We are a maritime and archipelagic nation – Part III

By Edmund Tayao

The Provenance of China’s Audacity

In a post by an obviously China operated twitter account “SCS Probing Initiative,” one cannot help but laugh at such an oxymoron if not downright absurdity of a post. The post goes, “the Philippine boat ‘Yunaza May 1′ ignored CCG repeated stern warnings, violated the COLREGs, served in an unprofessional and dangerous manner, and deliberately rammed the CCG boat 21556, resulting in scratches, for which the Philippines is fully responsible.” This post earned countless replies that say one thing: “Liar!”

China has to do better when it comes to its public relations. Not rocket science to know that propaganda has to be based from the truth; it cannot be an out and out fabrication as it will only make the obvious obvious. Yes, it will amount to these superlatives given the remarkable ineptness of China’s attempt at propaganda. Events and or issues can of course be presented in a way that serves your purpose, favor your perspective but nonetheless, and this is pretty basic, it has to be believable.

Start with asking if it makes sense for a state that is diminutive compared to you, would dare engage you, let alone “ram” your bigger vessels. In fact, this is the single most significant consideration of our political leaders why it has always been difficult to deal with the issues headstrong. Might also make sense to understand why China’s “stern” warnings were ignored, as it will and should only be ignored. Why would a real, legitimate owner respond to or take cognizance of a supposed warning from a dubious claimant?

However which way one views the continued disputes in the West Philippine Sea, it would be difficult for China to make any pronouncement that the public will be inclined to buy. There is nothing that favors the position of China, not international law, not its international reputation (consider especially what happened to other countries in other continents that they purportedly helped), definitely not even history. The only thing, which of course is quite significant, is its size and power. Whether they admit it or not, it is the very reason why from a rather unassuming member of the international community, it has become the world’s paragon of arrogance.

And each time that an incident happens, and there will likely be more of such incidents that will happen in the near future as it will be ages before we could finally come up with a different more potent formula to effectively, actually fight for what is ours, a flurry of calls to involve the US and invoke the mutual defense treaty ensues. Then the debate will again be limited to whether or not we are a friend of the US or of China, as if our survival is limited to being an ally, nay a vassal to a powerful state. Yes, there is no denying that it is in our interest to be friends with those who can help us, but to rely on them entirely is a different story.

Such a pity that we seem to not be taking the extra mile to fully understand what’s happening. We know and have taken pains to underscore what is at stake, but we haven’t really given much thought as to how all these came to pass, which is essential if we are to determine best how to move forward. The bottom-line is we only have ourselves to rely on if we are to really fight for what is rightfully ours. And even if we don’t see the need to make such an effort, it is quite basic in international politics, it is only one’s own interest that has weight. All others are but contingent to it. As it is right now, it is likely that we are the only state that’s giving more importance to the dictates of the bigger state.

Some of course will argue that there’s not much of a choice; and still, many would likely not argue against that. Would it not hurt to ask though, would it not be possible to have the same dictates of the powerful partner serve our interests? There are good examples in this regard, states that managed to pursue their interests despite being considerably lesser than their counterparts. Mexico is number one in the list, dealing with the US for a number of issues and getting much of what they have pursued, especially in trade and immigration.

Smaller states banding together is another good example which we can learn from. The famous Benelux countries are credited for being the catalyst to the formation of the now successful European Union. Testy issues of trade and economic policies between countries settled with the example given and started by the 3 small countries in Europe. Imagine if ASEAN countries, especially those with conflicting claims in the same waters banding together and finding a way to cooperate. This will not only lead to a resolution of the issues in the area but more importantly send a message to China that even smaller countries should be respected.

Egypt is a perfect example of a single small state knowing how to make good use of its strategic location, dictating the terms of partnership with the US. The latter was paying a handsome $3B for landing rights, compared to measly hundreds and worn out military materiel to the Philippines’ 2 huge military bases in the late ’80s. When Mt. Pinatubo erupted and rendered the 2 military bases inoperative, it seems it gave us an opportunity to rethink the way we have been dealing with the US that we negotiated for a small increase to US800$, still including hand me down military equipment. Interestingly, we were accused of conducting a “cash register” diplomacy that the negotiations were futile.

And yes, that was more than 3 decades, or 30 years ago, and still here we are not getting the better end of the stick negotiating with more powerful countries. As we have explained in the immediately preceding article, other states have been and will always be interested with what we have, that they will always be inclined to deal with us or simply put, remain at our crosshairs. We have something, or should I say so many things that other states will always be drawn to us. We haven’t been putting any and all of these to good use, that it looks like we don’t really know what we are endowed with or we don’t know how to put it to good use or both.

I say this as one cannot help but wonder why we have not been making good use of what we have as we deal with other countries. Would be amiss and downright unfair to just assume we don’t have enough people capable enough to pursue what’s best for us because there is no doubt we have good people who know best. In fact looking back, I thought we have finally redefined our foreign policy to finally reflect our interests. For a considerable time I have been explaining in public that there’s no such thing as a China pivot. To be fair, we have expanded our horizon of friends and gained considerably; we only have to look at the notable upgrades in our armed services. Then again, when given the chance to look deeper though there is no denying, China took the place of the dominant US in Philippine foreign relations then.

