Understanding China’s behavior
THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (Philstar.com) - October 9, 2019 - 12:00am

Last week, I attended a talk given by Dr. Wilfredo V. Villacorta, the former Philippine ambassador to ASEAN and an expert in Chinese studies. Ambassador Villacorta spoke about how we Filipinos can better understand China’s behavior as it takes a more active role in international affairs.

The Philippines is in a precarious situation given our conflicting claims in the West Philippine Sea and our growing economic ties with our neighbor to the north. Its important that we understand the Chinese psyche.

First off, we must understand that we are not the only nation with a territorial dispute with China. China also has sovereign conflicts with Pakistan, Bhutan and India for swaths of land in their respective borders as well as with Japan for the Senkaku Islands.

The West Philippine Sea, however, is its most important territorial claim. After all, this nautical superhighway is where one-third of world trade passes through. To control the West Philippine Sea is to control the flow of goods in the most populous region in the world. It is also where an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion feet of natural gas and 10 percent of the world’s fishing resources can be found.

More importantly, however, the West Philippine Sea is China’s most vulnerable geographic zone. A simple blockade of cargo ships to and from the Chinese mainland can bring the Chinese economy to its knees. Exacerbating matters is that the waters form part of the exclusive economic zones of countries allied with the Unites States. Hence, the need for China to sequester these waters and militarize it.

China’s ambition to unseat the Unites States as the world’s superpower is at the heart of its bullying behavior. The Philippines, along with the other territorial claimants of the West Philippine Sea are mere collateral damage in this superpower showdown. History has shown that once an emerging superpower challenges the incumbent, war is almost inevitable. China is planning ahead.

 How obstinate will China be in its territorial grab of the West Philippine Sea? Do we have a chance to take our territories back? How tenacious will it be in its quest to be the world’s new superpower?

To predict China’s behavior, we must understand both its capabilities and intentions.

There is no question about China’s capabilities. It has the third strongest military with 2.7 million soldiers, a nuclear program and a defense budget of $224 billion. On the economic front, its economy has already surpassed the US when viewed on a purchasing power parity perspective. In terms of capabilities, China can basically do what it wants.

Understanding its intentions is more tricky. To do this, we must look into its history, said Dr. Villacorta.

China has called itself many names through the centuries. The most enduring is “Zhong Guo” or middle kingdom. It stems from the notion that China is in the center of the civilized world and every other nation around it are barbarians. Even today, the word “yemán rén” (barbarians) are what foreigners are referred to.

The Hans are the majority ethnic group in China. They are a proud people since the golden age of economic, technological and cultural progress occurred during the Han Dynasty. China had a thriving society up to the last years of the Qing dynasty.

Fate took a turn in the years 1839 to 1949. The Chinese refer to this era as the “Century of Humiliation”. It was the period in which imperial powers from Europe and Japan sliced and diced the country and pillaged it for all it was worth. Unequal treaties with western nations led to China’s age of poverty.

In 1949, the country was liberated from foreign dominion and the People’s Republic of China was born under the iron baton of Chairman Mao Zedong. In one of his discourses, Chairman Mao made a powerful vow saying, “Never again shall China be humiliated”.

While Deng Xiaoping is credited for opening up the economy toward market-driven reforms, he was also known not to be in a rush to equal the score with the west. He bided his time and waited for China to become a stronger economic and military force.

China grew in strength throughout the administrations of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. But as Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, the Chinese became more aggressive. Xi Jinping was once quoted as saying “now is the time for China to assume its international role”.

The circumstances surrounding the Century of Humiliation has been taught in classrooms across China for 70 years. An entire generation yearns for redemption and will stop at nothing to attain superpower status. The need to establish China as the middle kingdom of the 21st century is all consuming.

Xi made the move to occupy the West Philippine Sea when the United States was reeling from the subprime crisis.

The Belt and Road initiative with its land route linking Europe to China and marine route linking Africa, Asia and China is reminiscent of the Ti?nxià principle, or a world “all under heaven”. In this case, a world all under China.

So moving forward, what can we expect given China’s ambitions? Ambassador Villacorta put forward the best and worst case scenarios.

The best case scenario will be for China and the US to arrive at an agreement where both parties coexist peacefully. Both will cooperate toward advancing mutual interest, global wellbeing and the survival of humankind.

The worse case scenario is chilling. It will be one marked by relentless competition between the US and China, each mustering their respective capabilities in technology, military prowess, political sway and financial might to undermine the other. This will lead to an increasingly polarized world with endless brinkmanship in diplomacy. A world where the specter of nuclear war looms.

That said, it is highly unlikely that an agreement (or settlement) among the claimants of the West Philippine Sea will be reached within the next 50 years. The Philippines must simply agree to disagree with China while never giving up on its claim.

In the meantime, China will continue to use brute force to have its way. We have seen it already when a Chinese vessel rammed a fisherman’s boat off Recto Bank with no provocation and left the poor fishermen to die. We must be prepared for more of this.

One thing is certain, the struggle for supremacy among the superpowers will escalate and the Philippines will be in the geographical center of the conflict. We are in the greatest risk of suffering collateral damage. We have been there before (the Japanese American War) and have paid a steep price for it.

Thus, as our economy grows from strength to strength, we too must build up our defense capabilities so as to protect our people, our sovereignty and our way of life. Only then can we be truly prepared for the inevitable.

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