OVER the years I recall cartoonists — who always understand best — showing a globe with a bear behind it, his claws grasping more and more of the territory at the edge of his fingers. The Soviets used it about American moves to “encircle” it in the 1950s, just as the French used it about British imperialist moves in the 19th century. Now, which is more apposite, the cartoons about China extending its reach in Asia, as (for example) its patrol boats protect Chinese fishermen in plainly Filipino waters? Or the ones about the new American moves to reassert itself in Asia as Marines begin establishing a multiplier base in Darwin, Australia?
Of course, it’s always partly the same. As countries’ economies expand, and their navies go with it, the navies have to find things to do — things they can do with new capabilities. Well, what’s better than protecting some Chinese fishermen? It’s not as if the Standing Committee of the Politburo said, “Let’s make a move and show who has power”, but it amounts to the same thing, throughout history. When you’ve asserted your domain over the “South China Sea”, then it follows that your orders go out to your navy to protect it. It’s like when the British, having established valuable trade in India 300 years ago, needed “coaling” stations along the way. Guess where the British African Empire began. It was the same with America, though of course we said it wasn’t an empire.
Now some of the smartest Filipinos are saying that the best thing the Chinese could do for the Philippines is to blast its coast from its vastly superior navy. The country is already showing a rare unanimity and nationhood over the confrontation at the Scarborough Shoal in what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea. If Beijing not only bared its fangs but let loose the cannon, the whole world would react — on Manila’s side. The “work in progress” of building a really coherent Filipino nation would benefit enormously. Already Manila has said that its balikbayan exercises with the United States Navy would proceed, even as Beijing blames them anew for causing the rumpus.
My own feeling is that the Chinese miscalculated. For nine years, the president, the unlamented Gloria Arroyo, let the Chinese have whatever they wanted, in return for personal favours — like the incredible broadband project, which allegedly carried with it a 50 per cent cut to the first family (or more) and blew up in their faces. Yet the Chinese ambassador who presided over all this in Manila, instead of getting the reward of a high position in the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, as he no doubt expected, was sent to Jakarta instead. Maybe the wise men of Beijing knew he’d missed the point. The Philippines doesn’t want vassalage.
Now meantime, Washington has a president whose view of the world didn’t start with Europe, like every predecessor of his. Europe’s shine was dimming anyway. He started in Asia, having spent his boyhood in Jakarta and Hawaii. It gives that global map a different perspective. And interestingly, that perspective corresponded with the real trend in world politics, everything shifting perceptibly to Asia. It was going to happen anyway, but Barack Obama has speeded up the shift in American priorities.
We have three tiers regarding China. There’s the inner circle, Japan, South Korea and in effect Taiwan. There’s a second rung, which Obama is beefing up. Basing in Singapore, Australia — and long talks with Filipinos about how best to “protect” them. And there are long talks with some surprising folks not so far from where you readers are sitting. Some are speculating even long talks about the very bases in Vietnam that we withdrew from in defeat a long generation ago. Just look at the map and imagine the rest. The fact is, China is utterly dependent on free passage through the Strait of Malacca; it would be crippled in months if cut off.
Of course, the third tier is the Seventh Fleet, Pearl Harbor, and the American mainland.
So, when a senior Filipino adviser said that he hoped Beijing “bombs the hell out of us, because then the Philippines becomes a united nation”, he meant it. And of course he knows the consequences. Asean tightens up, solidarity all around, and Obama doubles the base in Darwin and Manila renews long dormant but never dead ties (and tons of military assistance to the Philippines).
That’s why smarter people in Beijing are having second thoughts; if for nothing else, for timing. It’s too soon for them to start baring the claws.