity, the last is an embarrassment. It’s not just Cambodia that has the reputation of being the stooge of a foreign power, it’s us, too. Thus far, we’ve done well standing firm with Asean in insisting on multilateral rather than bilateral talks with China. Thus far, we’ve done well taking a prominent, if not lead, role in pushing an agenda of vital importance to Asean. The point is not just to win the battle, it is to win the war. The point is not just to keep our territory, it is to gain the respect of the neighborhood. Let’s not mess that up.
Two is saber-rattling. No one, of course, has seriously suggested that we confront China militarily. The Defense College itself is clear on it, with Chester Cabalza, one of its professors, saying: “We cannot contain the maritime strength of China because we lack the capability. [Lodging] a diplomatic protest is the most we can do.” But some people have suggested that we need to spend more to improve our defense capabilities. That’s just a variation of the “budget Huks,” which was the practice of using the insurgency to jack up the AFP budget.
That’s crazy. At the very least, it’s so because resources being scarce, and even scarcer in poor countries like ours, if we have to spend more it should be on education and not on defense. Nothing secures a country better than an educated and informed populace. Nothing defends a country better than a people who have a stake in it and are willing to die, “ang mamatay ng dahil sa ’yo,” for it.
At the very most, that’s so because our problem has never been national security, it has always been foreign policy. Our problem has never been defense, it has always been diplomacy. It has never been brawn, it has always been brains. We’ve not lacked for the first, the military has always been pampered lest it throw a tantrum, or mount a coup attempt, which has succeeded only in producing national insecurity. We’ve always lacked for a foreign policy and the diplomatic skills to push it through. In lieu of saber-rattling, we can do with sober thinking.
And lastly, fanning anti-Chinese sentiments. I’ve been looking at the reactions to the stories about China’s belligerent actions, and some of them can make you cringe. They rekindle latent animosity against the Chinese, foreign or local. Arguably not as bad as in other Asean countries—Suharto’s downfall was presaged by anti-Chinese rioting and looting—but deeply disquieting nonetheless. “Dugong Intsik kasi,” says one of them, which is not unlike the sangre de Moro of yore, or the not so very yore.
“Komunistang Intsik,” says another, putting together two groups that have had a history of massacre or pogrom mounted against them. “Lahi ni Limahong,” says still another, conjuring the Chinese’s unsavory piratical past with this country.
You cannot always rein in people’s enthusiasms or wrath, but you have to try where they go overboard. Indeed, where they pose not just physical harm to people but also psychological harm to the nation. There’s a difference between being resolute and being rabid, being passionate and being bigoted, being united and being a lynch mob.
In the end, it’s not the threat itself but how we respond to it that will be the test of our character. How we respond to it can make us fall or rise. How we respond to it can make us shame ourselves or surpass ourselves. How we respond to it can kill us or make us stronger.
Take it from the Chinese: A crisis is also an opportunity. How we respond to it makes it the one or the other.