President Duterte’s oft-repeated assertion that we risk war if we push back China’s aggressive encroachments on our waters is a phantom fear. Given China’s deep-seated sense of self-identity as Zhong Guo — the center of the world — and its current thrusting on the world’s stage as a superpower, it is not likely that it will wage war on a country whose leadership has shown itself malleable, like putty in its hands.
Constructivist studies have resurfaced the importance of beliefs and values that shape a people’s interstate relations. In contrast to realpolitik approaches that put emphasis merely on economic forces and military hardware, this line of thinking revisits the effect of ideas on national policy. It shows how deeply rooted concepts of how the world works can determine how a society’s leadership and its institutions are likely to behave when faced with strategic choices.
In the South China Sea conflict, it is important to understand the cultural and historical narratives that drive its trajectory. Alastair Iain Johnston has helpfully provided the insight that culture has a historically imposed inertia on the policy choices countries make. He calls this “strategic culture,” where “both conflict and cooperation in international politics are rooted in historically constructed and socially learned assumptions about the strategic environment and appropriate responses to it.”
Historically, China has not been known to invade by military might. The Chinese idea of expansionism, according to Johnston, is “a progressive evolution towards a preordained and inevitable unity,” such as the expansion to the South in the 13th century by the Yuan dynasty, or today’s equivalent—the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative—which is perceived as driven by the impulse to centralize power through commercial and civilizational influence.
This strategy of conquest is rooted in its history of “Sinicizing the natives,” according to a Sinologist. Central and South China were added to the North by a gradual process of colonizing adjacent areas, not by military force—a process that went on for 2,500 years.
The Chinese tradition of interstate relations is to exercise direct bureaucratic control of the Sinic geographic core, and dominate other participants in the world system as virtual tributaries.
We are seeing the reemergence of this in the grand design of reinventing the old Silk Road; in reclaiming its supposed “historic” entitlements over the South China Sea; and the subtle and silent occupation of Southeast Asia through its policy of “going out” (“zouchugua”), a strategy to accelerate China’s overseas expansion through land and commercial acquisitions.
The now ubiquitous presence of mainland Chinese in a number of Southeast Asian capitals is not an accident. This new Chinese diaspora in the region is estimated to be at 2.3 to 2.7 million, just in the two decades after 1990. Contingents of Hui Muslims migrate to Indonesia and Malaysia. There is a large influx of mainland Chinese in Singapore, from several thousands in the 1990s to one million by 2008, making them the largest and most visible ethnic migrant community in the city-state.
Consistent with its age-old practice of Sinicizing border territories, China is diffusing its influence and moving its population across the region. Instead of war, this silent occupation seems to be the preferred mode of pacifying the littoral states claiming parts of the South China Sea, in keeping with Sun Tzu’s advice to try and win a battle without fighting.
A core piece of this strategy is the quiet incursions into our territorial waters. The Philippines has, within its exclusive economic zone, half of the gas and oil reserves in the whole of the South China Sea, hence, China’s persistent buildup of its invasive presence, in defiance of the arbitral ruling that we won in The Hague.
Already, mainland Chinese businessmen are gobbling up lands in El Nido, nearest to the Kalayaan group of islands in the Spratlys. They are positioning themselves as a dominant player in the economy. A sign of their increasing hegemony is the brazen arrogance of putting up restaurants exclusively “For Chinese Only.”
China has co-opted our political elite, as shown by the unaccountably subservient behavior of President Duterte toward it. There are now noises being made about pressing our claims. This may be merely tactical window-dressing of a policy that has been shown to be unacceptable to our people. The fact stands that there is no reason why the Chinese communist overlords should waste gunpowder on a tiny state whose leaders have already raised the white flag of surrender.
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Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D., is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.
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