FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

One Mexican statesman, in the previous century, loudly lamented: “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States.”

His country is a victim of geography. But so are all the other countries. Each simply has to adapt to the “neighborhood” they find themselves in.

The Ukrainian president might repeat the same lament about being so close to Russia. Filipinos, of course, have been decrying the fact that we are physically so close to China and thus drawn into its orbit.

But geography should never be a misfortune. Our proximity to the rising superpower can be a good thing or a bad thing. That will depend on how we adapt to the geographic fact.

Some might see China as some sort of black hole, gobbling up the stars nearest it. They choose to fear the proximity. They interpret every win by China as a loss for us. They are inclined to use every law and every arbitral ruling to build a wall to keep China away.

Over time, they cultivate the mindset of a recluse. That is a counterproductive mindset – especially in this part of the world destined to be the center of gravity of the global economy.

Because of competing claims over the South China Sea, we are drawn into the superpower maneuvers of both the US and China.

China will soon match (if it has not yet) US economic and military power. It is the emerging power contesting the hegemony of the older superpower.

The US is pursuing a policy of containment against China. Its “pivot to Asia” is governed by this overarching strategy. The older superpower refuses to think in terms of parity and cooperation. It cannot bring itself to imagine a planet with two amicable superpowers.

China, for its part, is conscious of its vulnerability as far as the South China Sea is concerned. The sea lanes through the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea are important to China. Much of its energy is shipped through this route. The powerful US Navy, albeit operating far from its bases, could blockade these sea passages and bring the Chinese economy to its knees.

To cure this vulnerability, China has grown its navy – now including a carrier task force and a respectable submarine fleet. To further complement its navy, China claimed sovereignty over much of the South China Sea and fortified rock formations in the area. It matters little if China’s sovereignty claims are tenuous. What is important is that they managed to build fortified positions that straddle the vital sea routes.

In China’s view, these fortifications ensure the routes are kept open for her shipping. The US, for its part, insists that China’s claims threaten freedom of navigation in the area. For this reason, the US Navy regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” patrols close to the fortifications China built.

The sea routes are vital for the other countries in the region, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. But these countries are less anxious than China about the possibility of the US blockading the lanes.

It is the contrasting strategic calculations of the US and China that drive up tensions in the South China Sea. Their powerful navies are elbowing each other for control of the area either to improve on their ability to blockade the lanes or guarantee freedom of navigation.

When the Noynoy Aquino administration pursued a policy of internationalizing the South China Sea disputes rather than working for closer bilateral cooperation with China, Beijing reacted severely. Chinese strategists preferred using bilateral negotiations to arrive at a modus vivendi with countries bordering the South China Sea. Aquino’s foreign policy, it seemed to Beijing, was effectively an invitation for the US to come in as an interloper.

Earlier this week, former senator Juan Ponce Enrile threw his support behind the Duterte administration’s foreign policy that put emphasis on cultivating warm relations with Beijing, the territorial disputes notwithstanding. With his many decades of experience as a public official, Enrile’s voice carries weight. This is the reason President Duterte invited him to join in addressing the public on the matter.

Enrile’s latest iteration on the shape of our foreign policy might differ from positions he took in the past. But it highlights the pragmatic calculations we have to make in approaching this complex situation we find ourselves in. There is an evolving reality out there, beyond the realm of jurisprudence and the grasp of those who insist on reducing the universe into what is written in the law.

Of course, our foreign policy must be guided by international law. But it must also be guided, in equal measure, by a sense of realpolitik.

The South China Sea issues are but one facet of our multidimensional bilateral relationship with China. They are not the entire universe of our strategic concerns.

It is easy for those who are out of power to resort to jingoism in handling the issues at hand. But we must know that saber rattling achieves nothing. We have exactly two small vessels – one from the Coast Guard and the other from BRAF – patrolling the vast area we claim.

Duterte’s pragmatic and sophisticated approach to our bilateral relation with China is vulnerable to caricaturing and distortion, especially by those playing on public emotions for political effect. But that is the only sustainable approach.

In the future, the countries of the region will arrive at an agreement about how the South China Sea may be sustainably governed. Until then, let prudence dictate things.

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