Regarding China: “Okay, so now what?
We’ve had two excellent discussions touching on China recently. One was fueled by Lance Corporal X putting matters in a context of global warming which will see the Spratley Rocks (the arbitration panel said none of the ‘islands’ are life-sustaining; therefore, they are just rocks) submerged beneath the rising oceans. We are faced with a reshaping of our earthly priorities to one of how to survive the guaranteed climate catastrophe coming headlong at us. China is not immune to climate change.
The other article was by Josephivo looking at the bigger context of technology development and the Chinese progression toward its Center of the Earth strategy. I concluded from that discussion that the China/Philippine stand-off is but a gnat in the eye of this high-speed technological progression, and we will be swatted aside one way or another as China pursues global dominance.
- By Lance Corporal X: “Do not go gentle into that good night . . .“
- By Josephivo: “Acceleration and China“
The blog discussions also addressed the Duterte Administration’s posture on China. The Administration was subdued after the UN arbitration panel announced its finding in favor of the Philippines. The Administration argued that subdued was proper, and several commenters on the blog agreed. No need to slam China in her delicate face.
Some readers, however, found Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Yasay’s response totally unsuitable considering the importance of the victory won. It was almost as if he were ready to concede defeat and beat a fast path to China to bow before Emporer Xi. Others argued that a Philippine pivot toward China makes sense given the prospects for commercial trade between the two nations, resource extraction, infrastructure build-out, and funding. The US is but a distant shore by this thinking, with America just ‘playing’ the Philippines in its global game of well-armed chess.
Then there was my own speculation that the real interest of President Duterte is a free and independent Mindanao. That thinking got a lukewarm response.
- By Joe America: “President Duterte: It’s all about Mindanao“
So with those arguments as backdrop and the situation
on the ground in the seas still developing, what’s next?
- China’s current (recent past) strategy might be termed aggressive expansion and extraction of resources through acquisition or alliances.
- The current (recent past) Philippine strategy might be termed firm defense of sovereignty in hopes of protecting and getting to extraction of resources.
For this article, let’s consider some possible scenarios going forward. Please understand that the main goal of the article is not to try to sell you any idea, or promote any particular initiative. It’s to organize a few thoughts and get them on the table in hopes that it will inspire readers to provide more insights.
It seems to me there are four types of engagements possible between China and the Philippines. The US is also standing by, but we can’t yet figure out if her role is that of a Greek Choir . . . mainly of voice . . . or a warmongering nation anxious to sink a few Chinese boats. Or some place in between.
The four possible engagements are: (1) military, (2) legal, (3) commercial and (4) geo-political. They need not be exclusive and we’re likely to get some of each.
A lot of people seem to want to go first to testosterone, war and weapons. I’m skeptical about that. Here is my reading of the various real-world fighting scenarios, with probabilities in parentheses:
- China attacks Philippine vessels or outposts: (25%)
- China defends her occupied outposts: (100%)
- China harasses US ships and planes: (65%)
- China attacks US ships or planes: (5%)
- Philippines attacks Chinese vessels or outposts: (15%)
- Philippine defends her occupied outposts: (75%)
- US attacks Chinese vessels or outposts: (0%)
- US defends Philippine vessels or outposts attacked by Chinese vessels: (50%)
This produces a tense “status quo” holding pattern which benefits all three nations because nobody loses anything. The last bullet-point is the big question mark, which is why I put it at 50/50. The US election may reshape the US willingness to engage China. The US “physical commitment” is a significant unknown, which is itself a reason for China to probe (that’s my ‘25%’ attack probability). Do not expect China to withdraw from any current holdings. Expect China to start reclaiming Scarborough Shoal. Probing, pushing, moving always forward. Never enough to provoke confrontation. Always moving toward the goal.
Scarborough is a red line for the Philippines because a Chinese military outpost there would seal off Subic and be too close to Manila for comfort. The 15% probability that the Philippines will attack Chinese vessels or outposts presumes the Philippines might physically counter Chinese efforts to reclaim Scarborough. This would pose a test for the Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and Philippines, if China countered with force.
