On elephants, love, and war
Looking back, our farthest (disputed) areas of sovereignty were just a collection of rocks, islets and shoals a behemoth like China, soon to become the world’s largest economy, shouldn’t really be covetously eyeing. But there it was, last year, with its Coast Guard cutters and fishing boats aggressively and ominously testing the waters of the West Philippine Sea, not far from Palawan, isolating and hurling threats at the lone Philippine military outpost in the area, and waiting—waiting for the response of China’s real adversary in the region, the United States.
Beneath those waters lies part of the answer because geological surveys indicate that untold riches in energy and strategic minerals are there for the taking. The Philippines’ wise decision in 1999 to run aground the BRP Sierra Madre (an old military transport ship) in the shallow waters of Ayungin Shoal, with a platoon of Marines on board, symbolizes the Filipinos’ determination to hold the line against its powerful neighbor from the north.
Despite all the posturing, bluff and bluster, however, the standoff between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea is just a sideshow in the big power arena of hegemonic designs and power plays: In reality, what we are seeing in our region is the intensifying rivalry between an impatient, fast-rising China and a declining, seemingly world-weary America on its second wind.
The Vietnamese have a graphic metaphor for the titanic battles that nations driven by hubris wage: “When elephants make war, the grass suffers. When elephants make love, the grass also suffers.”
Of course, we all know that the Vietnamese proved to be no pushovers to big power machinations. Derided by many Westerners as a “puny, small-boned people,” they beat off one would-be conquering master after another, from the Chinese and the French to the Americans. Can Filipinos ever develop such a steely resolve in protecting their homeland, as the Vietnamese people proved repeatedly throughout their last 1,000-year history?
Is a new variety of Cold War emerging? As diehard terrorism strikes deep and wide, even at the very heartland of America, as client proxy nations fight the small battles for their powerful patrons, as China’s still red-hot economy moves ever closer to surpass the United States’ $16-trillion economy, and as Russia’s Putin makes deadly mischief in Ukraine, it certainly looks it.
Most fingers point to China’s inordinately aggressive and irresponsible behavior for the rise in regional tensions and instability. Consider the following alarming developments:
• China’s recent decision to build four state-of-the-art aircraft carriers to dramatically boost its blue-water and force-projection capability (read: to counterbalance the still mighty US Seventh Fleet off Taiwan and for gunboat diplomacy). This move by China is certain to escalate the arms race in the region. Expect India, an emerging economic giant and rival, to respond in kind.
• The Chinese military’s unrelenting, highly sophisticated cyber warfare against the United States aimed at stealing intellectual property and to gain a strategic advantage.
• China’s continued incursions and occupation of waters, islets and shoals well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone, highlighted by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which both nations are signatories.
China’s immediate aim is to envelop the disputed Philippine areas “like a cabbage,” where no Philippine vessels can enter and exit, in the boastful and threatening words of a top Chinese naval officer. The larger game plan of China is to control the entire South China/West Philippine Sea that it considers its own private lake. Once it has a blue-water navy, Beijing would be in the position to apply its domestic maritime law throughout the vital seas south of the mainland, thus affecting all vessels using the all-important Straits of Malacca. The importance of those waterways can be gleaned from the fact that more than 40 percent of world maritime trade pass through these waters, including the supertankers that supply 80 percent of Japan’s supply of oil from the Middle East.
The United States and its allies are expected to continually challenge China’s tactical and strategic goal in the region by refusing to abide by the maritime laws Beijing is trying to impose. But the weaker nations will be sailing through those waters under the menacing shadow of Chinese warships.
For now, China’s imperial hubris may appear to be content with just being a regional policeman. But that’s not how Washington and its allies see it.
America’s pivot or rebalancing to Asia is in response to China’s inordinately aggressive moves which Washington understandably views with great alarm and seriousness. In this context, if China’s rise continues in the years ahead and America’s economy remains stagnant, we can expect tensions to increase and spread throughout the world. Imbalances of power tend to be destabilizing—and invite danger and mischief.
In this great power rivalry, the Philippines has little choice but to strike a basing deal (the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) with its close ally, the United States. No country can escape geography. And the first duty of a state is to survive.
Narciso M. Reyes Jr. (ngreyes1640hotmail.com) is a former journalist and diplomat. He holds an MA in international and strategic affairs from Georgetown University.