How clever and masterful is China’s President Xi Jinping: Without waging war, indeed without firing a shot, he has scored an immense strategic victory in the South China-Philippine Sea, which siphons $5 trillion of annual maritime traffic in East Asia.
Through a mix of personal diplomacy, daring and deep pockets, Xi has cunningly capitalised on a world-weary, isolationist and erratic America, to aggressively push China’s dream of superpower status and prosperity for its people.
International law be damned. It’s really all about power, national security and ambition, and so-called “historical rights” have nothing to do with it. They are just fig leaves Beijing uses to mask its geopolitical imperatives.
China’s full-scale militarisation and expansion of key reefs in the Spratlys that lie well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone is a faithful application of the principle of unused force: that the threat is often stronger than the execution. The move comes straight from Sun Tzu’s memorable stratagem: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Now that radar and missile systems are in place on Zamora, Kagitingan and Panganiban Reefs, within a canoe’s range of Philippine sovereign territory, it is the height of naivete to explain them away with such astonishing statements as those mouthed by presidential spokesperson Harry Roque: No problem, “those missiles are not aimed at us”. Really? Let’s not get carried away by our improved ties with China. A cardinal rule in foreign relations is that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. So when China is no longer a friend, you can bet those missiles will be aimed at us and our allies in times of crisis and war. Even in peaceful times, those missiles so close to our shores have the effect of intimidating us and deepening our deferential behaviour.
The reason Beijing covets the Philippines and the South China-Philippine Sea is well known: China is a great maritime power that needs control of these waters for its prosperity and survival. It can’t have that control if the United States continues to encircle it with powerful military forces and control the choke points of those seas (notably the Malacca Straits). Lacking the naval strength to match US power, Beijing has effectively counterbalanced Washington’s ability to dominate those vital waterways by building and militarising artificial islands near the Philippines that could bar access to vessels of its choosing, especially enemy vessels allowed passage by America in a time of conflict.
China’s nine-dash line and first-island-chain strategy – which extends like a giant horseshoe from Japan to the Philippines and Borneo – underscore the importance of littoral countries in giving substance to its dream of global, imperial reach. Xi’s “Belt and Road” initiatives complement it by building a network of roads, bridges, tunnels and hydroelectric dams from the southern part of Xinjiang to the Pakistani port of Gwadar in the Arabian Sea.
Once completed, that 1,600-kilometre economic corridor would cut travel time to the Middle East and Europe by more than 8,000km, and thus provide China an existential lifeline in the event a hostile power like America decides to close the Southeast Asian chokepoints to Chinese vessels.
While it’s true that the Philippines lacks the military capability to discourage China’s island grabbing and militarisation, President Rodrigo Duterte’s appeasement policy has certainly emboldened it to grab even islets and features so close to us – a naked invasion by most standards.
We are paying a heavy price for the few pieces of silver China promised us ($24 billion in investment), which is twice less than what Pakistan got in 2015. And at loan interest rates three to 12 times higher than Japanese assistance.
Xi got us cheap, and yet our government has the gall to boast of an “independent foreign policy”.
Narciso Reyes Jr is an author and former diplomat. He was based in Beijing from 1978-1981 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.