Posted on July 02, 2012 08:53:40 PM
There is a serious advocacy in China by influential persons, institutions and publications to wage war against the Philippines. China resents our standing up to it in defense of our South China Sea (SCS) claims, which it says it owns, as this emboldens other claimants to follow suit. The tension stems from its “nine-dash line map” that violates the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of claimant countries.
In September 2011, the Communist Party’s newspaper, Global Times, headlined “The Time to Use Force Has Arrived in the South China Sea; Let’s Wage Wars on the Philippines and Vietnam to Prevent More Wars.”
It was a call to arms against Vietnam and Philippines for loudly protesting China’s sweeping maritime sovereignty claims over the SCS. In a follow-up op-ed in the Global Times, Liu Rui, a strategic analyst of the China Energy Fund Committee, echoed Long Tao’s “use of force.”
President Hu Jintao himself exhorted the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy in early December 2011 to “accelerate its transformation and modernization...and make extended preparations for warfare to safeguard national security”. His comments were believed aimed at the US, the Philippines and Vietnam. How his successor, Xi Jinping, the current vice-president, will deal with this remains to be seen, although moderation would come as a surprise since he heads the powerful Military Commission.
Vice-Foreign Minister Fu Ying (a former ambassador to Manila) delivered a warning early this year at the height of the Panatag standoff that China is fully prepared to respond to any escalation of the situation by the Philippine side. The Global Times elaborated in an editorial that China was sending a clear signal -- military force is a live option. It said we needed to be taught a lesson for our aggressive nationalism, and should it trigger a military clash, the international community should not be surprised.
Xiamen University Professor Shen Hong-Fang spoke recently in Manila of “a new upsurge” in Chinese nationalism. The SCS, she said, is a core interest like Tibet and Taiwan. China rejects UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and refers to its own Law of the Sea that places the Sea of Vietnam and the West Philippine Sea within its territorial jurisdiction. Hardliners in the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) are raring to teach China’s neighbors “a lesson” for their intrusions. AMS is the highest-level research institute and center of military sciences of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Professor Zhang Zhongzhao of the PLA’s National Defense University holds the view that “China should have the courage to use the sword to uphold its sovereignty. The government is under pressure to stand firm on the SCS as a matter of national honor; perceived weakness would have severe political consequences.” Reports have it that the PLA is aggressively pushing the Central Committee to play the war card to unite its divided society wracked by political, social, economic and cultural fissures.
Last week, Beijing divulged its plans to establish a “military presence” in Sansha, a prefecture-level city of Hainan province, to administer “Chinese territories” in the SCS. It also announced the deployment of “combat-ready” naval and aerial patrols to protect its interest. Defense ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said China will resolutely oppose any military provocation in its territorial waters, adding that the PLA’s determination to safeguard its territorial claims is “unwavering.” The PLA is playing hero and the SCS has, thus, become the first genuine test of America’s new Asia policy.
Underlying all that is its goal to establish undisputed presence on the disputed claims throughout the SCS to control, or deny access, to sea lanes and resource-rich areas. This directly collides with America’s declared national interest that all sea lanes must remain open to all nations, and the national interests of claimant countries as well. Panatag is a convenient target for China to test America’s will at a time when it is wobbly from long and costly wars, compounded by the consequences of exploitative capitalism.
America’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific region has clearly pricked China’s sensibilities. Encouraging Asian states to unite, resist and contain China’s expansionism has incurred its ire; hence, the war drums.
Yet, I don’t think the US will allow itself to fight a friendly country’s battles with China, especially if the former mishandles the situation or rushes recklessly into a brawl, then cries running to Uncle Sam. However, the US needs to publicly reassure allies, who pursue a thoughtful and moderate course, of its full support should China’s assertiveness cross the line.
Waging war on the Philippines presents the path of least resistance. It will also test America’s resolve to uphold its Mutual Defense Treaty obligations. China has already shown aspects of the asymmetric warfare that it intends to fully wage against the country should it come to that. It temporarily halted tourism, tightened banana inspections and warned its citizens to look after their safety; a dangerous dynamic that could further escalate given China’s aggressive moves. All it needs now is an excuse to trigger a small-scale war (a false flag incident is likely) to suit its strategic aims.
Is a US-China conflict inevitable? From what’s been said and done so far, I believe China wants America’s beau geste as it carries out its own manifest destiny and version of the Monroe Doctrine. China, however, hasn’t been saying and doing the things expected of a nascent superpower committed to peaceful rise, so the two giants are talking past each other. Sooner or later they will collide because as Deng Xiao Ping once said, “There can’t be two tigers on the same hill.”
And we will be caught in the middle because we also believe our claims to be legitimate; we’re allied with the US; and defending our sovereignty is a matter of duty, honor and country. The Philippines is not a vassal state and treating it as a subordinate is insulting. Unless all sides find the right diplomatic recipe for a win-win, there will be war.