In the worsening dispute over China’s aggressive expansionism in the West Philippine Sea, President Aquino and the national government can rely on robust public support.
Last December, the Social Weather Stations polling organization included several foreign-affairs-related questions in its Fourth Quarter Social Weather Report. It found that, among Filipinos aged 18 and older, a great majority or 73 percent was aware of the dispute (“ang pagtatalo,” in the survey’s original Filipino) between the Philippines and China. A smaller proportion of 61 percent—still a solid majority—was aware that the Philippines had filed a case against China with the United Nations; however, an overwhelming majority of survey respondents, or 82 percent, said they either “strongly agreed” or “somewhat agreed” with the filing of the case.
It would be interesting to find out if a similar political opinion survey can be conducted in China—still a rare event, 35 years after Deng Xiaoping’s famous opening of the Chinese economy—to gauge public reception of Beijing’s decision to ignore the legal process altogether. To be clear, the survey questions should not be phrased in terms of nationalism; we are only too aware that an increasingly capitalistic Communist Party of China has integrated an assertive nationalism into the governing ideology, and the hypothetical survey will in all probability reflect that. The much narrower issue involves the legal system created by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), to which China is also a signatory. Will a majority of Chinese citizens support Beijing’s rejection of Unclos’ own arbitral procedures?
We can only be certain of the Chinese government’s position, and those of institutions it controls, such as state media. (The so-called “patriotic youths” populating Chinese Internet sites do not qualify as a random sample.)
After Mr. Aquino in a high-profile New York Times interview provocatively compared the present situation of the dispute with the failed attempt to appease Nazi Germany’s territorial ambitions in 1939, the first response from China was a signed commentary published by Xinhua, the government news agency. Mr. Aquino’s remarks, the commentator said, “exposed his true colors as an amateurish politician who was ignorant both of history and reality.” The commentary went on to say that the President, “who has taken an inflammatory approach … has never been a great candidate for a wise statesman in the region.”
The Chinese foreign ministry followed up with the diplomatic equivalent of the ignorant-leader critique. Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said: “As an unwavering upholder of international justice, China made [a] huge sacrifice and [an] indelible historical contribution to the victory of the World Anti-Fascist War. It is inconceivable and unreasonable to place the China-Philippines South China Sea disputes in the same category with the WWII history. The Chinese side is shocked at and dissatisfied with the remarks from the Philippine side” (quote as recorded by Vera Files) .
In truth, Mr. Aquino’s analogy from World War II emphasized the appeasement policy of the war-weary major European powers; they allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland in the (vain) hope that the takeover would satisfy Germany’s appetites. The comparison to the Third Reich was not the main point of the analogy. (Indeed, it was an Agence France-Presse report that asserted that Mr. Aquino had compared China’s leaders to Hitler; the President’s interview and an unedited transcript are easily available on gov.ph.)
Perhaps a better analogy to use would have been China’s tangled history of concessions, the occupation and administration of Chinese territories by foreign powers, particularly in the 19th century. (This history is part of the so-called century of humiliation that China endured, and which helps motivate present-day Chinese nationalism.) President Aquino could have used that analogy, where a weak China was forced to accept “unequal treaties,” and still ask the questions he deemed most important:
“If we say yes to something we believe is wrong now, what guarantee is there that the wrong will not be further exacerbated down the line? At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’”?
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