Is it payback time in Asia?China has been remarkably patient as the US raised its profile in Asia, supported China’s neighbors over the South China Sea issue, pulled Myanmar out of its tight orbit around China and stepped up its military presence in the region. But a combination of Philippine and Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea has now created the first genuine test of America’s new Asia policy, and so far at least, China is taking a much tougher line.The Scarborough Shoal standoff has escalated. Chinese media is threatening the Philippines with war. China’s state-run media has held forth with fiery editorials, like this one from Wednesday’s Global Times:
The Philippines needs to be taught a lesson for its aggressive nationalism. . . . For China, the standoff over Huangyan Island is a matter of sovereignty. And now Manila needs to be defeated in this area.
That doesn’t sound like a quest for liberal, win-win solutions for international debts. It doesn’t sound like the kind of things a ‘responsible stakeholder’ would say. And it doesn’t sound like a country committed to ‘peaceful rise’. The Telegraph reports:
China warned its citizens in the Philippines to “stay indoors” on Thursday as its state media warned of war over a month-long dispute in the South China Sea. . . .Reports in Japan said five Chinese warships—including two guided missile destroyers, two frigates and a amphibious landing ship—had passed through waters close to Okinawa moving to Philippine reefs.
As Via Meadia has reported, the 1951 treaty between the US and the Philippines is interpreted by some in Manila as requiring the US to get involved on Manila’s side in disputes like this one — militarily, if that is what it takes. But, importantly, a State Department spokeswoman yesterday would not say the 1951 mutual defense treaty with the Philippines requires the United States to defend the Philippines against aggression. Her silence ought to disappoint the Philippines, which does not have the military capacity to face China alone (the Filipino Air Force doesn’t have a single combat-ready fighter jet).Though the standoff has at times taken on an air of comedy (see the video below from Taiwanese news service NMA.tv), the consequences of this dispute will help shape the new geopolitics of Asia. Philippines President Benigno Aquino, whose government has gotten itself into a pickle by starting a contest it lacks the means to win, has signalled to China his willingness to discuss a business arrangement, separate from the Scarborough dispute, that would allow for joint exploration of the South China Sea’s energy resources.Via Meadia thinks this is a great idea, and it is what American policy should be trying to promote, but the Philippines have gotten themselves into an awkward spot. There are a lot of people in China right now who want a clear win — a Philippine humiliation — rather than a nice face saving compromise. That isn’t just because they are nationalist hotheads who care passionately about the South China Sea; it’s also because from the standpoint of realpolitik China doesn’t want to create the impression that weak countries can get away with tweaking the dragon’s tail. If the Philippines are seen as gaining anything from the crisis, the Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese and others will all think that the time has come to push China on these unresolved border issues.America wants the region to stay quiet. We don’t want one crisis after another, and while we can’t let China run rampant, bullying its neighbors whenever it feels the need, we also don’t want to get sucked into an endless series of situations where we have to either throw an ally to the wolves or get into a high profile confrontation with China.If our friends and allies want our backing in a crisis, they need to consult with us before the crisis breaks out, and if they provoke China’s wrath by taking steps that we think are ill judged, we can’t let ourselves be dragged into the fight. On the other hand, they need to know that we will stand with them if they have pursued a thoughtful and moderate course — and even if they haven’t, we may be compelled to rally to their side if China’s response to their ill-judged provocations goes too far.America’s new Asian policy is the right thing to do, but doing it well is going to be hard. Encouraging Asian states to resist Chinese expansionism without signalling to their politicians that America will back them up no matter what isn’t easy to do.In the new era of world history now starting up, American diplomats and presidents are going to have to spend a lot more time studying maps of the waters around Asia than they have in the past, and they are going to have to master the intricacies of the territorial disputes that, increasingly, involve important American interests. [yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TaNVKC-9zlw’]