The myth of war with China
In Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” one of the characters memorably laments Russia’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Napoleon’s Grande Armée by despairingly stating, “We lost because very early on we told ourselves we had lost.”
Tolstoy’s message is clear: War is, above all, a test of wills fought in the minds of men rather than in the actual battlefield.
Two centuries since the Napoleonic wars, we are once again confronting the specter of conflict, this time in Asia’s seascape, particularly in the South China Sea, where China has been challenging America’s decades-long naval hegemony in Asia.
As I wrote in a previous book, “Asia’s New Battlefield” (Zed Books, London), if there were to be a third World War, it will most likely take place in our maritime backyard. After all, as veteran Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan has pointed out, it’s in the South China Sea where the parameters of US-China competition are most pronounced.
It’s in these strategic waters where, according to Harvard’s Graham Allison, we face a dangerous “Thucydides Trap,” as the modern Athens (China) challenges the hegemony of modern Sparta (America). Without a question, there are legitimate reasons for concern.
But should we really fear war in the near future? President Duterte thinks so. He has repeatedly claimed that if smaller claimant states such as the Philippines were to assert their rights, China would
resort to armed conflict.
A more careful analysis of China’s foreign policy, however, reveals that the Asian powerhouse is the last country to wish for war. First of all, any armed confrontation would severely disrupt China’s export-
oriented economy, since the country depends on the South China Sea for a vast majority of its trade as well as energy imports.
Yes, we may sleepwalk into conflict, as in World War I, but no one is interested in disrupting decades of continued economic growth. This is especially the case for developing China, where continued prosperity is the sole source of legitimacy for an unelected regime.
Second, any war in the South China Sea, especially against a weaker and helpless adversary like the Philippines, would irrevocably damage China’s regional standing, sowing panic among other smaller states and forcing them to start hedging their bets by fully aligning with America. This would not only represent a soft-power disaster for China, but would also immediately tilt the regional balance of power in America’s favor.
Third, any war in the South China Sea would be used as a pretext by America, Japan, India, Australia and major European powers to step up their military presence in the area. This would immediately end China’s current position of dominance and test the mettle of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which hasn’t fought a
single war since the end of the Cold War.
As Sun Tzu, China’s legendary strategic thinker, counseled in “The Art of War”: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” This is precisely why Beijing’s strategy is to intimidate smaller claimant states such as the Philippines through psychological warfare.
The beauty of Marites Vitug’s newly released book “Rock Solid” is that it’s a timely reminder that the Philippines’ arbitration award victory at The Hague is our best bargaining chip in the ongoing battle of wills in the South China Sea. Meticulously researched and written in accessible journalistic lexicon, her work eloquently punctures the false binary narrative that the
only options for our country are graceful accommodation or war.
China knows that defying international law carries its own strategic costs, and that’s why it has used a combination of intimidation and economic incentives to lure the Philippines. The aim of China’s statecraft is to compel its smaller neighbors to internalize defeat and embrace strategic acquiescence as the only way forward.
We shouldn’t fall for this trick. Rule of law is the best and only way to manage and resolve the disputes, short of accepting Chinese maritime hegemony. There can’t be peace without justice.
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