Border disputes are limited, not total, wars
A definition of a diplomat (with some truth to it) is: “An honest man who is sent abroad to lie for the good of his country.” However, when a diplomat lies for the good of another country, he or she becomes a puppet. (This practice was common during the Cold War, with diplomats of the Soviet satellite countries routinely telling lies on behalf of Moscow.) By this standard, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano has become the puppet of Beijing.
The Philippines got into this mess because 1) we did not study the issue at hand, and 2) we do not know our enemy. This debacle started when Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a meeting with President Duterte, threatened to wage war against the Philippines if it asserted its rights to the West Philippine Sea. This threat appears to have unnerved our usually tough-talking President.
Thereafter, each time the dispute over the West Philippine Sea arises, we tremble at the prospect of war with China. We are envisioning a total-war scenario, with our country devastated again as in World War II. But the border wars which China has instigated are not total wars, but limited wars. The skirmishes are confined to the border areas under dispute. This has been the case in China’s disputes with India, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam. Each of these disputes did not result in total war.
Moreover, China is not prepared to fight a total war to resolve a border dispute. This was revealed in its dispute with the Soviet Union over the Ussuri River. Following skirmishes in the area between the armed forces of the two countries in the 1960s, Moscow, through its controlled press, started printing threats of a nuclear strike against China, which the latter ignored. In the “Davydov Affair,” one of the murky incidents during the Cold War, Boris N. Davydov, a Soviet diplomat (actually the GRU or Soviet military intelligence service agent) in Washington, DC, arranged a meeting with a US State Department official. He inquired as to the American reaction to a Soviet preemptive nuclear strike on China—clearly a back channel message that, as expected, was transmitted by the United States to China.
After the Davydov message, China became conciliatory and the dispute was settled by both countries. We do not know whether the message was a bluff or the Soviet Union really intended to take out China’s nuclear facilities. Nonetheless, it served its purpose and revealed that China’s border incursions have limitations.
Our diplomacy is deeply flawed. On sensitive issues, there should be ample briefings for our delegates before meeting with the other side. If this was done in connection with the Duterte-Xi meeting, our reaction to the Chinese threat could have been different if our side knew beforehand that border disputes are limited wars and that China blinked when the Soviets threatened it with total war in the Ussuri River dispute.
Vietnam has handled its dispute with China in a better manner. When the Chinese installed an oil exploration rig in disputed waters, Vietnam thwarted this act of aggression by sending its Coast Guard and fishing vessels to block the operation. Vietnam stands alone and has no defense treaty with any country. Nonetheless, it has held its own against China, in contrast with the fawning attitude of Cayetano and other Filipino officials toward Beijing.
We should put in play the pertinent provisions in the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty. We can go to the United Nations and, based on the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, secure a resolution asking China to lift the blockade on Ayungin Shoal. On this basis, we can then send a relief supply to Ayungin and request the United States to escort our convoy. In this manner, we will also know definitively if America will honor its treaty obligations to us.
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Hermenegildo C. Cruz was Philippine ambassador to the United Nations in 1984-1986.
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