Most of my friends are understandably very upset with China for its occupation of the entirety of the South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea, if you’d like to be fruitlessly politically correct). It’s not just because the Philippines won its case in international court in the Hague, but quite simply, even a 7-year-old would know China is being patently unfair if the child is shown a map of the swath of sea claimed by China but bordered mostly by other countries. Some are additionally upset because of possible mineral, petroleum, and marine resources in the region. Finally, there’s the concomitant destruction of coral reefs and ecosystems when the Chinese build their island bases.
I’m not as upset as most. Partially, I have doubts about how much those islands are worth to our economy. I think if a lot more were, we’d have been already exploiting those resources by now. As it is, all I’ve seen so far are some fishing boats shooed away and exploration projects put on hold. (Many of the latter would be unsuccessful anyway; that’s just the way the upstream petroleum industry is). Much more importantly, I’m not as upset because I know in the world of geopolitics, losing territory to greater powers is simply the way the ball rolls. (And how the Philippines and the US dropped the ball on this one!)
The post-World War II era of mostly stable borders across the world may have led you to believe otherwise. But this stability of territories was created and enforced by the major powers, chiefly the United States and the Soviet Union, simply because unstable borders were the cause of the first two world wars, and they certainly didn’t want a third one, knowing that nuclear weapons may well cause human extinction. With rare exceptions like South Vietnam, territories were mostly sacrosanct even as the Cold War raged. The major powers mostly sought to recruit allies, rather than invade and occupy territories. This state of affairs carried on by momentum and fait accompli even after the Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but the underpinnings for it certainly disappeared without anyone noticing. Quite simply, the threat of nuclear holocaust for great powers who invade others’ territories mostly disappeared–except of course if such territorial invasion would be a direct threat to a great power.
China’s occupation of the South China Sea is no such threat as long as they keep the sea lanes open, and indeed, the US and other major economies have made it clear that they wouldn’t countenance China seeking even passage permission for ships plying the major trading route to much of East Asia. But other than that, well, we and all the other weak claimants of portions of the South China Sea are effectively on our own.
We should know and accept that the South China Sea is lost to us. This may not have necessarily been the case had the US shown aggressiveness when China first started building its island bases, by say, blockading reclamation ships. But it’s now too late as it would be too humiliating for China to withdraw from fully built, operational, and occupied islands. That would be akin to losing a third Opium War. (That’s when the British forced China to accept opium as payment for tea (really!), to cede Hong Kong, to lease Kowloon, and to open many other “treaty ports” for unfettered trade in China). No Chinese leader, perhaps even the Communist Party itself, could survive such humiliation. Indeed, I suspect a subconscious reason for this Chinese obsession with the South China Sea is to get back at the West for the destruction wrought upon it as a result of losing the Opium Wars.
We are not alone in losing territory. Ukraine is never getting Crimea back from Russia, nor Georgia, South Ossetia. Mexico is never going to get Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California back from the US, even though President Polk in his memoirs revealed that the pretexts for the Mexican-American War (or North American Invasion if you’re Mexican) were contrived so that the US could annex the territories it wanted. As for China, celebrities are never going to get the Dalai Lama his country back with photo ops. Having lost wars, the Ottoman Empire are the Prussian Empire are but relics for historians. This list is endless on every continent, from ancient to modern history.
What we can do, however, is try to make China’s occupation of the South China Sea a direct threat to the great powers. Though we’ll never get our maritime territory back, we can at least deny China the commercial use of it. How? We should announce–preferably along with our other aggrieved neighbors–that since international bodies like the UN Security Council are unable to defend our rightful territory as properly adjudicated in an international court, the Philippines is immediately withdrawing from every treaty that covers warfare. Because we’re weak and don’t have anyone willing to help defend us, we reclaim the right to use any means necessary to defend ourselves, whether nuclear, chemical, biological, etc. We of course don’t currently have the means to develop such weapons we should explain, but simply reserve the right to do so in the future. If we want to push the envelope a little, maybe we can even do symbolic violations of international treaties by putting poison in our bullets or making bayonets that look like nasty ice picks.
This may work because the US and any other countries who contemplate sanctions will realize they would look like total bullies and bad friends since the Philippines is the aggrieved party and doesn’t pose a threat to anyone. But if they don’t punish the Philippines, what’s to stop Japan, Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and many other more advanced and richer countries from making the same claim and doing the same thing, and for real this time? Such countries arming themselves with nuclear and other WMDs would indeed a pose a threat to existing great powers. So could we properly adjudicate the South China Sea please?
The other option, of course, is the ostensibly more utilitarian route of making nice to China, and in exchange for not embarrassing them too much for their stealing the South China Sea, ask for financial assistance that we need as a still-poor country. This appears to be what our government is doing today. The problem is that China long ago consciously weaponized its financial resources. This is the reason why it allowed Taiwan to entangle its economy with China’s and the reason why it’s making huge investments and giving large loans for various strategic projects everywhere in the world. It aims to expand its geopolitical power in this way, and we will not outsmart China in financial matters. They will get more out of these deals than we do, no doubt. Nor will China stop with the South China Sea; already, it’s contesting Philippine maritime territorial claims in the east of the Philippines, lest anyone think China cannot possibly make more absurd claims.
I’m told that in an ASEAN forum, when claimants of the South China Sea ganged up on China, the Chinese representative told his Philippine counterpart, “You should be careful; you’re all economically dependent on us.” To which I wish, our official had retorted, “Whether or not that’s true, contrary to what you believe, not everything is for sale.”
(This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP. The author is a member of the MAP National Issues Committee and the CEO of FIGS, Inc. Feedback at <firstname.lastname@example.org> and <Rafael.Reyes@figs.com.ph>. For previous articles, please visit <map.org.ph>).