Under President Aquino, continued legal engagement probably would have been the next step. The arbitration ruling establishes case law that confirms, yes, China is in the wrong and the Philippines is being damaged. The next step might have been along the lines of Ecuador’s suit against Chevron in a Canadian court (“Court Says Chevron Can Be Pursued in Canada Over Ecuadorean Damage“).
Under this line of reasoning, the Philippines might sue China in a Canadian court for damage done to the environment at Mischief Reef, which the arbitration panel confirmed was in the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China created massive destruction of the ocean beds to build an outpost on the reef. If the Philippines won and China refused to pay the judgment, Chinese assets in Canada could be attached and awarded to the Philippines.
Highly speculative, I suppose. A long row to hoe. A 10-year project. In the meantime, the stalemate would continue. I’d fully expect China to push forward and begin extracting minerals from regions anchored by her outposts. Time is to China’s advantage.
It looks like the Duterte Administration is not interested in further legal confrontations with China. Indeed, some of the arguments we hear are that the Aquino Administration CAUSED problems by being so confrontational. The human mind is capable of all kinds of contortions, I guess.
This is the path that appears to be what the Duterte Administration favors, but it is fraught with problems. China is already insisting that, for any talks to occur, the Philippines must first trash the arbitration ruling. Does that make it clear who would drive the negotiations?
Indeed, that is why the Aquino Administration took China to arbitration. Because China’s starting point was always unreasonable, “recognize Chinese sovereignty”.
Furthermore, Associate Justice Carpio has said that conceding sovereignty to China would be a violation of the Constitution. And presumably lays the grounds for impeachment.
So it is no wonder the Duterte Administration did not react to the arbitration finding right away. And even appeared to react with disappointment.
Commercial sharing . . . the Duterte Administration’s ambition . . . is almost a non-starter for the loss of Philippine sovereignty that it represents.
This presumes the dispute would be joined by other nations, essentially all ASEAN states except China allies Cambodia and Laos. Add in Japan and Australia. The opposition to China could take the form of minor economic sanctions, fostering unrest within China, or a raft of court actions and even limited physical confrontation. It is not unreasonable to expect that the passive resistance would erode to become a tense and occasionally violent push versus shove.
The difficulty is that the two big dog players, the US and Chna, speak entirely different negotiating languages and operate by different principles. It is hard . . . or impossible . . . to find a diplomatic solution. It is easy to find anger rising.
China will pursue her goals because she believes she is entitled to global prominence. To appear weak is to assure unrest from within the ranks of the aging iconclasts on the Central Committee who wear their egos on their military epaulets and get high on power.
As Josephivo made clear, there are motivations far more meaningful than rocks in the ocean that are driving China.
The Philippines may be little more than a playing card – or a chip of some value – in the face-off between US and China. Yet, the risks to the Philippines are high.
- Setting aside US protection to remain friendly with China would leave the nation vulnerable to Chinese adventurism.
- Establishing a close relationship with China would relegate the Philippines to servant status, a place to be mined and farmed and put to work at low-end jobs.
Remaining truly free and independent will take some good thinking and decisions. Personally, I find law to be an excellent anchor, as it is written to try to define a common good. And it puts everyone on the same page. Commercial sharing under Philippine law would be perfectly fine, and I wonder why China objects to simply buying goods extracted from Philippine territory, at fair market. I wonder why it is so difficult for China to respect other nations.
I think geo-political pushback will occur as long as China is pushing her way into other nations’ sovereign rights. I don’t like the military option, but for sure believe the Philippines has a better chance of remaining independent under an American defense umbrella than it does by going it alone. The more the Philippines can do for herself, the better, so steady build-up of defense armaments makes sense to me.
But we ought not look at China as a friend, I think. Friends respect friends, and China has zero respect for the Philippines. It’s best not to go out alone into the raging night . . . or even day . . .