China-Philippines: It’s complicated

You have to start with the firm assumption that the other guy—whether a person or a nation—is going to operate and act on its own self-interest. To believe that anyone except maybe your mother would put your welfare before theirs is naïve and foolish—and often dangerous.

You also have to try and understand whether action is being taken for short-term or long-term gains, or both. The current panic over China’s invasions, incursions and exploits in the South China Sea ignores the fact that this has been going on for decades.

Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands, where all the controversy over the landing of Chinese bombers is focused, is claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan and China. But China has occupied the island since 1956. In 1946, the Nationalist Chinese government established a permanent presence on Woody Island.

In having effective control over much of the South China Sea, is this a matter of China wanting to protect itself from foreign naval forces in the event of an armed conflict? Or does China want to have a military platform to start a war? Does China want to protect its shipping interests of the Port of Shanghai, the biggest port in the world based on cargo? Or does China want to control shipping to South Korea and Japan? Good luck trying to figure all that out.

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However, the reality is that motive may never be known, and the actions are all that we can give attention to. Nonetheless, the Philippines must act in its own self-interest. To this end the government pursued the arbitration case, which was ruled in our favor.

Yet, what was our own end game with the arbitration ruling? Was it expected that China would give in to the legal ruling? If so, whose brilliant idea was that, and why did they think so? More likely was the belief that the United States would take action that would, in some way, push China to be cooperative. Perhaps at some point the US government gave some assurances to the Aquino administration. Here again, if so, what happened? Further, why didn’t the United States take a much stronger stand with the Philippines even before the arbitration ruling came down?

Assuming that we expected the US to take concrete steps to help the Philippines, what was the short- or long-term benefit to the United States that kept them at double-arms length from helping the Philippines enforce the claim?

Theoretically with some foundation is that the area holds an immense amount of wealth in natural gas and crude oil. It would seem that the US would be interested in helping to keep at least some of that natural resource from being under the complete control of China, which, while not a military adversary at this point, is definitely economic competition. Do we assume that the United States was simply incompetent at protecting its own interests? Or was it in the interest of the US to back away?

There are those that applaud Vietnam for being strong with China. But the reality is that Vietnam just caved in on oil exploration in its exclusive economic zone when China threatened it. Furthermore, China’s direct investment in Vietnam ($11.2 billion in 2017) is greater than the total Foreign direct investment from all sources to the Philippines.

There are those that say Filipinos should boycott Chinese products. You can start today by throwing away your multivitamins and never using vitamin C or powdered juice mix again. China produces 90 percent of the global supply of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Things are never as simple as we want them to be.

 

 

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Turning Points 2018