The South China Sea is the scene of political, economic and military rivalry between the Unites States and China on the one hand, and China and countries in the Asean on the other. Politically, the 9 dash line claim by China to the South China Sea and her encroachment in some islands/islets in the area have caused alarm among some nations in the Asean, which has laid claims to real estate in the same area. The Philippines taking the case to Unclos for arbitration has been resented by China, which in the past had preferred the issue to be settled bilaterally.
The US, which had undisputed military control of the South China Sea lanes after the Second World War with her defeat of Imperial Japan and her strong military presence in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines–which comprised her defense line–has considered recent Chinese claims to the China Sea as a threat to her military monopoly in this theater and an indication of Beijing’s hegemonic tendencies.
China has always considered the strong American military presence in the South China Sea as a containment policy that not only boxes her in and confines her to the continent and a threat to the establishment of her New Silk Route, which passes through a very important ocean where no less than $5 trillion in goods move through each year. The Obama Pivot to Asia backed up by the beefing of US naval presence heightened Chinese paranoia, which may partly be the reason for her assertiveness in the contested sea.
To this day, the belief of many US strategists is that the dramatic growth of the Chinese economy will be accompanied by increased militarization–as in the case of Imperial Japan prior to the Second World War and that this will bring about the same conditions immediately preceding Pearl Harbor–has not diminished. Hence her desire to nip Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea in the bud.
Chinese strategists do not trust the Americans given that they fought the forces of Mao after the Second World War, continue to support the Chinese Kuomintang party in Taiwan and have a penchant for regime change given their record in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria.
This has caused some insecurity paranoia among the Chinese who are more committed than ever to beef up Beijing’s defense system in the area in the hope of achieving a strategic stalemate in the South China Sea and degrade US superiority.
In this Cold War and possible Star Wars scenario, the Asean community is caught in the middle of a dangerous power play. It fears that, as the saying goes, when elephants lock horns, the grass below gets trampled on.
What are the chances of Chinese hegemony? The fear of invasion springs from the Japanese experience.
Before the Second World War, Japanese economic might in the hands of the Bushido class led to military adventurism, which resulted in the biggest misadventure of the 20th century in this part of the world. Japan, contained and embargoed by the West, was driven to military adventurism in an effort to forage for raw materials to supply its industrial revolution with the use of military might.
Will China follow this territorial imperative to preserve its economic gain according to the colonial pattern of raising the flag first and engaging in trade next? This pattern was the successful formula of the conquistadores and colonialists who swooped down on the East from the West to exploit the former’s raw materials through gunboat diplomacy before colonizing it under the guise of promoting its manifest destiny of civilizing the natives? Or in the case of Japan, to establish an Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere?
The answer is that China, which will decidedly be the biggest economy in the world in the next decade or so, does not need to be hegemonic to be able to dominate the Asian economy. It will act as the hub to which its less developed neighbors in the area are the spokes.
Moreover, there is a lot of complementarity between the Chinese and US economies. While China relies on technology transfer from the US and her rich market for her cheap products, the latter relies on the humongous China market for its products, services and financial instruments. As we write, China is the biggest creditor of the US, absorbing some one and a half trillion of the latter’s municipal bonds.
More important in this nuclear age, a war of annihilation cannot even be a last resort. Anyone reading the latest Rand Report on the results of a nuclear war cannot in his right mind conceive of such an occurrence. With superpowers armed with nuclear arsenals as in the case of the US and China, those who believe that any war such as what could erupt in the South China Sea could be confined to a conventional warfare such as naval warfare or dogfights in the air must be dreaming. Indeed at the rate that superpowers today are preparing for cyber wars, it is just a matter of button-pushing for nuclear warheads to fly in all directions.
So what is there to do? As far as the Asean countries are concerned, our neighbors are already negotiating with the Chinese, the reason why we are not getting any support on the decision at The Hague. The Mekong Delta Group–Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, which are socialist states of China–are already benefitting from party to party negotiations with their ideological mentor. Even Vietnam, the most anti-Chinese in the group, will be going into joint exploration with China. Malaysia is benefitting from Chinese investment in port facilities that service its Maritime Silk Route. Recently, Myanmar’s Ang Suu Kyi went to Beijing to open trade relations with China. In brief, the Asean nations are inexorably drawn into the Chinese orbit, pulled in by the centripetal forces generated by a burgeoning Chinese economy.
This country, if it opts to stay in the Asean, as it must for survival, will have to follow the Asean way and that is it must deal with China. I expect President Duterte as he visits our Asean neighbors to underplay the Unclo decision and to accentuate the affirmative by engaging China in a peaceful and positive way that we should have done earlier.
As the only Christian country in this part of the world that perforce is dedicated to the search for peace, the Philippines can help initiate the transformation of the South China Sea into a zone of peace and prosperity–a Pax Asiana. This is possible because of our historic ties with both China and the United States.