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Dealing with the Chinese pushback

Publication Date : 21-07-2014

 

After deciding to stand up to China in defending the national interest, Philippine President Aquino and his administration now face a daunting challenge: how to deal with the Chinese pushback.

When Chinese patrol boats remained near Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) after the standoff in 2012 and bilateral negotiations failed to resolve the dispute, the Philippines had no choice but to go for international arbitration.

The Chinese, however, misinterpreted it as an unfriendly act, a challenge to their claimed sovereignty over the Spratlys and Panatag Shoal. With their Confucian-influenced mind-set, they also perceived it as an insult, a public loss of face.

Thus, the Philippines’ bid to clarify its maritime entitlements under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was followed by a series of unintended—and unforeseen—consequences.

We have seen a pushback from China over the past year or so. First, it attempted to blockade Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) and prevent resupply missions for Filipino Marines stationed on a grounded vessel there.

Then, even more disturbing, the Chinese initiated reclamation work to transform some of the reefs and shoals under their control into artificial islands in an effort to assert their territorial and maritime claims and undermine the arbitration process.

Under these circumstances, it is conceivable that China may try at some point to extend the reclamation work to Panatag Shoal or even deploy an oil rig at Recto Bank (Reed Bank), as it recently did in the Paracels.

China’s new map showing their “10-dash line” claim in the South China Sea does not have specific “geographic coordinates” and is “moveable” unlike the previous maritime boundary agreement between the Philippines and Indonesia.

Philippine response

How then should the Philippines respond? The Aquino administration has to be prepared for these possibilities.

Does this mean that a conflict with China is inevitable, that a war is looming on the horizon?

While the possibility cannot be dismissed, what is more worrisome is the prospect of a short, sharp clash due to any miscalculation.

But if one examines carefully Chinese foreign policy and behavior, there are factors that could serve as a brake to the outbreak of a major war.

‘Chinese dream’

Chinese leader Xi Jinping envisions a “Chinese dream” of rejuvenating his country to achieve two centennial goals—to turn China into a middle-income economy by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, and to join the ranks of advanced economies by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

To achieve these targets, China needs a peaceful international environment. This is a key reason why China seeks a “peaceful rise” while avoiding a war that will adversely affect its economic development.

But why then is China behaving in a way that has alarmed its regional neighbors and caused fear and suspicion about its long-term intentions?

China’s conduct is driven by its view that its claimed sovereignty and jurisdiction in the South China Sea are being challenged and by the resurgence of Chinese nationalism that seeks to overcome a “century of humiliation” under foreign rule and recover so-called lost territories and islands.

It is also driven by economic necessity—the need for such resources as fish, oil and natural gas to ensure its food and energy security.
In short, China’s behavior is driven by its domestic political and economic needs, and Xi Jinping—who is consolidating his position and cannot afford to look weak as a Chinese leader—is doing what plays well inside China.

Public support

In a sense, Aquino is also doing what plays well inside the country by protecting the country’s interests in the West Philippine Sea.

Opinion surveys show that Aquino’s decisions in this regard are widely supported by the public, while China has become the least trusted country in the Philippines, with a record negative trust rating.

But the reverse is true in China: A survey sponsored by Chinese and US organisations showed that the Philippines is the second-least trusted country there, next only to Japan.

With Chinese media often portraying the Philippines as a “troublemaker” and “US pawn,” and Philippine media depicting China as a “bully,” it is not surprising that there is a huge gap in perception between the two countries.

When territorial and maritime disputes become the focus of attention in bilateral relations, it is to be expected that the public in each country will support their respective governments, resulting in the rise of suspicion, if not hostility, toward each other.

High-level political exchanges have almost come to a standstill, with contacts limited to lower levels.

While trade and tourism continue to grow, investment and other forms of economic relations have been adversely affected.

Political dialogue

The challenge for both sides is to manage the disputes while maintaining, if not developing, bilateral relations.

There is a need to rebuild high-level political dialogue, especially since President Aquino and President Xi Jinping have not sat down and talked to each other.

There will be opportunities to do so at Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summits this year and next, but both sides have to be willing to meet half way.

The situation demands a high level of statesmanship and a spirit of pragmatism. Both leaders will need to stand higher and look further beyond the horizon to break the diplomatic stalemate.

Shift in balance of power

But what complicates the situation is the shift in the balance of power unfolding in Asia between China and the United States, resulting in an intensifying strategic competition between a rising power and a dominant power.

Fearful of China’s assertive behaviour, the Philippines has strengthened its ties with the United States and Japan and is increasingly being pulled into this great-power rivalry.

The Philippines should be prepared for a difficult period in its relations with China while waiting for the arbitral tribunal’s decision and dealing with a calibrated Chinese pushback.

One certainly hopes for a clear-cut legal victory but one needs to be prepared that even a positive outcome could lead to a new and potentially more challenging phase.

In the end, the challenge for President Aquino is to have a strategic view in upholding the nation’s long-term interests and ensure that Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” will not become a nightmare for the Philippines.

(Chito Sta. Romana lived in China for more than three decades and worked as a journalist there for ABC News (US) from 1989 to 2010. He is now the president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies)

 

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