ANYONE who has spent some time studying geopolitics, superpower behavior, and especially China’s moves to claim the hegemonic throne in Asia would be worried over our government’s immediate response to its setting up of a 300-meter floating barrier in the southeast portion of Scarborough Shoal, discovered Sunday by our Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).
The Philippines defied the superpower by having its personnel cut the ropes used for the floating barrier.
The ropes were cut by a man not even wearing a diving suit and scuba gear, which raises my suspicion that the PCG may claim it was merely done by fishermen outraged that they were being blocked from the fish-rich waters.
I am astonished that President Marcos Jr. — who National Security Adviser Eduardo Año claims gave the order for the operation — obviously did not even consult with the National Security Council nor with any of his top advisers (such as Juan Ponce Enrile) nor with his Foreign Affairs secretary nor with Congress, whether that kind of almost instantaneous reaction was warranted.
He could have at least first drummed up international public opinion to support the move, or announced that he has ordered his newly appointed special envoy to China Teodoro Locsin Jr. (what’s he been doing anyway, still packing in London?) and our ambassador to Beijing Jaime Flor Cruz (who had been a close friend of Fu Yung, next to the foreign minister, one of the Xi Jinping’s trusted advisers on foreign relations) to negotiate with Chinese top officials to remove the barrier.
However slim the chance that China would lift the barrier through negotiations, we have to try to convince it to allow at least our fishermen to fish in the waters around the shoal and agree that no PCG vessel, much less a Navy ship, will enter it.
A quote from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, made famous because of the modern US-China rivalry, expresses the continuing hard realities of any international order of independent states since ancient times: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
Indeed, that quote perfectly describes what the US did — in the name of spreading democracy — to the Philippines in 1898, to several Latin American countries in the post-war era, to Vietnam in the 1960s and 1070s, and more recently to Afghanistan and Iraq.
China will similarly do as the US and any superpower has done since ancient times, which is to do what they can — and want — although this time in the name of defending the rest of the world — especially what used to be called the Third World — from US hegemony.
What is worrying is that this second “Scarborough stand-off” (the first being in 2012 when the Aquino 3rd government de facto turned it over to China, believing a US diplomat’s lie that the Chinese had agreed to leave the area) carries the dangers of what noted historian Graham Allison called the “Thucydides Trap.”
He says many armed conflicts, from the Peloponnesian War (between the then-current superpower Sparta and the rising Athens in 431 BC) to World War 2, broke out structurally because the current superpower was threatened by another rising power. Allison wrote: “A risk associated with the Thucydides’ Trap is that ‘business as usual’ — not just an unexpected, extraordinary event — can trigger large-scale conflict.
“When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen. would otherwise have chosen.”
Describing Athens, Thucydides said that “as its clout grew, so too did its self-confidence, its consciousness of past injustices, its sensitivity to instances of disrespect, and its insistence that previous arrangements be revised to reflect new realities of power.” On the other hand, Sparta interpreted the Athenian posture as unreasonable, ungrateful and threatening to the system it had established, so it proceeded to destroy the Athenians.
China, in this framework, is the Athens in the Peloponnesian War, and the “previous arrangements” it wants to be revised being US hegemony in Asia since the end of World War 2. Sparta is the US, which will fight to have its old system of vassal nations (especially the Philippines) maintained. Indeed, quite eerily, the US has resurrected its huge military bases in the country with more flexible, cheaper Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) rotational camps.
Aquino 3rd’s and the present administration and their ignoramuses, including several senators, obviously had no knowledge of how the world, a system of competing independent nations, works.
Our officials, sadly even Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and the PCG’s talkative spokesmen, are deluded that the country itself is a superpower just because the US has said it is behind our back. They forget that if the US does come to our defense militarily in the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, which the Chinese claim, nuclear war between it and China will likely break out.
China cannot but interpret US involvement as an invasion of their territory, an issue sensitive to the Chinese, who had their lands invaded and occupied by the European superpowers and Japan in the 18th century. (For the Chinese, the Spratlys, Kalayaan to us, is part of Sansha, a prefecture-level city of Hainan province.)
