Divide and conquer
Sooner or later when it comes to the People’s Republic of China, the “Art of War” will be quoted. It’s a smorgasbord of useful ones: “Next best is to disrupt his alliances,” (3.5); “Do not allow your enemies to get together,” (3.5, Tu Yu); “When he is united, divide him,” (1.25); and specifically, these two: “Look into the matter of his alliances and cause them to be severed and dissolved. If an enemy has alliances the problem is grave and the enemy’s position is strong; if he has no alliances the problem is minor and the enemy’s position weak,” (1.5, Wang Hsi); and “Sometimes drive a wedge between a sovereign and his ministers; on other occasions separate his allies from him. Make them mutually suspicious so that they drift apart. Then you can plot against them,” (1.25, Chang Yü).
These quotations have to do with President Joe Biden reiterating that the American commitment to mutual defense is “iron-clad,” and the ramping-up of opposition, within the ruling coalition, to the President’s restoring the traditional security relationships of the country. For his part, Biden was referring to increasing aggressiveness on the part of China when it comes to Filipinos on the high seas, and an overall deterioration in the relationship between the two countries. America, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the EU have demonstrated increased solidarity with the Philippines as it stands up to China. In contrast to this has been the very public courtship of Beijing by both ex-president Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter, the Vice President, and the high-profile visits of their associated social media influencers and mass media allies, also to Beijing.
But Biden’s guarantee comes at a time of great strain for the United States, as pointed out by Niall Ferguson and Jay Mens in a recent commentary on the Middle East: “No one can read the mind of Xi Jinping, but there should be no doubt that China is watching all this and calculating. With crises afoot in Eastern Europe and now the Middle East, the Pentagon’s nightmare is a third crisis in the Far East, the region where the stakes are highest. It is not hard to imagine a Chinese blockade of Taiwan—perhaps with January’s election there as the pretext. The United States, which no longer has the vast military-industrial complex of the first Cold War, would be torn between three simultaneous conflicts, each making demands on a finite stockpile of weapons and munitions.”
While Biden’s recent statements are something Filipino leaders have been wanting to hear for decades—and until quite recently, American administrations had refused to be categorical—there will always be suspicion over how firm that commitment is.
Many reasons are given for this, but they generally fall into one of two: what I like to call the American sobriety test: Americans are skeptical of Filipino maturity which made it impossible for them to trust Filipinos not to drag Americans into trouble by reckless misuse of an American security guarantee; the other is the Filipino belief that America is a fickle and unreliable ally, born of repeated disappointments dating back to World War II and most recently, the Obama administration’s leaving the Philippines in the lurch when China violated an agreement brokered by Washington between Beijing and Manila.
China can always backpedal; it loses nothing when it does so, as it can apply pressure again in the future. But the moment the Americans backpedal, or leave allies in the lurch, their credibility is shot, and so is the effectivity of any Filipino administration that puts its faith in an American security guarantee.
In 1988, according to an official who was there, President Corazon Aquino, meeting with China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, raised the question of the Spratly Islands. He waved it aside, saying they need not discuss it for 25 years. That was at a time, of course, when the US bases still existed in the Philippines and were scheduled for renegotiation and renewal in 1991. It was likely no one at the time expected it not to be renewed for another quarter-century. In recent years, the official Chinese version is that he said to her, “In view of the friendly relations between our two countries, we can put aside the issue for some time being and take the approach of joint development.”
Benito Lim once wrote an interesting exploration of Philippine-China relations from Corazon Aquino to Fidel Ramos, in which he identified a bias for Taiwan as a constant irritant during the Aquino presidency finally settled by Ramos—only for Ramos to be confronted with increased aggressiveness by the Chinese in the Spratlys—which suggests the Deng timetable became obsolete after the removal of the US bases.
Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mlq3