Return to great power geopolitics
President Rodrigo Duterte sees the Chinese militarization of the West Philippine Sea (WPS) as an issue in geopolitics, a subject he said he took and enjoyed in college.
The musical “The King and I” is an unlikely reference in a geopolitics course, but one Mr. Duterte might have appreciated. Like him, Siam’s King Mongkut worried about the usefulness of allies perceived as weak in military capacity or political resolve.
Despite our mutual defense treaty, Mr. Duterte doubts that the United States would invest treasure and blood to defend the Philippines. The constraint to follow constitutional processes before it can take arms to protect the Philippines makes America an unreliable ally. He also distrusts the United States because American leaders have openly criticized his drug war and, presumably, support its review by the International Criminal Court.
China, in contrast, has more powerful forces closer to the Philippines and appears more aggressive in their use. It has also defended the drug war. Mr. Duterte has celebrated China’s pledge to protect the Philippines, a commitment he said he was counting on “in case of an outbreak of violence in Mindanao.”
But the Islamic State and the New People’s Army, which pose the biggest security threats in Mindanao, remain, thus far, internal insurgencies, notwithstanding evidence of foreign support to local jihadists. Will we ask China to send troops to Mindanao, as it once did to North Korea? From which enemies is China going to defend us?
Choosing allies is problematic. As King Mongkut recognized: “If allies are weak, am I not best alone?/ If allies are strong, with power to protect me/ Might they not protect me out of all I own?”
Now we know that Chinese missiles protect our reefs in our Exclusive Economic Zone, precisely the kind of “protection” that King Mongkut feared. In an age of Great Power rivalry over colonies, King Mongkut faced a more difficult situation. He knew that Thailand could not win a war against the Western colonial powers. But he learned to use the rules of international engagement that the Western Powers themselves had established and, therefore, could not completely ignore.
Since World War II, a more robust framework of international law and collective security has tempered, though not fully ended, the gunboat diplomacy practiced by the Great Powers. Enough progress has been made to expand the options for weaker countries beyond unwinnable wars and abject appeasement (rendered more palatable as “accepting the reality on the ground”).
Inexplicably, however, these are the choices that Mr. Duterte has aggressively promoted. He has continuously harped on the theme that we cannot win a war against China, which no one disputes.
Thus, China does not even have to engage in saber-rattling to threaten us, which would be bad for its international PR. Mr. Duterte does it himself. Because we are weak, he has said, we should remain meek and humble so that China will have pity on us. And, maybe, China will allow us a bigger share of the WPS resources that rightly belong to us.
Does this posture reflect the “puso” (heart) that Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said will help us compensate for the material superiority enjoyed by China?
We understand the benefit of the warm personal rapport that Mr. Duterte has established with Xi Jinping. But it seems short-sighted to rely on our “new-found friendship” with China to protect us from the dangers of a militarized WPS. A mid-19th century geopolitical insight remains pertinent: A country has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.
What happens when Mr. Duterte, as he says he wants to do, exits the stage? And what happens now that he has drawn lines on the sand that, if crossed, will lead him to war? “Bahala na” is not a strategy, especially since he has brought us back to the game of Great Power geopolitics, where military force is the principal currency.
Over thousands of years, humanity has struggled to escape from the law of the jungle to the rule of law. Ironically, despite their training in the craft and ethics of the legal profession, the President, the presidential spokesman and the foreign secretary seem more inclined to believe that might makes right and laws do not matter.
Even sadder, no one in the top ranks of the administration seems to disagree.
Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected] gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.
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