OPINION: War with China?


War with China? Duterte made it up

By: John Nery

Let us, for the sake of argument, accept the possibility that the Duterte administration’s weak-willed response to continuing Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, including numerous illegal intrusions into the West Philippine Sea, is motivated by considerations of the national interest. The reasoning, then, would run along these lines: Beijing has reached full superpower status, or is the undisputed economic and military leader in the region; it is committed to an aggressive policy, rationalized by a continuing sense of victimhood over China’s so-called “century of humiliation,” of asserting global influence. It is creating a de facto “diguo” — or empire, the “controversial but correct” term, professor John Keane has just written, to describe China — and it is in the Philippines’ best interests to align itself with the imperial capital. If the 21st century is the year of the Chinese empire, “Tatay Digong” must help the Philippines find its rightful place in the diguo.

Many elements are wrong with this argument, starting with the defeatism and lack of patriotism at its heart. Finding one’s rightful place in a Chinese empire is a political formula for mere provinces or subsidiary states, not for an independent, sovereign country. Even in its less extreme form, of (only) aligning one’s interests with those of Beijing, the argument’s unpatriotic core is difficult to disguise, or defend. The argument would have to be presented in the form of another argument—one that accepts Beijing’s version of Chinese largesse.

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With a few exceptions, President Duterte’s statements about Chinese President Xi Jinping are in exactly this mold: China is helping us, even to the extent of the President hyping Beijing’s negligible role in the ending of the Marawi siege. In fact, his infamous declaration, “I love Xi Jinping,” was punctuated by expressions of gratitude for Chinese aid or trade.

But other parts of China’s aggressive diguo-building are not as inevitable as the argument would make it seem. While Beijing has overtaken Japan as the second largest economy in the world, and has lifted more people out of poverty than any other country, its economic foundations are not as robust as advertised. Its One Belt, One Road ambitions are facing new complications, especially after earlier Chinese loans to South Asia and Africa, which resulted in severely adverse consequences, gained worldwide attention. And its victimhood narrative continues to rankle its neighbors who have been on the wrong end of China’s long stick through the years.

Its growing military capacity (of which there is no dispute) has not prevented decisive pushback in the region (primarily Indonesia and Vietnam) and outside it (Argentina is a recent example).

The ramming of the fishing boat Gem-Ver 1 on June 9 should be an opportunity for all of us to reconsider Beijing’s comprehensive policy regarding the South China Sea. That policy is ownership, and the Chinese have not been shy about it.

True, it is important for us to call out our own officials, whose instinctive reaction to the sinking and the deliberate abandoning of the 22 Gem-Ver 1 fishermen was to find a way to get Beijing off the hook. (It turns out that Mr. Duterte’s fateful instruction on July 12, 2016, to give the Chinese “a soft landing” after the overwhelming Philippine victory at the arbitral tribunal, remains the principal administration policy as regards China). It is only right that we condemn them for their cowardice, their smallness.

But it is equally important for us to call out Beijing, which acts as though we are already part of the new diguo.

Aside from a stray remark or two, Beijing has never threatened to go to war against any country it deems a threat to its ownership of the South China Sea. It has acted aggressively, yes; it has taken steps that can be described as military action. But single military or military-like actions do not add up to war.

The truth is: It is in China’s worst interests for a shooting war to break out in the South China Sea. Indonesia’s dramatic destruction of Chinese fishing vessels caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters would have been a sufficient pretext for the flexing of military muscle. Did Beijing go to war?

In fact, as far as I can tell, we have only one source for Beijing’s supposed readiness to go to war: Mr. Duterte himself, who interpreted a conversation with Xi in May 2017 in those exact terms. But nobody in the enormous Chinese government confirmed the President’s interpretation. Turns out Xi didn’t have to threaten war; he only needed to talk to a politician who thinks only in terms of war.

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