China relations is a critical foreign policy issue of the incoming administration

Beyond the turmoil and bloodshed of Chinese nationalism, the Chinese Communist Party was officially founded a century ago. The Chinese civilization suffered humiliation in the hands of Western powers and its rising neighbor, Imperial Japan. As the Russians were challenging their northern borders, the Japanese expanded their territory in Manchuria. Tokyo and its military capability seemed boundless, as they encroached on Chinese territory, further weakening the Kuomintang who defiantly resisted Japanese militarism. Following the dropping of ferocious bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki paired with Soviet annexation of South Sakhalin, Japan surrendered in 1945 and, later, the Chinese Civil War erupted that pitted the Communists against the Kuomintang. The latter suffered great losses, which caused them to retreat to modern-day Taiwan. On the other hand, the former gained the upper hand, declaring the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949. During this time, Chinese communism was overshadowed by a man named Mao Zedong.

Chairman Mao Zedong is being credited as the man who gave birth to what China is today, even though numerous political scientists and economic analysts strongly denounce his methods, policies, and innumerable atrocities. When Deng Xiaoping took over, he positioned the People’s Republic to adopt socialism with Chinese characteristics, where economic liberalization jumpstarted the economy and was enhanced with the adoption of special economic zones which, in turn, became the foundations for the transformation of China’s skyline. Years of impressive economic growth lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty, and then came Xi Jinping.

President Xi Jinping is one of the most powerful men on this planet, heading a country with the largest population armed with nuclear weapons. As the face of the People’s Republic, he has the second biggest economy behind him despite his authoritarian tendencies that are far from being unnoticeable. He plans to make China a significant player in the world stage while leaving a legacy for his country — a commitment that is making other nations uneasy. Unfortunately, the Philippines is one of those neighboring countries. With such realities, what should the in-coming Philippine president do to address rising Chinese assertiveness?

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According to John Mearsheimer, the author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and a renowned intellectual in the field of international relations, there are five assumptions that should be considered in my attempt to apply the theory of offensive realism in this context. First, the international order is in a state of anarchy, where there is no hierarchy of countries. Second, each country has a degree of exerting offensive military power through their population and wealth. Third, countries are unsure of the intentions of others. Fourth, a country’s survival is its primary interest. Lastly, all nation-states act rationally in accordance to their interests. These bedrock assumptions can be witnessed as to how historical and global politics have unfolded.

In the Philippine setting, Chinese assertions in the South China Sea are becoming more aggressive. Aside from the various military outposts that are being constructed, various naval vessels are being stationed along these areas. These range from relatively small fishing ships that are manned by Chinese militia under the guise of being ordinary fishermen, to larger patrol cutters that have the words “China Coast Guard” written on their decks. They even have the capability to stay afloat in tropical storms due to their massive tonnage. This salami-slicing approach of territorial acquisition caused various concerns beyond Southeast Asia as the aforementioned sea is an important trade route where various goods are shipped internationally. The Chinese behemoth is acting not in terms of what is accepted as morally sound by international standards, but in accordance to what Beijing thinks as its “realpolitik”. Chinese behavior in these waters cannot be checked and the arbitration ruling in The Hague cannot be implemented due to the international order’s anarchic nature. As such, Beijing has no need to bow down to international pressure and popular public opinion, since they also have the veto card in the United Nations’ Security Council. However, Manila has a few cards under its sleeve and if played wisely, might make the China issue more bearable than what it currently seems.

As an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member state, the Philippines must find methods in searching and aligning mutual interests in the ASEAN community. Manila cannot impose its wants through ASEAN because other member states treat and value their respective China relations differently. Cooperation and intensified talks with Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Hanoi can provide hints in addressing such issues, specially when considering that their relationships with Beijing are far from cordial. As a primary trading partner of Japan, which also has disputes with the People’s Republic, ensuring a shared policy of monitoring the seas is important. This is of utter importance due to the fact that Beijing’s first and second island chains include portions of Japanese and Philippine waters. Finally, as a major non-NATO ally of the United States, negotiating terms to strengthen Philippine military infrastructure is imperative since a Manila having the ability to proactively check Chinese aggressions is also a win for American diplomacy, due to Washington’s historical tendency to act as an offshore balancer.

With the next Presidential elections coming this May, Manila will have a new chief architect of foreign policy. The Duterte administration attempted to search for means to resolve these disputes but only garnered limited gains. Ideally, a more consistent yet versatile approach is needed specially because diplomacy is not a game for the feeble-minded. When Filipinos practice their right to suffrage, the electorate must look for a presidential candidate who possesses the diplomatic dexterity and finesse to employ strategic ambiguity accordingly. This territorial dispute with Beijing, which has been on the President’s table for a number of decades, has seen no favorable resolution so engaging China through diplomacy will be a battle of attrition. The future president must know when to raise the stakes, and when to de-escalate the situation. It is through Chinese relations where the Philippine president’s mettle will be rigorously tested.

Presidents Richard Nixon’s and Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and in his renowned book Diplomacy points out that military action and diplomatic recourse should come hand-to-hand lest one be witness to an undesirable outcome. Kissinger stated that Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s ability to balance out internal politics and foreign affairs is outstanding, as his leadership witnessed German expansion and unity in Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870. A pragmatic policy in the name of national interests must also be adopted in the Philippines, more so that a country’s internal situation greatly influences how it can play global politics. Following Mearsheimer’s second assumption in his theory of offensive realism, the country can amplify its offensive power through wealth generation, which can be achieved by empowering the economy, liberalizing the market, and continuous investment in the fields of research and development. Thus, correcting the current constitution can indirectly assist in providing better cards for Manila to play in the field of diplomacy.

However, diplomacy itself is only half of the game. Strengthening the ability of the Philippine armed forces is a national imperative if we are to keep our territorial integrity intact. Chinese encroachments will not cease anytime in the immediate future. The Chinese Coast Guard will continue to harass our fisherfolk, endangering livelihood and employment opportunities of the country. The military must possess the capability to deny and counter these provocative actions by ensuring that the Philippines has command over its seas plus the ability to demonstate credible aerial superiority. A sound military strategy combined with pragmatic diplomacy would yield a formidable national security framework. This will only come to fruition if the incoming chief architect of foreign policy and incoming commander-in-chief possesses the core competencies required to keep on top of the rigors of the presidency.

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