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China: Myth and fact

China’s ominous island-building projects in the South China-Philippine Sea compels us to take a closer look at our powerful neighbor from the north. What is China really up to? How does it measure up vis-à-vis the United States, its true adversary in the region and in the world? Does China’s reach exceed its grasp?

Myth: The United States, a world-weary superpower, knows the handwriting is on the wall: Namely, that China has surpassed the American economy and this reality carries immense geopolitical weight.

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Fact: While it’s true the International Monetary Fund declared last year that China’s $17.60-trillion economy surpassed America’s $17.4 trillion in gross domestic product, purchasing power terms (GDP-PPP), those bounties must be weighed on the same scale as these nations’ populations. If China’s 1.3 billion people and the United States’ 320 million are factored in, then America is still far better off than China.

But China’s industrial, manufacturing and cutting-edge strength in new technologies has to be acknowledged to complete the picture. Big neighbor Russia is doing just that. Sergei Karaganov, a respected authority on Russian affairs and adviser to President Vladimir Putin, thinks that it’s only a matter of time “before Eastern Russia, and eventually the entire country, becomes an economic and political appendage of China,” without the latter firing a single shot. He cites China’s impressive world-leading green-energy sector and 20-percent share of the world’s exports of high technology goods compared to America’s 13 percent, Germany’s 9 percent, Singapore’s 7 percent, and Russia’s .07 percent as signs of the times.

Nevertheless, the United States has a resilient, innovative economy, and is sufficiently strong and confident to engage China in a peaceful rivalry in a fast-changing, volatile world.

On the military front, experts say US superiority in strategic and tactical weapons from new-generation nuclear submarines, stealth bombers and aircraft carriers to long-range ballistic missiles will be unchallenged in the next decades. China’s current defense budget ($141 billion) has increased but is dwarfed by America’s $560-billion military budget.

Far from being an invincible giant, China suffers from alarming and potentially destabilizing weaknesses:

Its huge national debt, which is 280 percent of its GDP (compared to America’s 101 percent and the Philippines’ 45 percent), casts a deepening shadow on its growth. Signs of huge bubbles in the economy are prompting China to put the brakes on the massive spending that fueled its amazing growth rates.

It has king-sized headaches as its economy cools, labor costs rise, corruption persists, social security issues rear their heads vis-à-vis an aging population, and expanding middle class (now 300 million) clamors for more personal freedom.

Its Communist Party, the real driver of its foreign policy, is on a power-projection mode despite the fact that territorial expansion is not its historical trait. Whatever the reasons, it wants to establish expanded Chinese sovereignty. Risks: the high costs of overextension, the folly of all empires.

Myth: China owns 90 percent of the South China-Philippine Sea based on unassailable historical records.

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Fact: China’s historical claims are a gigantic hoax with no fig leaf to cover it. A scholarly research conducted last year by Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio exposed those lies convincingly with old maps, treatises, constitutions and official records from no less than the Chinese government. Briefly stated: Beijing has no cryptographic and historical documents to buttress its claim prior to 1937. All Chinese official records and pronouncements prior to that period clearly state that China’s most southern maritime boundary is the island of Hainan, just 19 miles from the province of Guandong.

It’s astonishing that this authoritative work, which China could not debunk, has not been played up by the local and international media.

Myth: The Philippines can rely on the United States to protect its maritime areas, and it lacks the military capability and other means to deter Chinese intrusion into its waters.

Fact: Unless US military forces are attacked in the contested areas, it is doubtful that Washington will respond militarily to Chinese intrusions there. The Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty applies only to recognized Philippine territory. But it will be testy times ahead if the United Nations tribunal deciding the merits of Manila’s legal case decides favorably on it. A favorable verdict will be a landmark victory that will enhance the Philippine claim before the global community. China’s defiance of it will mark it as a rogue state, unworthy of a great power.

It is instructive that China backed down and withdrew the billion-dollar oil rig it put up in Vietnamese waters in August 2014, when Hanoi unleashed anti-Chinese riots throughout the country. Lacking this option, the Philippines’ best defense against Chinese expansionism in the disputed waters is to build a credible naval force, firmly hold on to its present positions, and give diplomacy and back-channeling a chance to work. In this effort, our taipans can prove their sincerity by doing some constructive engagement in behalf of the host country that made them megarich. Their long silence raises disturbing questions.

In this day and age, no nation wants to be remembered as a blatant imperialist bully, especially a great civilization like China. Hopefully, the hardliners in the Politburo will see the wisdom of great power restraint and choose instead the robust arm of economic diplomacy in their pursuit of ambitious policy goals. If they don’t, the global temperature can only dangerously rise—and it won’t be due to climate change.

Narciso Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81, as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.

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TAGS: China, Reclamation, South China Sea, territorial dispute, United States, West Philippine Sea
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