Dec 012014
 
UNDERSTANDING CHINA AND ITS INTEREST IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

by
Professor Roland G. Simbulan
University of the Philippines and
Vice Chair,
Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPeg)


(Speech as guest speaker before the National Command Conference of the
Philippine Marine Corps on the occasion of its 36th anniversary,
Philippine Marine Headquarters Conference Hall, Fort Bonifacio,
Taguig, MetroManila. November 11, 2013)

Introduction

     I wish to thank your Commandant, Major General Romeo Tanalgo for
inviting me to speak at your Command Conference on the occasion of the
36th Anniversary of the Philippine Marine Corps. In many ways, I have
some affinity with the military establishment. I am the son of a
PMAer, an "Army Brat" as the PMA cadet lingo would call me. My father,
Dante, is a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy, Class of 1952
and my early years in life were spent in the PMA Officers Quarters in
Camp Allen, Baguio City.

     My father told me that he had as his underclassmen at PMA several
Commandants of the Philippine Marines: General Rodolfo Punsalang, PMA
Class 1954 and Commodore Rudiardo Brown, PMA Class 1955, who were his
"Plebes". After his stint in the Army as Commander of the PAMBUL
Rangers in the mid-50s, he was assigned to PMA as a member of the
Corps of Professors and had as his student another former Commandant
of the Philippine Marines and later Chief of Staff of the AFP, Gen.
Rodolfo Biazon, a member of PMA Class 1961. And if I remember right,
he also told me that he had as his student at PMA, now Secretary of
National Defense Voltaire Gazmin, a member of PMA Class 1968.  I am
not, therefore, a complete stranger to the Philippine military.

 It is with great pleasure that I come to share my observations,
insights and analyses on the topic, "Understanding China and its
Interest in Southeast Asia." In this way, we can be well informed, to
make decisions for our common goal of fighting for what is best for
our country.  This topic which is related to the question of
self-determination, independence and the defense of our national
sovereignty is given more relevance by the fact that later this month,
on Nov. 30, 2013, we will be commemorating the 150 birthday of Andres
Bonifacio, who perhaps can be considered to be one of the founders of
the the original Army of the Filipino People--the Katipunan -- which
successfully led the first national revolution in Asia that ended and
defeated almost 370 years of European (Spanish) in our country. Andres
Bonifacio today is not just a symbol for nationalism and national
sovereignty; he is also a symbol of the common people's struggle
against elite hegemony.

    I have visited China many times, not as a tourist, but as part of
official delegations of the University of the Philippines. I have also
been invited there to speak and to lecture, and in the process, I have
interacted with their scholars, academics, leading "think tanks",
government officials and even with some leaders of the Communist Party
of China. And with the aid of interpreters, I have also talked to
common people in China - professionals, businessmen, farmers, workers,
teachers and students. Today, I will try to share with you my
observations and insights of my visits and interactions in China.


    I would like to begin by saying that, even with our territorial
and maritime disputes with China, we should view and handle bilateral
relations with China from a historical and with a strategic view and
vision.  We should not only know ABOUT China. We should learn FROM
China, especially from the writings of its best strategists and
tacticians like Sun Tzu, and Mao Zedong. We should learn from this
country - a country with five centuries of experience in statecraft of
governing a huge country with diverse ethnic nationalities-- and on
how Modern China is able to feed its 1.3 billion people, or how it has
embarked, according to the United Nations and even the World Bank,
into one of the most successful anti-poverty programs in the 20th
century.

    Like China, we are an Asian country, which are both rich in
natural resources. But compared to China we are just a small country,
and an archipelagic country endowed with rich resources, being the
object of big powers fighting each other in order to gain control of
our land and its natural wealth. We have been under the Spanish empire
as a colony for almost four centuries. The Dutch, and the British
wanted to oust the Spaniards and incorporate us in their own empires.
Then came the Americans who offered to help our Revolutionary fathers
in freeing us from the Spanish yoke, only to betray the proferred
"friendship", fought our Revolutionary Army for Independence, and
annexed us to the emerging American Empire. General Gregorio del
Pilar, in whose honor Fort del Pilar, home of the Philippine Military
Academy in Baguio City was named, fought and died fighting the new
American colonialists, perhaps the first U.S. Visiting Forces in this
part of the world. The first U.S. "visiting forces" - 126,000 U.S.
troops according to American historians-- invaded and defeated our
Army of the First Republic of the Philippines led by General Emilio
Aguinaldo.

