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Going Bananas in the South Pacific

Though both sides have pulled away their warships, China and the Philippines are still engaged in a standoff near the Scarborough Shoal: a form of commercial warfare. A Chinese ban on Filipino bananas has left tons of fruit rotting on Filipino docks. China claims that health concerns prompted the ban, but Filipinos see it as retaliation for its Scarborough stand.

Beijing’s growing economic power gives it new leverage in the region, and it hasn’t been shy about wielding the weapon:

[Stephen Antig, the director of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association,] estimates that as many as 200,000 people in the region will lose their livelihood if China continues to curb imports. Antig had been due to visit China soon to talk to buyers but is going instead to Iran and several Arab countries in search of substitute markets.

There’s also another front in China’s campaign of commercial coercion:

The tourism industry, meanwhile, has been hammered by a rash of abrupt cancellations of vacation bookings from China after a travel advisory issued by Beijing. [Benigno] Aquino [the president of the Philippines], speaking Friday to Washington Post editors and reporters, said: “That advisory, we think, was very unfounded. They were portraying us as being anti-Chinese.’’

Nationalism still drives conflicts between China and its tiny neighbors, and this skirmish over a remote rocky atoll in the South China Sea is a preview for larger contests we might see in the future. Commercial warfare is a strong tool in China’s arsenal, and Beijing is likely to use it again.

The truth is, China’s neighbors are looking for an alternative to capitulation or containment; they want a third way—a reasonable relationship with a reasonable China. This third way is what the US is also seeking; the hope is that the wiser heads in China who understand this already can persuade their more short-tempered colleagues that in the great Game of Thrones, less is sometimes more.

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  • Kenny

    Before there’s a third way, China will first have to get a good spanking.

    Much like the French, the [Chinese] are trying to punch way above their weight in world affairs. And just like the agenda of the French, China’s international efforts are not conducive to enhancing the common good of either its neighbors or the world.

    China has been tolerated up to now for a number of reasons. But if China really starts to act up, it’s off to the woodshed they go. Fact.

    Doubt me? Watch and see how events unfold over, say, the next five or ten years.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I predict that China’s commercial coercion is going to backfire. Nothing can force your trading partners to trade with you if they don’t want to. China’s exports to its local neighbors is going to suffer, as there isn’t anything China produces which can’t be purchased elsewhere.

  • Brendan Doran

    I don’t doubt the woodshed, I wonder who is getting took. I think it’s us.

  • Steven E

    No, Kenney, different dynamic. The French are trying to live up to their past; they know they’re not really a first-class power, but their pride insists they act like it. Which is what the Russians are now trying to do, too. This can be annoying, but they know they aren’t what they were. They may rant and rave, but they won’t tip over the table, because they know they can’t win a brawl. They’re safe.

    The Chinese are basing their action, on the other hand, on strength they think is real. They really expect to smoothly surpass the United States, and expect everyone to recognize that and act accordingly. They think that it’s others who are miscalculating the inevitable correlation of forces. They’re Imperial Germany, expecting that building a large surface navy will convince the British to ally with them, rather than form a coalition against them.

    And the big problem is that no, you can’t just take them out to the woodshed. Failures due to overreach will simply be remembered as insults, to be avenged when China becomes powerful enough. Because they believe their rise is inevitable.

    There are three possible results at this point. The first is a major Chinese economic collapse that is so complete it ends the belief in China’s inevitable rise. This might require one so bad that it shatters the Chinese state into rival factions and civil war. The second is a containment coalition, which will be seen as a direct insult in China for the decades it will have to last to contain China. The third is Chinese hegemony.

    Reasonable China? It can happen in the short term, but not the long, as long as the Chinese people believe in their inevitable supremacy.

  • bob sykes

    The South Pacific is a few thousand miles away from this incident. Think Solomons.

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