Clinton, Trump and the West Philippine Sea

CONJUGATIONS - Lila Ramos Shahani - Philstar.com

On the day the Award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was released—disallowing, among other things, Chinese nine-dash line claims—both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump issued statements of support for the process. Clinton said: “The US has a deep and abiding interest in the South China Sea and in the free flow of commerce—so critical to our economy—that flows through it. It is important that all claimants abide by this ruling and continue to pursue peaceful, multilateral means to resolve disputes among them.”

Trump’s statement was, “We urge all parties in the dispute to respect the decision of the international court and resolve matters peacefully.”

These two, Clinton and Trump, are now, of course, the official presidential candidates of their respective parties. Come November, one of them will become the president and commander-in-chief of the United States of America. The winner will face China regarding the South China Sea, the West Philippine Sea, and our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Our government has welcomed the PCA Award and stated that our negotiations with China will be based on it. However, the way things play out in this situation will depend much on US-Chinese relations.

What those relations will be, exactly, depend very much on the policies of whoever the next US president will be. Not only do the two candidates have widely divergent views of the situation; China itself has some very distinct attitudes towards the two candidates. But first, where do the two of them stand? How do their views differ?

Hillary Clinton, respecting language as a weapon of diplomacy and believing in “keeping our cards close to our chest,” has avoided provocative speech, but her record and history are well-known to all players. She is considered a South China Sea hawk, both in terms of freedom of navigation and treaty obligations with regional players like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. She is well-versed in UNCLOS and its insistence on sea claims decided by coastline rather than historical interests. Thanks to her tenure as Secretary of State, she has been considered the face of the US “pivot to Asia” and is expected to support—if not push directly—law-of-the-sea issues even more forcefully than Obama.

Her 2010 statement at an Asia-Pacific forum that South China Sea freedom of navigation was a matter of “national interest” to the US was noted around the world and prompted an angry walkout by the Chinese foreign minister.

Trump's position, in the meantime, is even more confusing. He stokes the anger and disaffection of his supporters by railing against China for stealing American jobs; threatens to take it to task for currency manipulation; proposes a 45 percent tariff on all Chinese imports—which one assumes would include all the Trump-branded merchandise he has made there. His official campaign website, however, is devoted entirely to economic issues and only mentions freedom of navigation in passing.

But, only last week, he set off media truth meters, saying China is "in the South China Sea and (building) a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen." Politifact rated his statement as “Half True.” He did not, however, indicate what, if anything, he intended to do.

China’s attitude towards Clinton is clear. The 2010 walkout at the Vietnam meet was neither her first, nor latest, confrontation with Chinese officialdom. Chinese feminists remember her from a 1995 speech as first lady to the United Nations' World Conference on Women in Beijing. The speech was censored in China. Supporting a younger generation of Chinese feminists being detained at the time, she called President Xi Jinping "shameless" on Twitter in 2015, saying his detention of five young feminists—cracking down on them while hosting a meeting on women's rights—“inexcusable.” Beijing’s state media fired back, accusing her of being a “rabble-rouser,” China-bashing to win election points.

While not getting nearly the negative media coverage she faces at home, a quasi-official newspaper editorial insisted that she “was not welcome in China” just before an official visit as US Secretary of State; a Chinese TV pundit also called her a “crazy old woman.” Even her clothes and hairstyles get openly mocked. Ultimately, however, it is her “lawyer-ly-ness” they hate and dread. She presses aggressively for rule-of-law on exactly the issues that China claims special “historic” exceptions to—including the nine-dash line—while her own sense of “American Exceptionalism” makes her see the US as policeman of the world.

China’s responses to Trump have been much more mixed, have evolved over time and are expressed differently by government and the public—as reflected on the internet and in media polls. At first, he, too, was mocked; was called a “big- mouthed clown” and presented as positive proof that liberal democracy was in decline. But, as he became a serious presidential contender—and as it became clear that Clinton would be his opponent—those attitudes began to change. Officialdom believes that, as president, he will be a more favorable to China than Clinton.

