Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Greater China
     May 15, 2012

The sea rises in China
By Brendan O’Reilly

As throngs of emotional protesters take to the streets of Manila to decry Beijing's policy and actions in its ongoing maritime dispute with the Philippines, passions are also running high in China.

Both China and the Philippines claim the Scarborough Shoal (called Huangyan Island in Chinese) as an integral part of their respective nations. China and the Philippines and dispatched warships to the area, and nationalistic sentiment and rhetoric have been escalating into military threats.

A recent editorial in the Global Times (a sister daily published by the People's Daily - the Chinese Communist Party's flagship newspaper), entitled "Peace will be a miracle if provocation lasts", is a fairly representative example of the contemporary Chinese


For China, the standoff over Huangyan Island is a matter of sovereignty. And now Manila needs to be defeated in this area. Otherwise, harassment from Philippine ships will never end if they think it won't cost anything to humiliate China just to unite its people.

The situation has come to a stage where China has to ensure a victory, even if it means it may cost more than imagined. The lasting crisis will come at the expense of China's unity. [1]
This passage is an excellent summary of China's perspective of the dispute. According to the governments of both the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC), Huangyan Island is an integral part of Chinese territory. China views Filipino claims to the island and related military activity as a threat to Chinese sovereignty and territorial cohesion.
The struggle for national unity is a central theme in the Chinese worldview, especially because of China's painful history with foreign powers. The dispute over the Scarborough Shoal is seen as a threat to China's integral territory. China's government and people are extremely sensitive to this perceived menace. For, China has territorial disputes at South China Sea with other Southeast Asian countries and at East China Sea with Japan, Beijing fears that if it "gives up an inch then it would lose a yard."

And the narrative of the Scarborough Shoal dispute as a threat to China's integrity and security is by no means a viewpoint emanating solely from the higher echelons of government and the media. Indeed, many common Chinese people are inclined to take a harder line on the dispute than their government itself. I recently asked a Chinese friend about the ongoing dispute, and he, who declined to be identified, told me "Everyone wants to go to war with the Philippines. They say the government is being too weak." I asked him why a dispute over a small island has taken on such significance. He said, "Chinese people care much about face, and the Philippines is a small country."

Many Chinese people believe their country is not being treated with due respect as a fast growing regional and global power, and they are willing to risk war to prove both their new military prowess and their longstanding determination to preserve Chinese sovereignty. Indeed, it seems that the Chinese street is taking a harder line than their government.

Interestingly, the Chinese also view Filipino claims to the area and the confrontation with China as a political exercise meant to unite the Filipino people and distract from domestic issues.

Enter the Eagle
The United States has a clear interest in this conflict. It is the stated objective of the Obama administration to "lock in" US dominance of the Asia-Pacific. The US and the Philippines have extensive diplomatic, cultural, and military ties. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a recent trip to Manila, displayed implicit US backing for the Philippines' territorial claims by referring to the South China Sea as the "West Philippines Sea". [2]

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used the dispute to push for the American Senate to ratify the United Nations Law of the Sea. This move would open up the way for greater US Navy patrols in South China Sea. At a recent Senate hearing, Panetta expressed warnings of increasing "gunboat diplomacy" by rival claimants to disputed maritime areas. Furthermore, the US is sending its top-of-the-line Littoral Combat Ships into the region. [3]

The use of the phrase "gunboat diplomacy" to refer to Chinese actions will probably not sit well with the Chinese public. The Chinese consider the Huangyan Island part of Chinese territory, therefore they do not view their reaction to the current dispute as an exercise in aggressive military display or adventurism Furthermore the Chinese nation suffered extensively from the classic gunboat diplomacy of Western powers. The US sending advanced naval forces into the area thousands of miles from America's shores while decrying "gunboat diplomacy" is likely to further stir up nationalist sentiment in China.

The bottom line
Despite the rising tensions in the South China Sea, military conflict seems still far from inevitable. The Chinese government and the Philippines have recently resumed diplomatic contact in the Chinese embassy in Manila. (The Philippines had cut off official dialogue in late April). A face-saving solution may yet be available for both sides.

Significantly, the Chinese media have focused on the ongoing dispute's negative impact on the Philippines' economy. As the Chinese embassy in Manila warns of "massive anti-Chinese protests" and advises its citizens to stay indoors, Chinese travel agencies are canceling trips to the Philippines and reimbursing prepaid expenses. Filipino fruit exports to China are coming under increased scrutiny.

As an editorial in China Daily points out:
It is obvious that a decline in the number of Chinese tourists traveling to the Philippines will have a negative effect on the country's tourism industry as China is among its top four sources of incoming international tourists. But this is only the tip of an iceberg in the overall interaction between the two countries. In2011, bilateral trade set a historical record to reach $30 billion. Beijing is Manila's third largest trading partner. Against such a rosy picture, the Philippine's GDP growth rate slipped to 3.7 percent in 2011,compared to 7.6 percent in 2010, and the government is facing a great deal of pressure from the public to improve the domestic situation.
Economic power, rather than military might, is the backbone of China's foreign policy. The Chinese government is aware that any military conflict between China and the Philippines will have serious repercussions for China's international image. The Chinese leadership has gone to some length to reassure neighboring countries of its plans for a "Peaceful Rise." The soft power of mutual economic self-interest may be more effective than military coercion as a bargaining tool with other nations.

Even as the rhetoric escalates, moves are being made for economic integration and mutual-benefit. Manuel Pangilinan, one of the wealthiest Filipino captains of industry and the chair of Philex Mining Corporation, has called for joint development of a large deposit of natural gas with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation within the disputed South China Sea. [4] Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reacted positively, saying: "Beijing is willing to talk with Manila about the joint development, and the key is that the Philippine side should be sincere..." [5]

A continued paradigm of confrontation is not the only possible outcome to the ongoing crisis. Bilateral territorial disputes may be a zero-sum game, but economic development is not. Mutually beneficial, face-saving measures can be taken by both sides to exploit the resources of the South China Sea while avoiding a confrontation that no one will win. Indeed, as my Chinese friend told me: "The people are angry, but the government leaders know war will have no benefit."

1. Peace will be a miracle if provocation lasts, Global Times, May 9, 2012.
2. Hu oils cogs to lock the US Asia 'pivot', Asia Times Online, May 8, 2012.
3. Chinese media warns of war with Philippines, The Telegraph, May 10, 2012.
4. Filipino titans clash over oil deal with Chinese firm, Yahoo News. May 10, 2012.
5. Manila's provocations will worsen impasse, China Daily, May 10, 2012.

Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Vietnam floats between China and US (May 11, '12)

Long live 'our' Gulf bastards

2. Vietnam floats between China and US

3. Thai army secretly plans for the worst

4. The anatomy of Chen's change of heart

5. Clinton draws Dhaka into the Great Game

6. US claim of Iran-al-Qaeda 'deal' discredited

7. Bloody new campaign to oust Assad

8. US: China's aggression written in the stars

9. Iran queries Obama's pact with Karzai

10. 'No biting the bear's sensitive parts'

(May 11-13, 2012)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110