Although my maternal grandfather was born and raised in China, my half-breed mother, who grew up with a childless Visayan aunt, never learned to speak Chinese. I was, however, exposed to some relatives in the Chinese community in my hometown. I guess this encouraged my lifelong curiosity about my latent “Chineseness.” In fact, I spent three years after office hours learning and practicing T’ai Chi in Chinatown, Binondo, Manila. In a way, this helped me appreciate concepts like “using the force of your opponent to defeat him,” and “resorting to indirect, not direct confrontation to confuse the enemy” and “investing in loss.”
Michael Pillsbury of the US-based Council on Foreign Relations and the Institute for Strategic Studies has written a book entitled The Hundred-Year Marathon first published in 2015. He described it as “China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower.” This goal, he said, is targeted at the year 2049, or a hundred years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PROC).
Today, this is no longer a secret. It is a patently blatant goal, despite a quote in the book’s opening chapter from the ancient Chinese essays referred to as the Thirty Six Stratagems that says “Deceive the heavens to cross the ocean.”
This quote is almost a clear-cut explanation of what has happened to our legitimate but ignored claims to the West Philippine Sea, as affirmed by the UN Arbitral Court based on the United Nations Council on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
We wring our hands in dismay at the incredible behavior of the PROC and the extent to which they brazenly assert their claim, including dissemination of the so-called Nine-Dash Line deemed as fiction by the UN Arbitral Court as well as the hasty reclamation and building of military facilities including airports on the islets, including those included in our own legitimate territories based on international law. This all happened swiftly, it seems to me, while the United States was preoccupied with the nuclear threat from North Korea, a protégé and ally of China. It seems to me that the US could not afford to antagonize China, whose help it needed to neutralize the North Korean aggressiveness, if it reacted strongly to China’s aggressiveness in the “South China Sea.” We may have been entertaining sentimental illusions in expecting “Big Brother” America to come to our aid and repel the Chinese territorial aggressiveness in our marine resources.
Mao Tse Tung’s strategy mentor, the ancient military thinker and subsequent general, Sun Tzu, attributed as author of The Art of War, said that in order to win, the great general must first know the enemy and know himself. Learning the Art of War enabled Mao Tse Tung to defeat the better-armed Nationalist anti-communist Chiang Kai Shek who had support from Western powers, in taking control of China. This, Mao did after he retreated to Yunnan in the decades-long Long March where he consolidated his position.
Mao’s successor, Deng Siao Peng focused his efforts on developing China’s economy. Deng is quoted to have said “Poverty is not socialism. To get rich is glorious.” I guess my grandfather was born too soon. He and his cousins migrated to the Philippines to escape their hard life in Amoy, China. Today, China is second only to the United States in GDP; and is racing to catch up on per capita incomes. Deng sent thousands of bright scholars to the US and other advanced countries for further studies. He said, “When our thousands of Chinese students abroad return home, you will see how China will transform itself.” Today, we see China’s technological advances which have generated thousands of billionaires in their home country. Technology transfer has been eased by manufacturing facilities located in China where labor costs are much lower. Alibaba, TenCent and other technology-based multinationals are booming. Today, the US is fighting to ban use of Hua Wei products and to deny it access to suppliers of chips and other inputs to Hua Wei products and services.
We cannot expect China to behave ethically under norms practiced in the West, especially those in Christian countries. Communism is a godless ideology. In fact, Karl Marx was quoted as saying “religion is the opium of the people.” Many of my exemplary professors at the University of San Carlos here in Cebu were German priests who taught engineering sciences and philosophy after being expelled from China. We also cannot expect China to respect standards observed in democracies, which it is not. It is clear that PROC is an authoritarian government. It justifies the murder of thousands of its citizens during the Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations thirty years ago as “the correct policy.” It has also not apologized for the arbitrary detention at the Hong Kong airport of our esteemed former Ombudsman and Supreme Court Justice Conchita Carpio Morales. Meanwhile, our own government has explained that China has the prerogative to decide who may enter their country.
Here is a consoling thought. Sun Tzu, ironically, was actually against armed warfare. The opening verse of Sun Tzu’s classic Art of War is the basic clue to his philosophy. “War,” he said, “is a grave concern of the state; it must be thoroughly studied.” Nevertheless, he considered war detrimental to the state and the people because it damaged property, allocated goods and services to fighting enemies, and in general caused a great deal of suffering to all sides of a conflict. He said that the great general is one who takes over a territory without the use of arms.
In his translation of The Art of War, Samuel B. Griffith says Sun Tzu said war was to be preceded by measures designed to make it easy to win. The master conqueror frustrated his enemy’s plans and broke up his alliances. He created cleavages between sovereign and minister, superiors and inferiors, commanders and subordinates. His spies and agents were active everywhere, gathering information, sowing dissension, and nurturing subversion. The enemy was isolated and demoralized; his will to resist broken. Thus without battle, his army was conquered; his cities taken and his state overthrown.”
What I have learned from these readings and observation of recent and current historical events is that, indeed, China has a longer-term and more strategic perspective, and subtle and nuanced lessons from its millennia and more history.
In this context, we should be able to assess whether our leadership has been making the right strategic moves or has just been plain clueless and thus bumbling its way through. Perhaps Rodrigo Duterte should read Sun Tzu in order to be able to read and play his cards right and not end up being such a pitiful and shameful lackey. It seems to me that China needed our help in order to realize its objectives. Our strategic location and membership in ASEAN should have counted for something. But we may have been too naïve to appreciate and exploit the complex situation to our nation’s benefit.
Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and an independent development management consultant.