Parliament of the seas | Inquirer Opinion
The Long View

Parliament of the seas

Parliament of the seas

The best general, to paraphrase Sun Tzu anachronistically, is the one who wins without having to fire a shot. In 1995-1996, what is now called the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis took place, which was a turning point in Chinese and American defense strategies. As I wrote elsewhere some years back, for China, what it did was embark on a crash course, with unlimited funding, to build up its missile, submarine, and aircraft capabilities, the idea being that any American technological superiority could be swarmed to death with a barrage of land, sea, and air-launched missiles, and eventually with a carrier battle group (or two, or three) of its own by Beijing. In the two decades since, we’ve seen this come to pass, including Chinese construction on sandbars and atolls to create the Chinese version of what the Americans once did in Manila Bay: turning islands into, essentially, concrete battleships—or today, concrete aircraft carriers or missile launcher bases—in the South China Sea (SCS) to swarm any hostile American fleet.

China could do this because it was modernizing its economy and with the resources this made available, building up its national capacities on many fronts, not just militarily. This was already quite noticeable in 2005 when I wrote in the Arab News newspaper about the inroads China was making on multiple fronts, down to challenging American influence in Latin America.

What was America doing in the same period? A Russian American named Dmitri Alperovitch in a recent interview in ChinaTalk summed it up this way: “I write about this last supper that took place during the Clinton administration, where they brought all the defense contractor primes together and said, ‘You better start merging because we’re not going to be funding all of you.’ All of that was a mistake and, unfortunately, led us to where we are today … Our shipbuilding capacity has been decimated. Our ability to produce munitions at scale—whether it’s javelin missiles or stingers or anti-ship missiles—is nowhere near where it needs to be. Not to mention artillery.”

In the same very interesting interview, Alperovitch summed things up this way: “We’re not going to fight over some rocks in the South China Sea. We’re not going to fight over some rocks in the East China Sea. It is all about Taiwan.” He believes Americans should aim, not for regime change, but rather, containment of the Taiwan issue along the model of Berlin during the Cold War: it was the Soviet decision to build the Berlin Wall that severely downgraded the chances of conflict breaking out in what, up to then, been a nerve-wracking flashpoint between the two Superpowers. This, he believes, is the only way stability will return to the region.


In the case of our own country, I’ve described our policy as one of “performative martyrdom,” which is essentially turning the SCS (and the West Philippine Sea) in a kind of Parliament of the Streets, where China is the old Metrocom teargassing and watercannoning unarmed but committed protesters. It worked against Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. can be said to have learned from history and knows full well it is working against China, as well—you only have to look at ever-escalating shrillness of Beijing’s statements, whether from the foreign ministry or the Global Times, to realize this.

What the Australian defense analyst Hugh White has written bears repeating: “This brings us to the heart of America’s policy problem in the SCS. To understand that problem we have to be clear about nature of the contest there. Beijing is not just trying to take control of an important body of water. It is trying to take control of East Asia. It hopes to use the SCS dispute to do that by demonstrating there that America is no longer willing to risk a military confrontation with China to sustain its own leading position in the Asian strategic order, and thereby concede that leadership to China.”

I’ve pointed something else White wrote: repeated war-gaming by the Americans, of a conflict erupting in the SCS, inevitably ends with America backing out of a fight. The reason for this is that however they game it, politically speaking, no American president in the war games, ends up deciding it is worth risking American lives over the future of SCS.

Chinese escalation can be understood as ramping up tensions to maximize the end game it desires: for Filipinos to experience a disappointment public and deep enough, to shift public opinion against the United States and the alliance to contain China. Such a disappointment would happen if expectations of American support weren’t matched by American actions.

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mlq3

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