China’s struggle for recognition
WHAT WOULD you do if you were the richest person in your community and you have issues with your neighbors on property rights?
If you are emotionally stable or do not have a chip on your shoulder, you will reach out to them to come up with a win-win solution to your conflict.
If you are emotionally challenged or harbor feelings of insecurity, you will perform acts that show your superiority or your neighbors’ weakness in relation to your strength. Like a bully, you may even use force or intimidation to “persuade” them to give in to your demands in deference to your high standing in the community.
This is exactly how China, the richest economy in the region (and the second largest in the world), has been acting in recent years in relation to some of its neighbors.
Invoking historical rights, China has claimed ownership over practically the entire South China Sea, including a number of shoals, reefs and islands, to the exclusion of other countries that, under the rules of international law, are entitled to certain economic rights over them.
After seizing some shoals and islands that lie within the exclusive economic zone or territory of the Philippines and Vietnam, respectively, China recently encroached into Indonesian and Malaysian waters. It justified the intrusion of its fishermen with the claim that those areas have been their “traditional fishing grounds.”
Although a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), China refuses to abide with its provisions on the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes among its signatories.
China wants direct negotiations on those issues with the other countries that have territorial claims in the South China Sea; it does not want those countries to seek relief from Unclos or any other international institution. The subliminal message of China’s demand is, as the “overlord” in this part of the world, it has the right to decide on the manner by which conflicts in the area should be resolved.
If a third party—especially a body organized under the auspices of the United Nations or the Western powers—steps into the picture, China is aware that it would be unable to influence the proceedings or decision and possibly lose. That would be bad for its image and prestige.
China’s recent announcement that it would create a maritime court to hear and decide on maritime disputes in the region lends credence to its feeling of insecurity.
The humiliation of seeing parts of its territory under foreign control in the past is still imbedded in China’s consciousness, and it is apprehensive (or paranoid) about the “foreign devils” (as it describes its former colonizers) conspiring to prevent or contain it from becoming a superpower.
It also appears disconcerted by the fact that, in spite of its economic and military might, many of its neighbors continue to hold the United States or Japan in high esteem, sometimes at its expense.
American influence in social and political activities remains strong in Asia despite reduced US presence and China’s emergence as an economic power. China’s erstwhile war enemy, Japan, whose geographical size and economy are comparably smaller, continues to be looked up to by many Asian countries as a model for inclusive economic growth.
With the United States and Japan still looming large in Asia, the most populous, richest and militarily-strongest nation in the region has been reduced to “pygmy status” in terms of political and social leadership in its own neighborhood.
To date, only three countries in Southeast Asia—Laos, Cambodia and Burma (Myanmar)—defer to and treat China as “Big Brother” on significant economic and military matters. This behavior does not come us a surprise because China has given (and continues to give) them massive financial assistance to help develop their economy and military. The additional payback for the dole is their willingness to act as China’s surrogates or defenders in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations when its interests are threatened.
For economic reasons, Indonesia and Malaysia have adopted a neutral attitude vis-à-vis China in connection with territorial disputes in the South China Sea. And why not? They are profiting immensely from their trade with China and its assistance to their infrastructure projects.
Unless China learns to respect Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s maritime rights, it may find itself with the same strained relations that presently characterize its ties with the Philippines and Vietnam.
If China thinks gunboat diplomacy, the strategy of subjugation used by its former colonizers, will serve its interests, it is totally wrong. The world has turned around many times since and replicating that approach today can lead to disastrous results.
There is still a long way to go before China can accomplish its dream to be recognized and treated as a superpower, at least in this part of the world.
Raul J. Palabrica (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.
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