     Today, we are still the "bone of contention" of Big Powers, by
the United States, by Japan including China, an emerging world power
challenging U.S. hegemony in this part of the world.

Knowing ABOUT China

     To understand China's thinking and behavior today, we must
understand China's history: Before and during the early part of  the
20th century China herself was a victim of western imperial powers,
and like a watermelon, was divided by Western European powers, later
even by the U.S. and Japan. It was the height of national humiliation
for an old civilization like China to be divided like a watermelon.
All these threats came from the sea, in its southern and eastern
coasts.

     In 1948, the Chinese successfully liberated themselves from the
control and domination of the West and have since embarked on a
massive program of "modernization", utilizing the methods of
Capitalism in competing with the West.

     In June 1975, we established diplomatic relations with China, a
country which our media always described as Red China or Communist
China. But China for a long time, has always been a country of
interest to many outsiders of China. Many are fascinated about Ancient
China because it gives us an insight into one of the oldest
civilizations of the world - where gunpowder, silk and other
technologies were invented - which came from our side of the world,
the East, and not the West, which belies the Western myth that the
origins of civilization came from the Western part of the world. Then
there is Modern China, especially after its social revolution led by
Mao Zedong in 1949 which restructured China, abolishing foreign
control of its economy, initiating one of the most comprehensive
agrarian reform programs in the world, and dismantling feudalism and
the dynastic control of warlords which persisted in most of rural
China.

Learning FROM China

     Modern China fascinates many people from all over the world for
two reasons:

1. How it has managed to practically eradicate poverty in the most
populous country in the world, and and there are many anti-poverty
programs that we can learn from this rich neighbor with a population
of 1.34 billion people today.  There are important lessons we can
learn from this country which used to be ranked as one of the poorest
countries in the world to the 2nd largest economy of the world today.

2. How it has managed  not only to develop its own indigenous
technologies, but how it has strategized to absorb the state of the
art technology of the West, or what we call "transfer of technology",
through its special economic zones where it has invited multinational
corporations from the 80s onwards.  So effective is this transfer of
technology to China's advantage that Westerners complain and call
China "the pirate capital of the world."

     Modern China has become a global player and power, due to its
fast-tracked modernization of its economy and rapid economic
development. What are the indicators of this rapid economic
development?

    First, China is now the 2nd largest economy next to the U.S.,
surpassing Japan in terms of GDP in current dollars (IMF data).

     Second, today China is unsurpassed in terms of consumption in
iron ore, celfones, beer and copper, energy consumption and car sales.

    Third, China is now the largest global manufacturing country, "the
factory of the world", the factory of the U.S. economy.

     Fourth, China is the largest trading country or or the world's
biggest shopping center. It has become the biggest retail market in
the world.

    Fifth, China has the largest foreign reserves in the world today,
and has lent the U.S. almost US$1.4 trillion, while the European Union
also owes it hundreds of billions of US dollars.

     Recently, Chinese leaders under Xi Jinping have spoken of
"China's dream". The dream may have something to do with China's goal
of totally eradicating poverty by 2020 (it officially admits that of
its 1.3 billion population, 128 million are still poor, mostly in its
western provinces). The Chinese "dream" includes the creation of a
predominantly Chinese middle class for the majority of its people.
China does not want to derail this goal by repeating the mistake of
the former Soviet Union which engaged in a tit-for-tat arms race with
the United States during the Cold War.  The former Soviet Union
over-extended itself, leading to vast resources spent on unproductive
defense spending instead of the people's needs, and leading to the
collapse of its economy and fragmentation of the former Soviet Union
into 14 independent states.  China wants to focus on on the
development of its domestic affairs, but in their view, "they have the
right to protect their national interests", and their government "
will respond to challenges from the outside."

     The goal for the Chinese people is not far-fetched.  In 1981, the
absolute poor in China was estimated to be 84% of the population.  In
2008, the absolute poor was estimated to be only 8%, according to IMF
and World Bank estimates. For the past 20 years, with an average
annual growth rate of 20%, the highest in the world, the World Bank
has estimated that in this period more than a billion Chinese people
have been liberated from poverty, and that no other country in the
world has ever achieved this phenomenon for its people.


Big Power Interest in Southeast Asia

    Today, there is the competition for the world's resources by the
Big Powers to fuel capitalist development and growth: Mineral
rsources, oil and gas in the Middle East, in Africa, in Latin America,
and in Asia, have caused big power conflicts.