Intentionally or inadvertently, we have seen the advantages of having more partners in the international arena in the past 6 or so years. How much more if we can build on that minus the obvious acquiescence to a powerful country. By some indications, here we are again, stuck to the same precept, anchoring our foreign relations to a big ally. Woefully assuming that there is nothing we can do other than rely entirely on a bigger ally. Again nothing wrong with it, but there is simply no way we can rely on them completely, not without an effective and vigilant engagement. Going back to the basic assumption in international politics, we can rely on them yes, but skeptically and thus carefully that we should continuously be on the watch.

History will give us a better understanding of how the world turned out to be how it is now in this situation. As always, learning about history will reveal why we have to be careful dealing with big and powerful states. They may appear to be against each other but in reality they find it always in their interest to be friends with each other. Japan learned this the hard painful way. If only the US followed a consistent path in diplomacy, we would not be facing what we are facing today in the West Philippine Sea.

The US-Japan relations have always been strong as it has been established by centuries of friendship starting as early as the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 18th century. This has continued for years that the two found themselves allies in the first world war against Germany. Suddenly there was a downturn in the 1920s, perhaps this is the tendency for countries when crisis sets in, insecurity becomes the better of them. Suddenly the US limited the number of immigrants from Asia, Eastern and Southern Europe. Of course, this was seen by some, including Japan, that one can only rely on those close to them that alliances were redrawn.

When the Second World War happened, Japan for the first time found itself on the other side and became part of the Axis powers. We all know of course of the infamous bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, still and all, Japan found it fitting to go back to its original alliance with the US, forging a lasting military alliance in the 50s and 60s. Needless to say, the alliance came with an economic and trade partnership that allowed Japan to not only get back on its feet but in addition become the 2nd leading economy next to the US in the late 60s and 70s. Being the second economic power however lasted only as the US remained a loyal ally to Japan.

By some déjà vu, the US will yet again find doubts with Japan as a loyal ally. When Richard Nixon took over the White House, the once unidirectional US foreign policy took a serious turn. Nixon was seen by many as a national security hawk who always considered Japanese security policy schizophrenic (McGregor 2017). Henry Kisssinger’s leading the State Department only complemented this thinking towards the Japanese. As a German refugee during the holocaust he always saw the Japanese as the enemy. There must have been no incentive for him whatsoever, even as a renowned political scientist and diplomat, to understand the Japanese as he admitted in his memoirs that he never grasped Japanese politics. Kissinger then was the perfect architect to redefine US-Japan relations leading to the now renowned One China Policy.

This is the one significant political event that redefined the entire international political equation, the provenance of China’s audacity. Taiwan or the Nationalist Government of China used to be the China that is recognized by the US and the whole world as it was the government that took over from the once Imperial China in 1912. By 1949 however, the Chinese Communist took control of the mainland that the Nationalist government had to flee to the island of Taiwan. Much of what was China before, the behemoth that it was and is, became under the Communist. Sheer expediency dictates, it is but logical to deal with them.

The official declarations as expected were different from how and what it really was, it simply said it was “essential for the preservation of peace and security in the Far East” (same). This may be appropriate if the assumption of Japan remaining a threat is true. The US-Japan relations on the other hand has been there for ages and not just overnight. There is much history and therefore much reason to know and anticipate that one will furthermore find more useful in diplomacy. This history and experience will prove to be deficient though if the objective is to prevent saber rattling of a familiar state. Whatever the reason was, it was thought to be necessary to keep Kissinger’s work with China underwraps until the signing of the 1972 joint communique of the US and PRC or communist China that the One China policy was inaugurated.

The long and short of all these is that China would not be how and what it is now if not for that fateful interlude in US Diplomacy. The militarization of Japan, what was supposedly feared by the US then that led them to consider being friendly to communist China, was averted, indeed. That is of course if there are in fact reasons to fear Japan going back to its Imperial past. On the other hand, the cost of avoiding Japan’s militarization is now proven to be considerable. Not only are we dealing with a behemoth but one that is erratic and willing to use any means just to get what it wants. The greyzone tactics for starters is unprecedented that many are stumped thinking of ways to effectively deal with it.

Hopefully, our political leaders take a really serious look at how states, especially successful and developed states, do their foreign policy. As we can see, history will be very helpful for us to have a fuller understanding of how to formulate a better foreign policy for the country. Only one rule resonates looking at many examples and learning much from history, one can only rely on oneself entirely. Take note of the long history of Japan’s friendship with the US, dating as far back as the 18th century but which proved to be not enough consideration to remain. We can of course rely on others but we have to keep ourselves vigilant so that when the crucial moment happens, we will not be caught off guard and that we have kept enough options for ourselves to adequately respond. Until then, we will just have to live with our losses, and more.