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China: déjà vu in reverse

01:30 AM May 26, 2015

CHINA IS taking full advantage of its present standing as the second largest economy in the world.

Its vast financial resources have enabled it to maintain a military machine that can project its power on the countries that refuse to accept its ownership claims over certain islands and reefs in the West Philippine Sea.

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Through preferential trade agreements, soft loans and other financial arrangements, China has succeeded in convincing some Asean countries to adopt a hands-off policy on its territorial dispute with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.

It continues to reclaim and build structures on seven reefs despite calls by the United States and some European countries to desist from such actions for environmental and maritime security reasons.

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In 2011, when then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was asked about this issue, he said he hoped China would avoid “gunboat diplomacy” and solve the dispute in a peaceful way. (Gunboat diplomacy refers to “the pursuit of foreign policy objectives with the aid of conspicuous displays of naval power—implying or constituting a direct threat of warfare should terms not be agreeable to the superior force.”)

During the 19th century, the powerful European countries intimidated weak nations into agreeing to their demands by sending their warships off the latter’s coasts.

The presence of the naval assets was meant to send the message that failure or refusal to give in to the demands could result in serious adverse consequences to the “stubborn” nation. A cannonball fired close to the waterfront was often enough to accomplish the objective of the show of force.

The same approach was applied to China in the 1800s by England, France, Russia, Sweden and Norway, even the United States, to force the Chinese emperors to enter into unequal or one-sided treaties.

With the threat of military action—and, in some instances, troops were sent ashore and cannons fired—the emperors were forced to open their ports, accept the imposition of extraterritorial laws on European nationals living in China, waive the power to impose tariffs on imports, and allow foreign missionaries to preach their faith without interference.

China was humiliated and brought to its knees by the loss of its sovereignty over vast tracts of land taken over by the colonial powers.

Although much bigger in size compared to the European countries, China was fragmented at that time and had no military capability to stand up to their bullying tactics. The sporadic acts of resistance by Chinese nationalist groups were quickly put down by the superior military equipment of the colonial powers.

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The shame ended only after the end of World War II, when the treaties were abrogated after negotiations or the foreign powers withdrew from China.

It wasn’t until 1997 that China regained full control of all its territories, including Hong Kong, which was handed over by Britain.

The years of humiliation were like an albatross around China’s neck, exerting a profound influence on its national psyche that lingers up to the present.

History is repeating itself in reverse. China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea reprise its experience with the former colonial powers.

It’s déjà vu, but this time it’s China doing it to countries whose military forces are no match to its war machine.

Having suffered the humiliation of being bullied or forced to agree to iniquitous demands, China would be reasonably expected not to impose the same on its neighbors with whom it enjoyed, until the land grab, good diplomatic and economic relations.

The intoxicating sense of power that once guided or influenced China’s erstwhile colonial intruders seems to have found its way into the heads of the present Chinese leadership. Like the colonial powers of yore, China has taken on the “might is right” mindset. That approach worked then, when the rules of international law have not yet evolved.

By repeating the acts of the former colonial powers on its neighbors and, in the process, earning their anger, China has missed the opportunity to be recognized and looked up to as the leader in this part of the world.

With the United States preoccupied with security problems in Europe and the Middle East, China, with its economic might, could have easily taken over the leadership that America has exercised in Asia since the end of World War II.

In addition, China enjoys the advantage of being the sentimental homeland of Chinese businessmen who dominate, if not control, the economies of many Asian countries.

They are a virtual “fifth column” that does not need a lot of convincing to promote China’s political leadership for emotional reasons and, most importantly, in consideration of preferential treatment in business activities.

The opportunity for assuming Asian leadership has slipped, with China’s colonial-era style of treatment of its neighbors.

Vietnam, the country that China sustained militarily in its war against the United States during the Vietnam War, and that shares the communist ideology, is at odds with China over the Paracel Islands. Other Asean countries that have ownership claims over certain islands in the West Philippine Sea have expressed disapproval over China’s highhanded tactics.

If China wants to realize its ambition to be the politically dominant country in Asia, it would have to rethink its present policy on the treatment of its neighbors.

Raul J. Palabrica ([email protected]) writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.

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