A suzerainty in the making?
What if China, despite its intrusions into Philippine seas, has a subtle way of taking over control of the Philippines other than by forcible takeover? What if Philippine leaders are complicit in pushing this alternative plan to fruition?
Consider the concept of suzerainty. Suzerainty is a relationship in which one state controls the foreign policy of a tributary state, while allowing the tributary state to have internal autonomy. The dominant state is called the “suzerain.” Under suzerainty, the tributary state is technically independent, but enjoys limited self-rule.
While a sovereign state can agree to become a protectorate of a stronger power, international law does not recognize any way of making this relationship compulsory on the weaker power. “Suzerainty is a practical, de facto situation, rather than a legal, de jure one,” per Wikipedia.
China is trying to establish a suzerainty in the Asia Pacifc Region, with it as the suzerain. China could be trying to exercise control over the foreign policy of the Philippines by claiming that Philippine seas and islands are China’s, and demanding that sea and air passage over the area by other states requires China’s permission, forcing the Philippines to adjust its policies.
Filipinos may be surprised to learn one day that a Chinese suzerainty over the Philippines could go beyond the West Philippine Sea. Chinese suzerainty could also mean access to the East Philippine Sea and the richness of Benham Rise with its suspected enormous natural resources. Strategically, the Philippines could then become the main link, so to speak, of China’s chain of control to the entire Pacific Ocean.
China is hard at work establishing that suzerainty over the Philippines through promised development loans, loans to meet the pandemic, direct investments, and other financial help. And beyond all this, President Duterte has even requested (jokingly?) that China make the Philippines one of its provinces, albeit unofficially. All of these said and done nicely with smiles on both sides.
The option to establish a suzerainty would be a logical choice for China. An outright invasion of the Philippines could lead to complex consequences. For one, it could trigger off the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines. It could lead to the overwhelming condemnation of China by the family of nations. Suzerainty does not overtly pose these consequences to Beijing, especially if the political leadership of the Philippines is somehow complicit in the plot.
Most Filipinos view the United States as an ally today, despite the attempts of Mr. Duterte to create new geopolitical relations with mainland China. China, of course, may be replicating the Japanese plan of a greater Asia under the “Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere” of World War II. If Mr. Duterte does not stand in the way of China’s plans for its own Co-Prosperity Sphere, those plans could come to fruition. Like dominoes, the rest of the Southeast Asian states could fall to the new chokehold of China over the surrounding seas, with the Philippines as the main point of that chokehold.
Sadly, President Duterte seems ready to welcome the attempt of China to create a “Made in China” suzerainty. As one wag mentioned, all that is needed is for Mr. Duterte to replace his title of “President, Republic of the Philippines” with the new title of “Governor of the Philippines, Province of China” to make it official.
It is the height of political naïveté for Mr. Duterte to expect that under China’s suzerainty, our country will enjoy any kind of political autonomy. All one has to do is to look at the political experience of Hong Kong and Tibet with China. China does not endorse real political autonomy, and will use draconian measures to retain and increase political, economic, and, if need be, military control over a vassal state.
Can Filipinos expect Mr. Duterte to move the Philippines away from his declared affinity for a dominant, hegemonic China? Heaven help us if he can’t—or won’t.
Rafael E. Evangelista ([email protected]) is a retired partner of the international law firm of Baker & McKenzie, former vice chair of the board of directors of the Bank of Commerce, and immediate past national commander of the Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.
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