Culture clash over troubled waters

/ 05:12 AM September 16, 2017

Just below the radar screen of much security analysis in this region is a largely unnoticed feature of globalization: the fact that you are dealing with countries who have acquired conceptual and material tools from what we call the “West,” and yet remain deeply embedded in their traditional cultures.

In popular culture, globalization has now conflated and put, in a single time and space, the computer and the carabao, sushi and McDonald’s, animé, Korean telenovelas and Bollywood alongside Hollywood blockbusters, smartphones and Facebook together with barber-shop talk and gossip around the village well.


Similarly, in strategic security issues, you have a situation where the global order that emerged out of the rubble of two world wars—the United Nations, Nato, the European community, and, later, ideological alignments and institutional offshoots like the Cold War, the Group of 77 and the anticommunist Asean—while on the surface influencing the political elites of the newly decolonized countries, has yet to see values like human rights and rule-based institutions that the West has evolved over the centuries and internalized in these societies.

In the conflict over the South China Sea, for instance, all claimant states assert their rights based on post-Westphalian concepts like sovereignty and territoriality. But we are seeing at the same time the opaque behind-the-scenes negotiations of the “Asean way” in conflict management, and the surfacing of ancient Chinese strategies for hegemony in a world that has seen the breakup of large architectonic structures like the Soviet Union and the dismantling of that global social imaginary once known as the “Free World,” whose demise is now pointedly prefigured by Brexit and Donald Trump’s reinvention of Fortress America.


Hot on the heels of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyuma prematurely announced that we are at “the end of history,” meaning that the old ideological battles are over and all we are left with are boring technical questions on how to make economies grow. Three decades later, we see China shifting from its published policy of “peaceful rise” to aggressive measures that seek to establish its dominance over disputed waters. Its announcement of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative is indicative of an emerging grand design of reclaiming its supposed historic entitlements, not merely over the South China Sea, but as “zhong guo,” the “middle kingdom” or central state that once saw itself as benevolent ruler of a vast tributary system of vassal states.

Clash of narratives

The conflict over the South China Sea is not just a resource war; it is about a clash of narratives originating from the peculiar historical experiences of the major claimants.

China is said to be still smarting from its “century of humiliation” in the hands of western powers. Its self-identity as hegemon, and its idea of authority and order as emanating from Heaven—a Sinic version of that western myth, “manifest destiny”—may have been shattered by the virtual occupation of its coastal cities by rapacious powers that imposed on it unequal treaties. But as before, through the vicissitudes of its long history, this narrative has been persistent and is now being reconstructed by the current leadership. The bold vision of reinventing the old Silk Road and once again ruling over vital maritime trade routes as in the heyday of the voyager Zheng He in the 15th century is early witness to this fact.

On the other hand, the Philippines and other claimant states are just beginning to learn to be “nations” after the trauma of colonization and the throes of internal turmoil over grievances caused by economic and political imbalances due to ideological, racial and religious differences. While these countries have acquired the formal language of “rights” and notions of “coequal sovereignty,” they are actually still located culturally in their precolonial periods and historically proximate to the time when Europe was just rising from the anarchy of multipolar wars of self-determination that eventually crystallized into independent “nation-states” and hardened into territorial borders.

The Philippines, particularly, because of its long exposure to cultural emissions from both sides of the Atlantic, has acquired skills needed to navigate the labyrinth of legal and institutional frameworks covering enforcement of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. With a highly westernized professional elite, it is not an accident that it was the one country that dared to challenge China’s expansive claims in court—and won.

‘Ex parte communications’


In contrast, China, supremely ethnocentric and insular even after its long period of isolation, refused to be subjected to arbitration by what it considers to be an improper forum. Just before the decision was handed down, it took to describing the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) as a “law-abusing” tribunal whose ruling would be a “piece of trash paper.” Yet while it was intransigent about nonparticipation and subsequent noncompliance, PCA records show that China lobbied behind the scenes, sending a representative from its embassy in the Netherlands to “informally” discuss procedural questions. Shortly after, in November 2013, the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom requested a meeting with the president of the PCA himself, prompting the court to delicately admonish parties to the dispute to refrain from “ex parte communications” with its members.

Post-arbitration, a chorus of Chinese scholars said the ruling was one-sided and paid for by the United States, vindicating China’s nonparticipation. At least one accounts it to lack of experience in international litigation, particularly with regard to third-party dispute settlement, besides the longstanding preference for bilateral negotiations due to “Chinese culture and history.”

With the Philippines perceived as fronting for US interests in the region, and China imperiously behaving out of sync with the evolving legal environment around these troubled waters, such cross-cultural differences are likely to heighten from mere offstage noise to loud decibels that can be misread and trigger large-scale conflict.

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and author of “Rise Up and Walk, Culture and Religion in Empowering the Poor,” published in Oxford, UK.

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