Our officials forget that a rising power, and even existing powers, is sensitive to instances of disrespect since it has to portray itself precisely as a superpower to be a superpower. Woe indeed to the leaders of nations who insulted the American superpower — to name a few: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, and even Chile’s Salvador Allende. The Americans even weaponized and mobilized the International Court of Justice, the US media, and even the Nobel Peace Prize to demonize former president Duterte, who had cursed Obama.
For some Chinese leaders, President Marcos had even disrespected their leader Xi Jinping (who has quickly assumed a stature nearly as revered as Mao). This is because when he met with Xi Jinping on Jan. 5, 2023, in Beijing, he was given the highest red-carpet treatment. Xi ordered both private and state-owned companies to pledge $23 billion in investments to the Philippines. Marcos pledged to resolve, or at least put on the back burner, the Philippines’ territorial and maritime disputes with China.
However, just three months after that, the US defense department’s spokesman announced on April 3, 2023, from the Pentagon that the Marcos Jr. government had agreed to give the American military four more EDCA sites (to add to the five his predecessor Aquino 3rd had agreed to), and that it would rush the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Xi Jinping most probably had to apologize to his Politburo for his bad character assessment of Marcos.
For Beijing, the EDCA sites were as if Cuba had agreed to allow Russia (or even China) to have military bases — even if only on a rotational basis on their island, mostly facing north toward Florida.
The PCG’s “special operations” to cut the ropes to dismantle the Chinese barriers, as its officials romantically put it, was a PR operation to portray itself as a patriotic, bold organization defending our territory and exclusive economic zone.
It is a big boo-boo, as bad as when Aquino 3rd ordered the Navy warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar to Scarborough to assist our PCG in arresting Chinese fishermen. That gave China the justification for its coast guard vessels to eventually drive out our ships, effectively turning over control of the shoal to the Chinese.
It is a slippery slope that would intensify our conflict with China, an economic and military superpower. We have to be realistic and to use Thucydides’ words: the strong (China) will do what it can, and the weak — us — will suffer what we must. The first requirement for a country’s competence to undertake effective foreign relations is to have a realistic assessment of its place in the community of nations, especially its economic and military strength. We confuse our status with that of the US.
What would likely happen with this second Scarborough stand-off?
– China responds to the dismantling of its floating barriers by simply reinstalling them, even bigger ones, and positioning their biggest coast guard ships to protect them and to drive away our vessels, as its biggest Navy ship menacingly positions itself on the horizon. With so many vessels in that small space, one country’s vessel would likely collide with another, or even deliberately do so. Guess whose ship is bigger and would survive? No shots are fired at all, so we cannot invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty.
– China declares that to prevent Philippine ships from ever approaching Scarborough Shoal, it will reclaim lands around it to turn it into its eighth artificial-island-turned-military-base in the South China Sea. It will be the closest to us, just 230 kilometers to our mainland. Will the US prevent the Chinese from doing so?
China built its seven artificial islands from 2013 to 2016, and the US couldn’t do anything about it. The US presidential elections will be in November 2024, and Biden certainly won’t take his country to war while he campaigns.
– In retaliation against the PCG’s rope-cutting and to disperse its vessels, the Chinese tows away the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal and blocks any Philippine ship from entering the area, on grounds that there is no longer a “humanitarian” justification for allowing our vessels to the area, which had been to supply the marines stationed in that rusting vessel with food and water.
I haven’t even started explaining what happens if, as China did on a very small scale in 2012 (our fruit exports were held up and left to rot in Chinese ports, resulting in millions of dollars of exports lost), the Chinese decide to draw down its trade with us, which accounts for 41 percent of our total trade.
When the shit hits the fan, I wonder if Sen. Risa Hontiveros will still be crying in the Senate, claiming “China’s cruelty has no end.” Or Jinggoy Estrada will still be raising his fist to the air, shouting, “I am losing my patience.” Or whether Senate President Miguel Zubiri will be pounding his gavel, ordering the PCG to ram the Chinese vessels to dismantle the barriers.
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