It is quite easy for the Aquino government to arouse the people’s anger at China bullying in the South China Sea considering what appear to be clear encroachments on Philippine territorial waters and its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Couple this with the sense of frustration that the Aquino administration and the Armed Forces of the Philippines are undeniably militarily powerless in this recent confrontation over Chinese fishing poachers protected by no less than two Chinese warships, the inclination to run towards Uncle Sam and sic US might and firepower to make China turn tail appeals to many pundits, whether professional or of the barbershop variety.
And thoroughly misses the point. There is more to the conflict in the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal than an assertion of sovereignty arising from rival territorial claims.
This is not the first time tension rose over alleged incursions in the Kalayaan Islands which are also being claimed by the Vietnamese and Malaysians aside from the Chinese. But while the news would hog the headlines for a few days, not without a large dose of sensationalism about the risk of a military confrontation, there had never been such open clashes between Philippine and rival armed forces, with each side eventually stepping down, resorting instead to diplomatic protests until invariably the controversy simmers down and fades away.
Why is tension now escalating more markedly in the South China Sea and how shall the Philippines – a small and impoverished country, without any industrial base to speak of, with a corrupt and inept military geared more towards fighting home-grown armed revolutionary movements than for external defense and a neo-colonial ruling elite nurtured in the tradition of being the US vassal in the Southeast Asian region – assert its sovereignty and territorial integrity given its current “disadvantages”.
It must be acknowledged that China has indeed become an economic powerhouse over the decades as the ruling Chinese Communist Party has shed almost all pretense of being a socialist country and has harnessed China’s vast cheap labor power to become the foremost global sweatshop of advanced capitalist countries.
State monopoly capitalism under the iron-clad control of the CCP has been flourishing and in fact implements without apologies all the neoliberal, pro-globalization policies agreed to by imperialist powers and international agencies such as the IMF-World Bank-World Trade Organization. As a resurgent capitalist country relatively in less of an economic crisis compared to the US and EU, it is bound to accompany its economic boom with imperialist tendencies and ambitions. It is unsurprising that this is manifesting itself in East Asia where China is the giant no matter how one looks at things.
So is China more aggressive in its attempts to assert its territorial claims? Most undeniably so. Moreover China is engaged in projecting and flexing its steadily growing military power in what it considers its own backyard, proclaiming to all and sundry that it is prepared to stand its ground.
Yet no one should have any illusions what country is China’s current real rival in the region. Certainly not the Philippines or any of the other littoral countries making their various claims to different parts of the Spratlys.
In fact, by the end of the 20th century, US strategists and policy-makers had unanimously pointed to China as the most likely peer competitor of the US by the year 2020. Looking at China’s economic performance throughout the current global crisis and its aggressiveness not only in world trade but also in international diplomacy, one can understand the growing concern in Washington and the Pentagon.
While neoconservatives are out of the White House, US President Obama is not rescinding his predecessor’s imperious declaration that never again will the US allow any competitor to even come close to becoming its peer politically, economically and militarily.
The first decade of that declared policy saw the US military machine trained on the Al Qaeda and the Taliban and such “rogue states” as Iraq and Afghanistan. Having declared significant successes in gaining control over the Middle East, the US has recently announced a shift of focus to the Asia Pacific, not mincing words on the need to contain China and prevent it from challenging US hegemony in the region.
In the US document “Sustaining US Global Leadership, Priorities for 21st Century Defense” released by the Pentagon in January 3, 2012, the US government stated that “Over the long term, China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the U.S. economy and our security in a variety of ways… In order to credibly deter potential adversaries and to prevent them from achieving their objectives, the United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged…States such as China and Iran will continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities.”
In this larger policy context, it is quite understandable that the national democratic alliance Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) has charged the Aquino and US governments of conniving to utilize the ongoing Balikatan war games for the US’ power-projection scheme directed against China and for the more overarching goal of asserting its hegemonic designs in the Asia Pacific.
Worse, the Aquino government is clearly going whole hog in allowing the US to turn the entire Philippines into an operational base not only for war games but for future wars with its declared and undeclared enemies. In other words, we are wittingly and unwittingly being used as a pawn and surrogate battlefield for US-instigated conflicts.
In exchange for what? The Aquino regime is still working on false Cold War premises and expectations, as though the Mutual Defense Treaty were ever a guarantee that the US would rush to the defense or aid of the Philippines in any military conflict.
And while the US-China rivalry is real and military conflict is not improbable, the US maintains a dual policy of containment of and engagement with China, and China is going along with it, biding time as it beefs up its political, economic and military power.
In this context, the Philippines could only stand to lose by unconditionally tying its fate to the geopolitical interests and schemes of the US.
That, more than asserting our territorial claim to Kalayaan Islands and Panatag Shoal, is the bigger and more thorny sovereignty issue.
Published in Business World
20-21 April 2012