Duterte’s China dilemma
“Behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution,” the early-20th century German philosopher Walter Benjamin warned, highlighting the inherent danger in how unfulfilled utopian promises can create a vacuum of terror.
His key insight was that reactionary darkness is immanent to the fragile, audacious hope for creating a better world, the attempt to break from the shackles of a discredited status quo.
A few decades later, Singapore’s philosopher-king, Lee Kuan Yew, warned that the rise of China will be so momentous that it won’t only require adjustment by its neighbors and rivals, but will also irrevocably transform the nature of the international system.
Today, we are living with the consequences of both Benjamin’s dialectical warning as well as Lee’s geometric forecast about the future of the Asian order. The revenge of geopolitics, and emergence of what Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad calls “new imperialism,” is the result of the failure of regional actors to create a truly stable, inclusive and rules-based regional order.
When the Cold War rivalry ended, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) took it upon itself to, in the words of constructivist scholars, “socialize” great powers such as China into not only accepting, but also internalizing the norms of nonaggression and dialogue-based resolution of disputes.
The upshot was the dangerous illusion of a truly horizontal and stable regional order undergirded by the Asean principles. Today, however, the Asean is grappling with an overpowering China, which is effectively dictating the agenda on virtually every area of shared concern. This includes the ongoing negotiations over a Code of Conduct that is increasingly reflecting Beijing’s preferences than regional pacifist norms.
The revengeful return of “great power politics” has presented smaller neighbors such as the Philippines with an existential dilemma. During our inaugural forum for the newly established Akademiyang Filipino, Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio went so far as to describe China’s rising maritime assertiveness in Philippine waters as the “gravest external threat [to the country] since World War II.”
The question, however, remains: How to best deal with a risen China, which now has the world’s second largest economy and military? In the perspective of mayor-turned-president Rodrigo Duterte, the best way to deal with China is proactive engagement, which often, at least rhetorically, borders on graceful accommodation, if not strategic resignation.
The fact of the matter is that when the Philippines’ arbitration award came out on July 12, 2016, no single power was in a position to foist it upon an intransigent China. Not the United States, which was then under a lame-duck president, nor the Asean, which has yet to even acknowledge the existence of the award. The European Union took several days before it could even draft a statement.
Ironically, we seemed loneliest at our moment of greatest moral victory. It’s precisely within this context of strategic solitude that some welcomed Mr. Duterte’s call for a “soft-landing” in the West Philippine Sea. If we were “meek” and “humble,” the President proudly advised, we would receive Beijing’s “mercy.”
Two years on, however, what we see is largely the unfulfilled promise of Chinese mercy. Over the past year, China’s militarization of the South China Sea disputes entered a new and dangerous phase with the deployment of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), anticruise ballistic missiles, electronic jamming equipment and a whole package of advanced military assets to
artificially created islands.
As the US Indo-Pacific Command Adm. Philip Davidson put it, we are now confronting a “great wall of SAMs” in the South China Sea. As for China’s $9-billion pledge of infrastructure investments and development assistance in the Philippines, the backlog is striking.
Among the 10 big-ticket projects in the pipeline, only one so far, the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project, has cleared the preliminary stages of implementation. And among the 29 deals signed during President Xi Jinping’s much-vaunted visit, only two, namely the implementation agreements on feasibility studies for the Panay-Guimaras-Negros Island Bridges Project and the Davao City Expressway, evinced some modicum of advancement.
The rest were mostly memorandums of understanding, frameworks and letters on already identified projects. Let’s just hope that we haven’t been taken for a ride, and that time will sort out everything.
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