Cold War, hot words: Godwin's Law and South China Sea Diplomacy

Tue, 06/03/2014 - 10:48

by Alan Robles


Let's be clear about one thing: China is furious at the Philippines. Plenty mad.

When I asked a high-level source, "on a scale of one to 10, how angry is China at the Philippines?", he at once replied: "Nine."

It's THAT lawsuit. When Manila announced it was hauling Beijing before an arbitration court of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, it made the world's next superpower look petty and cheap, as if it were a shifty litigant with a dodgy claim in a property dispute. It's a loss of face not easily forgiven and the displeasure has been evident. In February, Chinese coast guard ships used water cannon to drive Filipino boats out of traditional fishing grounds at Panatag Shoal. This March, Chinese ships stopped Philippine vessels resupplying a Marine outpost at Ayungin Shoal, forcing our military to resort to an airdrop.

Anger over the suit is the main reason China's singled out our country for bullying, but there are two others: the intimidation is part of a calibrated strategy, and we're seen as the weakest link in a chain that hems in Beijing's geostrategic ambitions. Last year, Chinese air force colonel Dai Xu identified the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan as the three "running dogs" of the US in Asia. He advised, "we only need to kill one, and it will immediately bring the others to heel." You don't need to be Kissinger to spot the weediest mutt in the kennel.

With Beijing turning the screws, tension's been rising. In March, a Hainan official said the province had already started implementing rules forbidding "unauthorized foreign" fishing and exploration vessels from the South China Sea. Pessimists think it's just a matter of time before this maritime aggrandizement is complemented by its aerial equivalent, an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Meanwhile, the Philippines and the US are ironing out an agreement allowing American installations to be sited inside existing Philippine bases - such as Palawan's Oyster Bay, which faces the sea that China claims.

Does it mean there's soon going to be a shooting war? No, unless someone on either side does something truly stupid. China knows very well that if it were to attack it would hand a wonderful diplomatic and propaganda gift to the Philippines: the image of a weak, helpless country beaten up by a great power. For its part, Manila doesn't prioritize combat, where it will always be overmatched. Instead the government is deploying words, diplomats , lawyers -- and Hitler.

This February, President Benigno Aquino compared China to Nazi Germany in 1939, referring to the Munich agreement where Great Britain and France sold out Czechoslovakia. He asked, "at what point do you say 'enough is enough'? Remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler."

It did not go down well in China, where state-owned media responded by attacking Aquino's "inflammatory approach", describing him as someone who "has never been a great candidate for a wise statesman in the region" and dismissing him as "an amateurish politician who was ignorant both of history and reality." Aquino's critics in Manila flayed him for making the statement.

Did he have to go out of his way to make the comparison? Apparently, he did. The interview was an indirect reply to an offer Beijing had made through a high-level intermediary. It proposed that, in return for the Philippines either dropping or even just delaying submission of its memorial (the technical name for its written arguments), both countries would pull out from Panatag Shoal. China would even sweeten the pot by increasing development assistance.

The offer, which Beijing later angrily denied making, was meaningless. It said nothing about China renouncing its claim, nor refraining from sending its ships back anytime. Meanwhile, it would commit the Philippines to dropping its one strong weapon, thelawsuit. Former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez likened it to "an intruder in your own back yard asking the owner that they should both leave." Aquino's Hitler analogy was his answer to the offer - a "no" with swastikas attached.

Anybody Facebook veteran will recognize that by saying what he did, Aquino dragged in Godwin's Law. This is a half-joking principle that applies to arguments on the Internet: it predicts that the longer (and more heated) an online argument lasts, the greater the chance comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis will be brought up. In fact, Asia seems to be threatened by an outbreak of Godwin. Already, North Korea's compared the Japanese prime minister to Hitler, Thai protesters likened life under former PM Thaksin Shinawatra to the Third Reich, and Vietnamese demonstrators rallied holding placards against "Chinazi."

The law implies that the moment Hitler is mentioned, discourse breaks down. This hasn't quite happened in Asia yet, but China's territorial assertiveness is putting a nasty edge to diplomacy. It's been a rude awakening for Southeast Asia in general and the Philippines in particular.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) used to be famed as a stately collegial body that prized consensus and took its time harrumphing its way through largely non-controversial issues. Now its 10 members are divided: the Philippines and Vietnam are foremost advocates of Asean's drawing up a "code of conduct" on the South China Sea. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, all dependent on Chinese aid, are dragging their feet.

For the Philippine public, the South China Sea controversy is a jarring introduction to regional diplomacy. Literally and figuratively insular, Filipinos used to be uncaring about Asian affairs. Now that they face Chinese "coast guard" ships in Philippine territorythey're being given a crash course on the topic. Some reactions to the incursions haven't been pretty. One source I talked to expressed relief the Philippines doesn't have strong military forces, because otherwise, he worried, a vocal and bellicose public would probably have pressured our government into going to war.

The sea dispute drives home a stark reality - geography is destiny. Our archipelago happens to lie along -- or within -- the "first island chain" that China considers essential for its security. It has good reasons: first, during ts "century of humiliation" China was attacked by colonial powers who came in from the sea. Second, most of the cities that drive China's economic growth are strewnalong its coastline.

The trouble lies in how China's trying to secure itself - with a heavy hand. Analysts have already noted China's similarity to another aspiring great power in the past, Germany in the years leading up to World War I (this year marks that war's centenary). LikeImperial Germany in the 1890s, China is a land power that, driven by strong nationalism, aspires to be a seapower as well. While it shouldn't be pushed too far, the analogy is fascinating. Thinking itself encircled by enemies, Germany made its paranoia self-fulfilling by antagonizing France, Russia and Great Britain. Now China seems to bent on simultaneously squabbling with Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, perhaps Malaysia and Indonesia -- and in the background, India and the US.

In this mix of sharks and little fish, the Philippines is very much a minnow. But in refusing to accept Beijing's vague and greedy "nine-dash line", a bald-faced all-encompassing grab at the South China Sea, the Philippines has put itself on the top of Beijing's "dislike" list. Manila has no choice: if it didn't oppose Beijing's claims, Filipinos could see their country's territory being whittled down, and access to the oceanic natural resources cut off. The nine-dash line has no precise coordinates: for all we know we might end up having to pay Beijing admission fees to swim in the waters off Zambales and La Union.

So the Philippines has been fighting with words, lawyers and diplomacy. China probably plans to squeeze the tiny Philippine contingent off Ayungin Shoal without resorting to violence. Everyone is waiting to see what effect the introduction of US facilities in the Philippines will have. Hitler, Munich, water cannon, memorials -- it's going to be interesting geopolitical times ahead, fun to study and dissect, though not as funfun when your country happen to be in the frontlines.


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