Testing America
TO THE QUICK - Jerry Tundag (The Freeman) - August 23, 2019 - 12:00am

Feathers ruffled, its pride pricked, an irritated Philippines is warning of an "unfriendly" response if Chinese warships keep up their sporadic but deliberate incursions into Philippine territorial waters. Any good the threat will do. In no way will China's knees grow weak at the prospect of an armed confrontation with the Philippines.

Before it does anything precipitate and regrettable, the Philippines needs to understand that China is playing a different gambit with its incursions into Philippine territorial waters. In no way is territorial ambition part of that gambit. China can take the Philippines anytime, but it wants no square inch of Philippine territory, especially if the Filipinos come with the real estate. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Uighurs are headache enough for it already.

Chinese incursions into Philippine territory are not to be taken with its provocations in the South China Sea. There, Chinese designs are desperate enough for it to risk international condemnation and intervention. More than most people are willing to realistically concede, it is not territory but fish that China wants out of the South China Sea. Any nation with 1.3 billion people that can riot and revolt if starved would probably take similar risks.

What China hopes to achieve with its incursions into Philippine territorial waters is to draw the American hand. China wants a clearer picture of what America will do in case push comes to shove in the region. America's ambiguity is unnerving China. So far, all that America has really done is make symbolic freedom of navigation missions that it takes great pains to announce for China's benefit, so there would not be any costly misencounter.

For its part, China dutifully obliges America by going through the motions of engaging it in high seas maneuvers. But both countries know war is not likely to result from such calculated maneuvers. If war comes, it comes from a misappreciation of the other's real intentions. That is what China is dying to find out. It knows America is very good at playing ambiguous.

Take a look at the Philippines. To this day, it takes to heart a mutual defense treaty it has with America. So desperate is it for America's help that it has completely ignored the fact that the treaty was crafted during the Cold War when America needed all the friends and allies willing to die for it on the promise of reciprocity as it faced a new and more threatening global order that emerged after the Second World War.

But that threat has largely dissipated with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. America now faces newer threats that do not put the Philippines in the same strategic territorial role as before. With its superiority in surveillance technology and intelligence, America could not have missed what China was up to in the South China Sea, including activities detrimental to friend, ally, and treaty partner Philippines

America of course made a lot of noise, but a lot of noise does not a firm expression of intention make. As in mahjong, China wants to know what to anticipate. By making incursions into the territory of a treaty partner, China is making a calculated risk to see if it can provoke an American reaction that will indicate its future action. The calculation is that any trouble that may arise will be limited but the insights gained will be priceless.

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