Page 2 of 2 The devil and the deep South China Sea
By Walden Bello
Despite their hesitations in giving the Philippines' legal case their full public endorsement, the effort is eliciting widespread admiration in official circles in Vietnam, with one retired ambassador calling it "heroic". A key reason for the popularity of the move is that it blindsided Beijing and upset China's careful calculations. According to one expert on Chinese diplomacy, "the reason they're upset is because they already have five battlefields-the political, diplomatic, mass media, security, military - and now you've added a sixth: the legal battlefield." He continued: "The Chinese have a saying: 'When the flag is in your hands, don't yield it to others.'" Beijing, in other words, feels very much at sea on the legal front, where experts in international law will be calling the shots.
The United States: from enemy to ally?
In an irony of history, the Vietnamese have welcomed Washington's plans to increase the US military footprint in the region to "balance" China. Once an enemy, Hanoi now has good security relations with the United States, whose navy Vietnam has invited to use the former Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay for logistical and ship-repair needs.
For the same reason, the Vietnamese approve of the US military's controversial build-up in the Philippines. Their position on this matter has not changed since I met with foreign ministry officials during a visit to Hanoi in 2011, where I was told that as a long-time ally of the United States, it was the role of the Philippines to ask the United States to increase its military presence in the Western Pacific. Hanoi's thinking is classic Leninist balance-of-power logic: China is the ascendant force and the United States is a power in decline, so the weaker parties - including the Philippines, Vietnam, ASEAN, and Japan - must band together with the United States to contain the rising imperial power.
In my various talks over three days, I articulated my disagreement with this logic. Fundamentally, the United States cannot be counted on to support the Philippines' and Vietnam's territorial claims, and Washington cannot be assumed to be motivated simply by balance-of-power considerations. The United States will advance its own strategic and economic interests as a quid pro quo for requests for assistance.
Moreover, inviting the United States to have a larger military presence is counterproductive if the aim is to resolve Asian territorial disputes with China. A larger US presence would transform the regional context into a superpower conflict, thus marginalizing the territorial question and the possibility for its resolution. Moreover, inviting Washington to plant an even bigger military footprint in the Philippines would convert the country into a front-line state like Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all the terrible consequences such a status entails - including the subordination of its economic development to the strategic-military priorities of a superpower.
It is also too early to tell if the US decline is temporary or irreversible. It is instructive to remember that the Untied States snapped back strongly in the 1990s after many experts thought it would inevitably be surpassed by a rising Japan. Similarly, it is not a foregone conclusion that China will displace the United States, especially since its model of export-led development is in crisis and Beijing is not at all sure it can make the transition to a domestic market-led growth path without massive internal upheaval.
Finally, a balance-of-power situation is unstable and prone to generate conflict, since although no one may want a war, the dynamics of conflict may run out of everyone's control and lead to one. On this last point, I asserted: "China's aggressive territorial claims, the US 'Pivot to Asia', and Japan's opportunistic moves add up to a volatile brew. Many observers note that the Asia-Pacific military-political situation is becoming like that of Europe at the end of the 19th century, with the emergence of a similarly fluid configuration of balance-of-power politics. None of the key players in East Asia today may want war. But neither did any of the great powers on the eve of the First World War. The problem is that in a situation of fierce rivalry among powers that hate one another, an incident may trigger an uncontrollable chain of events that may result in a regional war, or worse."
My Vietnamese audiences listened politely but were unconvinced. Nonetheless, they were game enough to laugh when I jokingly said: "Well, since you have offered them Cam Ranh Bay, the Americans may no longer have any need for Subic Bay." Subic is the former US base in the Philippines that Washington has new designs on, to serve as a forward site in its strategy to contain China.
Swimming with the sharks
The Philippines and Vietnam are natural allies in their common struggle against China's drive for hegemony in East Asia. Already partners in ASEAN, the two are likely to be driven closer together by Beijing's increasingly brazen displays of power as it enforces its claim to some 80% of the South China Sea.
Both have also drawn closer to the United States, seeking to use Washington to balance China's growing military presence in the region. Vietnam has played the US card more adroitly, however, relying on the Philippines to explicitly invite an expanded US military presence on its soil and seas, something the Vietnamese would not themselves allow.
Having defeated the United States in war, the Vietnamese seem confident they can handle the United States as an ally. This probably accounts for a lack of appreciation of the different relationship the Philippines has with Washington. Manila has always been in a dependent relationship with the United States, and an expanded US presence in the Philippines would reinforce and deepen this status, subordinating the country's political and economic development to the security relationship. This would mean eliminating the fragile space for maneuver the country was able to carve out when it kicked out the US bases in 1992.
Vietnam, in short, may swim with the sharks and survive, but the Philippines, following the same balancing strategy, is bound to end up inside one of them.
Walden Bello is a member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines representing the Akbayan (Citizens' Action) Party.