     China has spoken of several "core" interests.  Taiwan, economic
development, socialist system, sovereignty, etc., but I argue that the
ultimate unspoken core interest from which all others flow is the
survival of the Communist Party.  The challenge then is how to engage
the mind of the Chinese Communist Party, especially its leadership, to
figure out how a given issue such as the South China Sea disputes
which include other ASEAN countries, impacts its calculus of survival.

     In the world today, there are many potential threats to the
Communist Party's survival, and to China's security which is the other
name of it.  But the biggest potential threat is the U.S., simply
because it is still the predominant military and economic power in the
world. For China, therefore, a strategy for the correct handling of
relations with the U.S. is a life and death issue, and so far, they
have done very well, thanks in part to the strategic momentum of the
triangular model that Mao crafted with Nixon that has led to their
current interdependence, but the relations will become more
complicated as China rises.  America's pivot to Asia is seen as
containment, a form of encirclement as during the Cold War, a threat
to China.

    There are many dimensions to the South China Sea issue, but again
most important is to see it first of all through the security prism.
China's leaders are aware of two painful lessons from their "century
of humiliation" that started with the Opium War and lasted up to the
Japanese invasion of China in the Second World War.  One, China's
weakness invited bullying. Two, China's biggest threats came from the
seas.

     For the long future, there can only be more competition for
resources and the question is whether it can be kept peaceful.  We
know that the great powers of the past achieved their aims through
direct colonialism, wars of conquest, and inter-imperialist wars.
China has propounded "peaceful development", or "peaceful rise", and
"new type of great-power relationship"-to use their words- precisely
because, subjectively, it wants to avoid the old pattern of
great-power conflicts and wars.  To this day, China's diplomacy has
tended to avoid overseas military conflicts or military intervention
in other countries, and engages mostly in economic competition, using
its accumulated financial clout to successfully win its bids for
mining concessions in Afghanistan, or oil contracts in Iraq, for
example.  China's leaders are certainly aware of the costly lessons of
colonialism and wars, of which China itself is a victim.  Hopefully,
China can exercise more effective leadership so that its army of
corporations and entrepreneurs expanding overseas will be guided by
best practices(though there have been complaints in Africa as well as
in the Philippines, as in the NBN-ZTE contract during Pres. Arroyo's
administration).

     Overall, the entry of China into the global market for resources
is good for the resources-owning countries. China's dependence on
economic competition and not on military muscle is good for peaceful
global competition.  Whether other great-powers will allow China to
rise peacefully or to control a greater share of the world's
resources, is something China alone cannot answer. The laws of
international politics exist, and China itself will continue to build
its national defense to redress the military imbalance with other
powers and protect its economic lifelines when the need arises. That
China itself was long a victim of Western imperialism and never, even
at the height of its power in the past, engaged in territorial
conquest beyond its historical domain, seems to provide a basis for
optimism, but we can never really tell, because any government or
party can change its color. The lesson of the first socialist state,
the Soviet Union, bears this out.

China's Interest in the South China Sea

     The South China Sea has oil and other resources, which are
certainly important, but even more important is that it is a strategic
zone of defense for China.  China's military planners will not lightly
give it up.  By and large, China is maintaining the status quo. They
have the superior force to take over the disputed islets if they want
to, while in the case of Scarborough Shoal, they probably believe we
were the disruptive "revisionist" force with our first use of a
military vessel to intimidate their fishermen. But they will maintain
their sovereignty claims because they are important legal and
political grounds for opposing the use of the sea lanes "within their
jurisdiction" (within their Exclusive Economic Zone) for military
threats against China. They support freedom of navigation but I think
they want a say on military passage through their "claimed" seas ---
the Hainan spy plane incident and subsequent skirmishes with U.S. Navy
ships approaching sensitive Chinese areas need to be reviewed.

     China's strategy of handling disputes with the Philippines will
be a function of its overall strategy of dealing with the United
States.  China is already suspicious that the disputes with the
Philippines have heated up simultaneous with the U.S. pivot in Asia.
But in handling the Philippines, China will strike a balance between
not unnecessarily provoking the U.S. , but also trying to send a firm
message to the U.S..  This reminds me of the example of Netherland's
sale of a submarine to Taiwan, which led China to severing of
diplomatic relations with the Netherlands --I think relations were
downgraded because of this.  But a more massive U.S. arms sale to
Taiwan did not provoke a similar retaliation.  The point here is that
China is capable of "teaching a lesson" to a lesser power as a way of
transmitting their message to the master, the U.S., without provoking
the U.S., that it might be in our interest to avoid being in a
position of such a "lesser power."

