Next steps, we are told, following the Philippines’ “victory” in the South China Sea dispute owing to the recent “favourable” Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling, is to initiate negotiations with China for peaceful resolution. It is quite baffling that this plan is emerging as the cornerstone of what the Philippine government plans to do next.
For one thing, China has been quite clear about its regard for Manila’s PCA project in The Hague. It has none. In his article China’s challenge to the Law of the Sea, Brahma Chellaney makes this confronting observation: “China’s obvious disdain for international mediation, arbitration or adjudication essentially takes peaceful dispute resolution off the table.”
How then must the Philippines approach the indifferent Chinese goliath? There is reason to fault Filipino leaders for a failure to do their homework well before facing their belligerent adversary. Some commentators attribute the failure of the government of former President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III to being too much of a den of high-nosed elitists to be effective participants in productive dialogue with the Chinese. Negotiation 101 dictates that you need to get into the head of the party on the other side of the table to effectively frame what you plan to bring to the discussion.
What is in China’s head?
Writing about the stance China has taken in showing no intent to “give even an inch on its claims to everything that falls within its unilaterally drawn ‘nine-dash line’,” Chellaney, perhaps unwittingly, provided valuable insight into the thinking China applies to this issue…
Clearly, China values the territorial gains—which provide everything from major oil and gas reserves to fisheries (accounting for 12 percent of the global catch) to strategic depth—more than its international reputation. Unfortunately, this could mean more trouble for the region than for China itself.
The valuable clue lies in the possibility that international reputation means very little to China relative to the vast economic return of its bigger overarching strategic objectives. People who had been witness to China’s rise to prominence will very well know the broader implications of this small insight into the Chinese character.
So that Filipinos can relate, perhaps it would serve them well to look back to their recent hisotry — back to the time when those ubiquitous vendors who hawked balut and taho on Manila’s streets were predominantly made up of ethnic Chinese immigrants. These humble Intsiks as they were called patiently produced, sold, and saved day in and day out. They were derided by “native Filipinos” as behos and looked down upon as an underclass plying an underclass trade.
Little did the locals realise the scale of the capital accumulation going on right under their noses. Chinese street hawkers plowed every cent of their profits back into their businesses and carried on that ethic of consistent production and shrewd re-investing even as their wealth grew. The rest is history.
Did the derision those original Intsiks cop from “native Filipinos” sting their egos? Perhaps. But, as history was to demonstrate, it was not enough to distract them from their overall mission to accumulate wealth and build capital. The Filipino-Chinese collectively rose to the top of the Philippines’ economic food chain, overcoming every imagined “roadblock” to progress we now hear “native Filipinos” incessantly use as excuses for the wretched state they find themselves in today.
Step out of domestic business history and back up and out to the macro global politics of the South China Sea we are witnessing today. Chellaney, in that snippet cited earlier, zeroed in on the very same Chinese ethic that, once again, blindsided Filipinos. They built stuff right under everybody’s noses while exhibiting the same hardening of their psyche against any appeal to “reputation”, just like Manila’s original balut and taho vendors exhibited a teflon-like indifference to social status as they built their businesses.
To the Chinese, it’s just business. Every little step they take, whether it is a step over a pothole on a Manila street, or a concrete block positioned on a small South China Sea rock is a step towards an economic goal.
“Reputation? Who needs that?” You could almost hear an Intsik say to himself as he takes those little steps.
I can buy reputation later.
Unfortunately, Filipinos have got the whole equation backwards. For Filipinos, reputation matters first. We can now see how that fatal equation worked for the Philippines. Reputation is the only bargaining chip Filipinos bring to the table — offered to an “enemy” who, historically, has never seen any value in it.
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