THE decades-long territorial and diplomatic dispute over control of the South China Sea is an issue that is never far from the public’s awareness in the Philippines, and has again emerged as an above-the-fold topic of conversation with the recent “revelation” that China has just about completed work on seven new, impressive-looking military bases in the Spratly Islands. The issue is alarming to Filipinos for several reasons, not the least of which is that the complicated tangle of conflicting claims to the vital maritime territory is very difficult to understand. The extent of the work China has done on its new installations, however, now makes it easy to explain the dispute to people here:
You lost. The South China Sea, at least that part of it subject to conflicting claims by China and the Philippines, now clearly belongs to the former. No cute protests in front of the Chinese Embassy, no whimpering references to “international law,” no impotent threats of force are going to get it back. The arbitral ruling based on an international convention that neither China nor the Philippines fully accepted from the very beginning is not worth the paper it’s printed on, and discussing the matter through “bilateral consultation mechanisms” is utterly pointless, as any discussion must logically proceed from the starting point that China owns the sea and the Philippines doesn’t, since China took the pragmatic step to operationalize its claim and the Philippines didn’t.
And why not? Why would China even entertain the subject at this point? Even a casual reading of history quickly reveals that at no time, ever, did a victor who completely outwitted and outmaneuvered a foe surrender the gains because the loser’s feelings were hurt.
And boy, did China outmaneuver the Philippines on this one. Regardless of how one might feel about China, what it has accomplished is impressive from a strategic and diplomatic perspective. In terms of maritime disputes, the conflict with the Philippines is only one of four that China is actively engaged in; the others are with Vietnam over the Paracel Islands and other areas of the sea farther west, Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and Taiwan, which has a claim to parts of both the East China Sea and the South China Sea in addition to the rest of its problematic relationship with the mainland. In recent years, China has aggressively prodded each of these four rivals, but it is only in the area contested with the Philippines that it has decided to dispense with any pretense of flexibility and establish a permanent presence.
The reason why is that when it comes to Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, prodding too aggressively – at least for now – risks a legitimate military response. There is a significant American military presence in Japan, but even on its own, Japan has at times in the past several years demonstrated it won’t back away from a fight. Even though China officially considers Taiwan a province that has temporarily gone astray, it sensibly recognizes that the margin between “maintaining effective pressure” and “things getting violently out of hand” is razor thin, and tries to calibrate its strategy accordingly. Vietnam has none of the external support enjoyed by Japan and Taiwan, but Vietnam for centuries has demonstrated an outsized ability to kick China’s ass. That may not actually be the case any longer, but China seems to realize that a) Vietnam clearly doesn’t know that, or doesn’t care, and b) in any incident that escalates into gunfire (which the Vietnamese will probably start), international sentiment towards the South China Sea issue is going to make a noble underdog of the smaller country.
Compared to those three rivals, the Philippines is about as threatening as a bowl of room-temperature tapioca, from the Chinese point of view. The country’s military forces are feeble, and heavy economic dependence on China means the Philippine leadership is extremely diffident when it comes to wielding such weapons as it does have. Furthermore, despite what the people of the Philippines think of themselves, the country does not have much of an international profile, and is unlikely to attract the same level of sympathetic attention as any of the other three rival countries. And all of these factors are aggravated by the Philippines’ apparent inability to act with any semblance of national unity, and not like a banana republic.
Thus for China, the path of least resistance to asserting its sovereign claim over the South China Sea is through the Philippines – or more specifically, through the Spratly Islands. Although it may have been a bit of gamble on China’s part that it would be able to complete its work undisturbed, it paid off. Even if the Philippines wakes up and realizes that the way the other rivals to Chinese ambitions have kept the same thing from happening to them is to display a bit of martial fortitude, it’s too late; China’s new island fortifications probably wouldn’t stand up to the US Seventh Fleet (which, in case anyone here is still wondering, is not coming to your rescue), but they are certainly well-equipped enough to swat away anything the Philippines could throw at them without anyone even breaking a sweat.
So what now? The Duterte administration’s apparent confusion over how to address the situation – vacillating between conciliation and gentle saber-rattling – seems to be borne out of the uncomfortable realization that, as the government in power when the South China Sea was irretrievably lost, it will be blamed for it. But it’s not really Duterte’s fault, and he and his officials are probably doing the best anyone could expect from what few options were left to them by more than a quarter century of foreign policy idiocy. Blame, at any rate, is practically irrelevant at this point; sharing a sea border with China seems to be the new normal for the Philippines, and finding a way to live with that would be a far better use of the time that will inevitably be wasted in otherwise futile chatter and “hearings in aid of legislation.”