POSTSCRIPT / May 20, 2014 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Rapprochement as option for US, China

HESITATION: This may be hard for Filipinos to swallow, but despite Obamic oratory and a supposedly iron-clad mutual defense treaty, the United States appears not ready to confront China over reefs and corals scattered in the South China Sea being claimed by its ally the Philippines.

The US has tried but failed to drum up support for a common front among its friends and clients in Southeast Asia, the Philippines included, to serve as a regional containment arc under the belly of China.

In its recent summit in Myanmar, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations again rejected an American suggestion to use the group for a multilateral approach to resolving territorial disputes – as opposed to the direct bilateral dialogue that China wants.

Of the 10 members of ASEAN, only Vietnam and the Philippines showed enough gumption to name China as the neighborhood bully that the group only referred to indirectly.

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BUSINESS FACTOR: The US is asking ASEAN to assume a stiff posture that it cannot assume itself vis-à-vis China. It wants fast-growing China contained, but is not willing to do it itself directly.

The US is not ready to antagonize China — its biggest creditor (after Japan) to which it owes $1.272 trillion and with which it has a negative balance of trade of $318.417 billion ($440.433 billion imports minus $122.016 billion exports) — for something as intangible as historic ties with the Philippines.

Thousands of big US firms own factories in China, or have contract factories manufacturing their products, mainly because of low labor costs and the proximity to the burgeoning Asian market.

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RAPPROCHEMENT: It makes no sense quarreling with a major business partner or disturbing an emergent market. Indeed, why make war when one can make oodles of money instead?

Manila might as well wake up and prepare for what is looming on the horizon – a likely rapprochement between Washington and Beijing for their mutual benefit.

When US State Secretary John Kerry talked over the phone last week with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, his main message was that the US was not taking sides in the South China Sea disputes, and did not intend to make any judgment on the issue of territorial sovereignty.

While the State’s spokesperson quoted Kerry as saying China’s introduction of an oil rig and many government vessels in Paracels waters disputed with Vietnam was “provocative”, China’s foreign ministry spokesman said Kerry made no such comment.

Having given their respective version of the conversation, both the US and China can be expected not to press the “provocation” issue.

The US has shown Vietnam and its other friends in the area anxious over China’s aggressiveness that it was ready to speak for them. And by insisting on its version of the conversation, China has reassured its population inflamed by Vietnamese stubbornness.

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‘MONA LISA’ FATE: Did Manila notice that while US President Barack Obama no less served notice that the US was ready to fight for Japan’s rights over the disputed Senkaku islands, he only urged the Philippines to resolve its quarrel with China through diplomatic and lawful means?

While praising the Philippines for bringing up the case for arbitration before a United Nations tribunal on the basis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the US itself has not bothered to sign/ratify the very UNCLOS it is invoking for the Philippines.

The case is not likely to be resolved during the term of President Noynoy Aquino. But that does not matter, since he can point out he has taken the tuwid na daan all the way to the UN while adhering to the rule of (international) law.

With China’s refusal to participate, however, the Philippine bid for arbitration is expected to meet a “Mona Lisa” fate — “many dreams have been brought to your doorstep, they just lie there and they die there.”

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PRE-POSITIONING: As the US does not want to see its heavily-laden applecart to Beijing upset, the Philippines must steel itself for likely disappointments over the Chinese Dragon’s gobbling up its territorial fringes.

With its failed experiments at anti-communist regional Cold War alliances, such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Australia-New Zealand-US (ANZUS) group, the US is not likely to try cobbling again a defense shield against a China that has opened itself to the world.

As it tested the ASEAN waters, Washington discovered that it still has to do much probing and proving in the inscrutable East before it can slow down a native China resolutely broadening its sphere of influence and cementing its status as a super power.

Failing to develop a homegrown alliance aimed at China, the US now has to pre-position its own forces as close as possible to the mainland while loudly disavowing any intention of containment.

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POWER SHIFT: The world’s geopolitical center of gravity is shifting to this densely populated half of the globe, prompting the US to announce its plan for a strategic pivot to Asia whereby 60 percent of its armed forces are to be moved to Asia-Pacific.

Even as it shops around for forward base locations for its migrating forces, this swing to Asia may be delayed, because of domestic (US) political and economic issues, complicated by a Russia under Vladimir Putin dreaming of embracing back the republics that had drifted away from the old Soviet Union.

It is doubtful that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) can hold back Russian re-expansionism if the US which is supporting some 70 percent of its military spending shifts its focus, finances and forces to Asia.

The easier and less costly way to check China without neglecting Europe is to work out a rapprochement – before a Beijing-Moscow axis materializes and makes that soft approach to co-existence more difficult.

Meantime, the Philippines should aim for self-reliance and not put all its eggs in the unsteady American basket.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 20, 2014)

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