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US or China? Choose your poison

Thus might “Realist” theorists of international relations respond: Great Powers behave the same way. And President

Duterte will probably concur. China routinely violates the country’s exclusive economic zone and abuses Filipino fishermen. But he correctly points out that the United States had also exploited the Philippines’ weakness to secure its economic and security objectives.China and the United States have followed the same historical trajectory. From 13 settlements along the Atlantic coast, the Americans spread west across the continent, achieving their Manifest Destiny through purchase and war against indigenous tribes and against France and Mexico. China’s spread across the Asian heartland, achieved over a longer period, allowed the cultural assimilation of the diverse communities it conquered. Hence, the expansion of Han China appeared as an internal process of consolidation, although not completely consummated in Xinjiang and Tibet. Both Great Powers gained control of their respective continents through a process punctuated by violence and war.

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Great Powers seek to secure their national interests. Each will pursue superiority over other Great Powers, without counting the collateral costs other countries may suffer. After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States remained unchallenged for some 30 years as the sole superpower. China has now emerged as a credible competitor and aspires to establish the same dominance in Asia that the United States had long exercised in the Western hemisphere. The United States and China, now proclaimed strategic rivals, are testing each other in a trade war and in the South China Sea.

Minor Powers do not wish to be caught in a corner between two contesting protagonists. Both promise benefits and threats. Ideally, they would prefer to stay on the fence, hoping to keep their cake while consuming it. John Mearsheimer, a leading Realist proponent, does not consider this a realistic, long-term strategy. He believes that the United States will resist China’s emergence as a “regional hegemon.” It will not want China, once secure in its own neighborhood, freely roaming the world, as the United States does, to promote itself as “peer competitor” and construct its own alliance network.

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How then might Minor Powers avoid getting trapped between a rock and a hard place? With no borders to defend, the United States appears the less dangerous threat. The disastrous Vietnam War has made it more cautious about military interventions likely to provoke resistance. Its institutions still respect the rule of law and the people’s democratic rights. Mearscheimer warns, however, that the United States is quite capable of playing hardball politics, as it has done in Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Defying the United States will not be a cost-free option.

The Chinese state suffers little opposition from countervailing institutions or dissenting public opinion. It has been less inhibited in using force to achieve its territorial interests, notably against India and Vietnam.

China has been partner, patron and ideological mentor of Laos and Cambodia during their anticolonial struggle and in the Cold War period. But they are also more heavily dependent on China for grants and loans than their Asean colleagues. Hard economic and security considerations tend to trump “soft power.” Vietnam has comparable ideological connections, but it also has memories of China as its colonial ruler and disputes over competing claims in the South China Sea.

Historical grievances and current territorial disputes likewise complicate relations with India and Japan and make the embrace of China more difficult. Add to this their entrenched democratic system of governance, which, in varying degrees, also applies to Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. The role of Islam in these countries poses a problem as well, given the Chinese campaign to emasculate religion in Muslim Xinjiang and Buddhist Tibet, and among Chinese Christians. Language, political and cultural affinity and historical alliances would similarly incline Australia and New Zealand to align with the United States.

Mr. Duterte is supremely realistic in ridiculing the folly of the Philippines rushing to a war against China. But this is demolishing a straw man argument that no one defends. We still have to fathom the puzzle of the Duterte foreign policy strategy.

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Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).

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TAGS: China, Duterte, US, Vietnam war
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