Column: To China, with (tough) love

Written somewhat foolhardily in the middle of a seminar, and published on July 17, 2012. As it happens, this post is this blog’s 888th.

In the ongoing dispute with the new superpower over competing territorial claims, the Philippines finds itself between the devil and the South China Sea. No simple solution to the controversy appears on the horizon, and the country has recourse to only a few options.

But some options are better than others. I would like to make the case that, contrary to the usual speculative criticism, the Philippines has actually made the best of a bad situation. I remain worried that, in the end, and as a Chinese journalist I met last month on his way to New York argued persuasively, the current shape of the conflict would only strengthen the all-too-visible hand of the People’s Liberation Army. But what, really, can we do? The country’s options are limited.

Let me begin by first engaging the views of Boying Pimentel—friend, author and San Francisco-based journalist. In his July 9 column for Inquirer.net’s popular Global Nation section, Boying makes a larger point, or rather works under an assumption,  that I completely agree with, about the hardliners gaining the most from any protracted dispute. But almost everything else in “How Malacañang is Making It So Easy for Beijing” I found problematic.

The problems begin with the lead, which labor under the burden of two false facts and one contentious interpretation.

Boying writes: “It didn’t take long for President Benigno Aquino III to realize that appearing to brag about having the US send planes to spy on the Chinese military in the disputed territories was a bad idea.” But as far as I can tell, President Aquino has not in fact reached such a realization. The column’s assertion is a statement of fact that has no basis in reality (at least, I cannot find it). I can think of no inside source who would characterize Mr. Aquino’s post-statement behavior as mistaken or chastened. And if this change of heart did not happen, then the factual basis promised by the assertion that “it didn’t take long” for the President to realize his mistake was also imagined.

The column does attempt to provide a justification for its sweeping lead. Between the third and sixth paragraphs, Boying argues that Mr. Aquino walked back his spy-plane comment. “Aquino tells Reuters that his government ‘might be requesting overflights’ by the US using special surveillance planes,” the third paragraph begins. Three paragraphs later, we read: “Finally, Aquino backtracks. He tells Agence France Presse that he didn’t really say that Manila had asked for the spy planes. ‘If you will go through the transcript of the interview, [you’ll find that] I said, We might.”’

This sequence suggests that the column’s fourth and fifth paragraphs record an evolution in the President’s thinking, an evolution capped by proof of presidential back-tracking. Or they describe a large outcry against the spy-plane statement, ending with protests outside Malacañang or rumors of discord in its inner councils. But in fact the two paragraphs do no such thing. Instead, they describe speculation (“led by Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Gringo Honasan”) about the use of the surveillance aircraft and the limits of the country’s mutual defense treaty with the United States. In other words, the two in-between paragraphs are not so much a refutation of the preceding passage as a digression.

The assertion of back-tracking in the sixth paragraph is thus unsupported. Indeed, when we parse the third and the sixth paragraphs, we find that (a) President Aquino only said he “might” ask for US assistance, as quoted by Reuters; and (b) he repeated that he only said “might,” as quoted by AFP. Where, exactly, is the back-tracking?

Is all this, as Boying suggests in the eighth paragraph of his column, pointless hairsplitting? I do not think so, and the column itself invests its initial paragraphs with the assumption that the President must be held accountable for his choice of words.

There is, I would think, a small but real difference between “might” and “will,” between saying that the Philippines might call on US assistance through surveillance flights, and actually doing so. In the calibrated language of diplomacy, raising the possibility of American assistance is a careful mid-step—a signal, not an escalation.

There is also, I would think, no real argument that the last thing China wants is to “multilaterize” the South China Sea problem. Its foreign ministry spokesmen have said as much, insisting on a bilateral framework for resolving all issues. The real background to this bilateral approach, however, is a surprising one. China is more vulnerable to multilateral pressure than a casual observer or a speculative critic might think.

“China is more beholden now to international forces than ever before,” I heard China expert Tony Saich say earlier this year. To be sure, he was speaking in a different context. But his discussion of the impact of the many transitions an emergent China was going through actually helps make sense of China’s recent actions—in particular, the deescalation of the situation in Scarborough Shoal at the exact time the foreign ministers of Southeast Asia were preparing to meet in the Cambodian capital.

In this light, it would be reasonable to think that raising the possibility of American assistance would only add more pressure on China. The situation remains unideal, but the alternative would have been a form of appeasement, a throwing of our fates on China’s benevolence. Is that the way to deal with the biggest kid in the schoolyard? That would bring us back to the ZTE years.

 

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Nieman Notes, Readings in Politics

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