Tensions are rising between the Philippines and China, as activities in the West Philippine Sea are continuously being monitored, not only by their respective governments, but also by various countries who have tactical and strategic interests in these waters. From the recent water cannon incident which harassed fellow Filipinos, to beating the Chinese national basketball team in the recently held Asian Games, Filipino-Chinese relations are always being featured in various media outlets. Numerous individuals and groups are quick in pointing out Beijing’s bellicose actions, stirring national emotions further. Beating the drums of nationalism leads the country to take a jingoist stance. To make matters worse, politicians are willing to ride on this dangerous sentiment that is felt by these ordinary citizens. What are these politicians thinking about, and is it practical in protecting, promoting, and projecting our national interests?
To build international pressure against aggressive Chinese tactics in these contested waters, senators would say that the West Philippine Sea dilemma should be raised through the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This proposition supported by some intellectuals provide the United States-Nicaragua issue as a concrete example. However, this is erroneous because it fails to recognize two distinct factors that separate these issues from each other, which are the differences between the internal socio-political structures of the United States and China, and the plausibility of gaining a significant number of favorable votes in the UNGA.
There are stark, polarizing differences in the current socio-political structures between the United States and China. The former is a representative democracy, where regular elections are held and elected leaders reflect the sentiments of their constituents, while the latter follows autocratic communism. Unlike Washington where the power to govern is derived from its people, Beijing derives its power from the Chinese Communist Party, which reflects its position as an entity above its own constitution. Unlike modern liberal democracies, Chinese constituents legitimize its government only if it brings order and prosperity, which is uncannily similar with how the dynastic mandate of heaven operated. Thus, popular public opinion holds more weight in both domestic and foreign policies in Washington than in Beijing. With polarizing politics affecting both the Democrats and the Republicans, the United States faces a herculean task in finding the balance between political will and political concessions. This American political setting seems completely incongruent with the Chinese, where its perennially strong state institutions are willing to exert its authority in the name of national interest.
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Regarding the UNGA, passing resolutions in this multilateral organization is a numbers game, similar with how Philippine elections work. No matter how strong one’s case is in both legal and moral aspects, UN member countries have the tendency to favor what vote brings them greater benefits. Unlike Beijing, Manila is only a middle power and cannot easily influence the decisions of other countries. Taking a look at the Philippine diplomatic footprint in Africa is a tell-tale story of an uphill battle. Currently, the Philippines has embassies in Rabat, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Tripoli, Cairo, and Abuja, while China has diplomatic missions in all African capital cities, albeit for Eswatini. With Africa holding 55 votes in the UNGA and China having 54 embassies and 7 consulates in that continent, the Philippines has virtually zero assurance in winning the numbers game. In addition, Africa has historical relations with China, where Chinese admiral Zheng He has ventured to East Africa during the Ming dynasty. In the economic front, does Manila even have a program that comes close in confronting Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?
Unfortunately, many Filipinos and politicians seem unwilling to bridge the gap between what’s ideal from what’s practical, where they would rather point fingers at China instead of recalibrating its position. The West Philippine Sea issue has been continuing for more than five decades, and its peaceful and amicable resolution seems to be lightyears away. In addition, weak Philippine state institutions make Manila subservient to American pressure, where it doesn’t help in formulating pragmatic solutions. Washington’s intervention in Philippine affairs complicates the pursuance of an independent foreign policy, which is a constitutional mandate. American brands of exceptionalism and idealism is not applicable for this increasingly multipolar world order. On the other hand, despite its century-old historical grievances against China, a different Asian country is forging its own path. Enter India.
India, the crown jewel of British imperialism, became an independent nation-state in 1947. After being siphoned of its resources by the United Kingdom for nearly a century, it became a country renowned for its dehumanizing poverty. Starvation, political instability, and economic mismanagement was an everyday occurrence, where Great Britain continued harassing and abusing the Indian subcontinent. These internal weaknesses did not stop the Indian civilization from adopting a prudent foreign policy through then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which serves as the main blueprint framing China-India relations. These contentious territorial disputes in Aksai Chin, Arunachal Pradesh, and Kashmir separates New Delhi and Beijing, served as stern reminders for their leaders not to depend on external powers in defending themselves. Indian foreign policy is firmly grounded on Indian realpolitik for numerous decades, where New Delhi refused to align itself with larger and more influential powers. During the Cold War, India military hardware was primarily based on Soviet technology and adopted Russian manufactured arms. However, with the current geopolitical dynamics, New Delhi is beginning to adopt western technologies from Washington and Paris. These can be observed with their Brahmos missiles and Tejas jet fighters, where parts of these respective technologies can be derived from both Russia and the United States, respectively. But what significantly changed the power calculations regarding India was the Smiling Buddha, making India the first non-permanent member-state of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that conducted a successful nuclear bomb test.
In the diplomatic front, India is making its presence felt by maintaining its cordial relations with Tehran, Riyadh, and Moscow, while building bridges with Paris, Washington, and Canberra. Considering India’s cognizance of its national interests, it understood that India will play an integral role in shaping the new world order. Despite of their territorial disputes with Beijing, New Delhi’s avenues for conducting dialogue are always present in various multilateral organizations through BRICS, G-20, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). India also makes its presence felt in the UN, where they continuously participate and sends boots on the ground through its peace-keeping missions.
India is making significant strides in the fronts of economics and politics. Presently, New Delhi purchases affordable hydrocarbons from Moscow, fueling its economic growth. Economic reforms by then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have significantly liberalized its economy, cutting bureaucratic red tape that made it an economically irrelevant country during the Cold War years. With the promotion of the “Make in India” campaign, and paired with its youthful and gigantic population, New Delhi is poised to overtake Tokyo and Berlin as the third largest economy in 10 years.
The enviable position of India was not built in one night. It was created with a strong understanding of its national interests and its continuous attempts in internally reforming the political, economic, and social structures of their country. Instead of blaming China for their bellicose actions near their borders, Indians sought to strengthen themselves, and eventually stand toe to toe with the Chinese, while ensuring that opportunities for diplomacy are always present through their multilateral organizations. Unfortunately, Manila would rather point fingers at Beijing’s aggressive actions, without reflecting that the Philippines direly needs to reform its political and economic institutions for these incursions to stop. Unless Filipinos feel mortified on how pathetic and feeble the country’s political and economic state is, Chinese aggressions are here to stay.
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