Opinion


Playing Chinese checkers




Strategic Perspective
René B. Azurin


Posted on March 20, 2014


IT MIGHT be Chinese checkers but, let’s face it, we are not a player. A danger, I think, is that President Aquino -- or any of the policy advisers he may listen to -- imagines that the Philippines is actually facing China in the game being played in what China calls the South China Sea (but what we call the West Philippine Sea). If the video game-playing Aquino sees himself as the brave gunslinger riding into town to bring down a gang of outlaws, he might make critical misjudgments that could be detrimental to this country’s long-term interests. The reality is, the actual players in this geopolitical game are China and the US, and the Philippines is only a piece on the checkerboard.

That realization brings certain insights. One is that the players’ moves are governed by their respective endgames, not ours. Another is that, as a mere piece, our eventual fate is incidental to the real players and we can well be sacrificed to further a particular player’s strategic goals.

Accordingly, our country’s decision makers ought to understand that our interests get advanced only if -- and only for as long as -- these are aligned with at least one player’s own interests. While our decision makers seem cognizant of this and, as a result, appear to be trying to align the interests of the US with ours and bank on our so-called "mutual defense treaty" to gain some leverage for our territorial and maritime claims in the disputed area, it is not altogether clear, to me at least, if they are operating with a realistic understanding of American strategic interests. If they were, they should realize that American economic interests are not served by a shooting conflict with China -- its biggest creditor and its biggest supplier of its consumer goods -- and that the US responding to our invocation of the said mutual defense pact is therefore an option that is completely off the board.

Our decision makers can, however, take comfort in the fact that neither is it in China’s economic interests to engage in a war with the US -- its biggest external debtor and the biggest market for its manufactured goods -- and that China may actually care about not getting on the US’ bad side and provoking economic sanctions from the US and its allies. After all, the Chinese leadership’s most compelling priority at present is finding a way of economically lifting the over 500 million Chinese still mired in poverty.

As its economic power in the world increases, it is understandable that China would flex its muscles and become increasingly aggressive in enforcing what it sees as its "core interests." This is what is happening in the waters south of mainland China as Chinese leaders begin to realize that their current economic and military might already allows them to unilaterally impose their will on the much weaker countries -- Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia -- who also lay claim to various parts of the territory they want. Having been, historically, subjected to humiliation by the great powers when it was weak, China is fully conscious of the fact that, in geopolitics, might is usually right.

Part of the reason for China’s desire to assert its dominance over the disputed waters is what it believes to be huge gas and oil reserves underneath it -- in their reported estimates some 200-trillion cubic meters of natural gas and some 200-billion barrels of oil. Another part is a desire to control access to one of the world’s most important sea lanes, through which some $5 trillion worth of traded goods are transported every year. A third part is to restrict America’s ability to project its vaunted military power not only in Asia but throughout the world, since naval vessels from the US West Coast and Japanese naval bases -- not to mention the Philippine bases that Mr. Aquino is about to give the US access to -- must pass these sea lanes en route to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East.

These are the very same reasons why the US can be engaged to contain China’s ambitions in this regard. As pointed out in a study by the Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security, "The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans -- a mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce, accounting for $1.2 trillion in US trade annually... It is the demographic hub of the 21st-century global economy, where 1.5 billion Chinese, nearly 600 million Southeast Asians and 1.3 billion inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent move vital resources and exchange goods across the region and around the globe... It is an area... with proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels as well as an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas."

Naturally, it would be good if we could somehow present Philippine interests as aligned or consistent with the strategic goals of both players, and not just of one player. That, admittedly, will require quite a bit of creativity.

Those old enough (like me) will remember Chito Sta. Romana as a fiery young activist who visited Mao’s China in August 1971 (before the declaration of martial law) and stayed there for the next 39 years. Many of those years were spent working as a broadcast journalist -- and Beijing bureau chief -- for American TV’s ABC News. Now retired and back in the Philippines, his long and unparalleled exposure to Chinese politics should be useful to President Aquino and other policy makers now making potentially far-reaching decisions with respect to our maritime and territorial disputes with China.

I was fortunate to have been invited to participate in a round-table discussion presided over by Mr. Sta. Romana on the subject of Philippines-China relations. (This was organized by Prof. Temario Rivera and Prof. Bobby Tuazon of the Diliman-based policy group CenPEG.) Mr. Sta. Romana opened the discussion with an enlightening introduction to the Chinese power structure and important factions -- doves/moderates and hawks/hardliners, "princelings" and populists, Shanghai faction and Youth League -- and key personalities involved in the determination of Chinese foreign policy. His recommendations for "breaking the impasse" in the current Philippines-China row mainly involved, 1.) toning down the rhetoric and de-escalating tensions, 2.) restoring high-level dialogue and opening up bilateral discussions (even as the Philippines pursues its arbitration case in ITLOS [International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea]), and, 3.) trying to get China to actually clarify its infamous "9-dash line," a supposedly "historical" Chinese map featuring dotted lines that encompass most of the waters south of China.

Yes. We will need to strengthen alliances with the other pieces on the board, Vietnam and Malaysia, so we can boost the weight of any arguments we put forth and partly overcome our lack of economic, military, and political power. We will also, of course, need the support of the international community -- not just the US -- in getting a favorable ruling from ITLOS on our arbitration case. Even if some critics of that initiative say that it only angers China and won’t be enforceable anyway, a legal victory provides a legitimate moral basis for our claims and improves our leverage in any bilateral negotiations and diplomatic initiatives.

What is important, though, for our political leadership to realize is that there will be no quick-draw solutions here and swaggering gunfighters aren’t needed. This will be a long drawn-out affair, progress in the resolution of issues will be slow, and the endgame is probably decades away. Thus, we will need to patiently take the long view and, additionally, we will have to anticipate and deal with changing realities and shifts in the global balance of power.