His stances on trade—first seen as totally outrageous—are now being talked about as little more than the negotiation points of a clever businessman. And China—convinced it has the best businessmen in the world—remains confident that it can make deals with him. They embrace his anti-Muslim xenophobia as reinforcing their own internal issues with the Uighurs—infamously fraught with human rights violations. They also consider themselves to be a nation particularly adept at “handling” egotistical world leaders.

Thousands of Chinese Internet users are literally “fans” of Trump—for a number of reasons. In the fortune-seeking atmosphere of China today, his success as a businessman inspires the “aspirational class.” The combination of business success and his frequent authoritarian pronouncements—no matter how impossible those goals might be in reality—resonate with the general belief that iron-fisted control of state capitalism is the secret of China’s success and that a businessman like Trump would be a person they could work with. And his “reality TV” persona attracts mightily—is, in fact, for many, the only reason for following the US election in the first place.

Official attitudes are somewhat more subdued. China’s leadership is frankly concerned about his statement that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons and quit depending upon expensive US military defense—which they never pay for. Nuclear-armed neighbors are not what China wants to see. They would, however, welcome his proposed abandonment of defense alliances with those countries and, of course, the Philippines, if at all possible. Geopolitical and foreign affairs mavens are in a rare state of agreement that Trump’s neo-isolationist plans would throw all of Asia into turmoil. That is a situation China believes it might gain benefit from.

As opposed to his neo-isolationism, Clinton has been seen as the very incarnation of American Exceptionalism & Manifest Destiny. China, therefore, favors Trump.

No matter who wins the US presidency, the US is a big, powerful country with a quietly entrenched bureaucracy. Tensions between the State Department, which sees trade and diplomacy as the means of maintaining world influence, and the Defense Department, committed to geopolitical goals involving the projection of American power—and large defense budgets—as the method of maintaining American global supremacy, continue to exist.

Clinton, with her long-time supporters in the Pentagon and her experience as Secretary of State, would likely be able to strike a successful balance. Far from being the total hawk China portrays her to be, she has played a critical role in such delicate operations as getting the Iran nuclear treaty negotiations going, first by supporting tougher financial sanctions against Iran, and then opening back-channel treaty talks. She reached out—unsuccessfully—to the Taliban, attempting to find a peaceable solution to the Afghan conflict. And, perhaps most notably, she oversaw the rapprochement with the pro-Chinese military junta in Myanmar, setting the stage for elections and the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi (whose party is now in power there) from years of house arrest.

Conversely, Trump is likely to encounter resistance from both. The Defense Department, for instance, has pointed out that many of his proposals would constitute war crimes—and that they would refuse to obey such orders as torture or bombing cities occupied by ISIS, even if they were still filled with civilians. They are politically outraged by what they see as Trump’s “cozying up” to Russia in general, and Putin in particular. Every pitch the Pentagon makes before the US Congress puts Russia at the top of the list of threats to world peace, and Trump’s views that NATO is obsolete and that fulfillment of European treaty obligations should depend upon whether they’ve “paid their fair share,” leaving most Defense officials in near apoplectic silence.

The State Department is equally polarized against many of his stated policies on trade, diplomacy and treaty obligations. So, even though he and Clinton may make very similar statements about supporting PCA’s Award, the sheer ability to act upon that support is much more problematic, given a Trump presidency. This is not about anyone in this country supporting or opposing a candidate in the US election. This is about ensuring the sovereignty of the Philippines and its rights over its own EEZ—the West Philippine Sea.

In sum, Clinton, is the more hawkish candidate, and so most likely to continue current US policy in the Asia-Pacific region. Under her, American treaty obligations with the Philippines are not likely to change. Trump, on the other hand, comes across as a neo-isolationist who seems to take treaty obligations lightly. With Trump as president, we can expect a more volatile and unpredictable US policy in Asia, something that China may actually benefit from.

In the end, what we need is an independent foreign policy—one in which our national interests take precedence and set the terms for negotiating with China, the US and other states. 

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