Engaging China on our Territorial and Maritime Disputes

     The Chinese claim in Southeast Asia -- the 9 dash line,
Spratleys, Baja de Masinloc, Ayungin, etc. are all manifestations that
China is now following the ways of Global Capitalism. Some say it is
establishing its own hegemonic "sphere of influence" especially among
its immediate neighbors in Southeast Asia.  Provocation breeds counter
provocation. There is the U.S. Asia Pivot, and Japan is also reacting
because its major trade routes for its vital imports such as oil and
gas are on the Sea Lanes in the South China Sea. China is flexing its
muscles through aggressive behaviour in the South East Asian waters
and in the Pacific, which may be a prelude to future confrontation and
conflicts.

     The South China Sea being, above all, a security issue, China
will react to Philippine actuations according to whether they threaten
or enhance its security. Based on pronouncements from our government (
and for lack of any other channel for communication or bilateral
negotiation), China has increasing perception that the Philippines is
actively aligning with the U.S. and Japan to confront China
militarily.  Conceptually, how then can we expect the Chinese to give
consideration to our just demands and to our national interests and
agree to a territorial compromise, if by doing so they only harm
themselves. This comes with their perception that we will allow U.S.
and Japanese warships to secure and guard these contested islands for
us.

Foreign Relations and our National Interest

     Now, where should we stand in these big-power quarrels?  We must,
in accordance to our 1987 Constitution,  defend our sovereignty and
territorial integrity from all big powers seeking hegemony and control
over the West Philippine Sea (U.S. , China and Japan).  We have the
following options:

1. Being a junior partner/follower of one of the competing powers will
make our country a possible target of attack in a future conflict;

2. We can embark on an independent, patriotic posture. This means not
allowing ourselves to be employed or used as a pawn in this big power
struggle for resources in the region. This means asserting and
resisting actual violations of Philippine sovereignty and territorial
integrity committed by Chinese and U.S. forces. This includes
punishing those who commit environmental destruction of the Philippine
waters and our seabed resources, pursuing crimes committed by U.S.
soldiers in our territory, etc..

     Our country is weak, but we also have strong points. China is
strong but they also have their weak points. Applying Sun Tzu's and
Mao Zedong's strategy, we must find the Chinese vulnerability and
leveraging our strong points to protect our national interests --- as
distinct from the national interests of the other Big Powers ---
should be the main pre-occuption of our national strategy.

     Ultimately, the greatest Chinese vulnerability is the Communist
Party of China's need for security and survival, in the face o the
U.S. and Japan counter-balancing against China's rise.  Our strongest
point is the God-given gift that the Philippines is strategically
located in a neighborhood that is decisively important for China's
defense zone.

     How then, should we take advantage and not squander our strong
point? I argue that the best answer is an INDEPENDENT FOREIGN POLICY,
a policy that swears friendship to all and enmity to none, a policy
that gives primacy to our national interests independent of the
conflict between Big Powers, a policy that above all, refocuses our
effort on the most urgent issue, which is accelerated economic growth,
on which all other sources of national strength depend. Our Southeast
Asian neighbors -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam,
etc., though some of them also have territorial and maritime disputes
with China, are focusing on economic growth and have good experience
in this regard. But we can do better.

     Conceptually, therefore, we should aim to bring about a situation
where China's leaders - and public - will realize that reaching a
territorial compromise with the Philippines will enhance, not
threaten, their security.  This is easier said than done, but it can
be done, over time.  The China-Russia border, the longest land border
in the world, was a much more explosive problem, but it was solved.
Even in its moment of extreme weakness vis a vis the Soviet Union
then, China did not cave in on the territorial disputes, but when the
Chinese perceived that the Gorbachev-period Soviets (and Russia) have
changed their policy, the Chinese came to the realization that
resolving the border disputes would enhance their security and they
eventually agreed to a territorial compromise.

     During my interactions with Chinese academics, scholars,
political and party leaders, I have told them that if China wants to
win the respect of the ASEAN region and the world as it emerges as a
global economic powerhouse, it should just use its soft power
---trade, economic relations, investments, loans, cultural and
people-to-people exchanges, etc. --in its relations with weaker
countries, especially its neighbors. That it should not follow the bad
example of Western colonial powers (and the current global superpower)
in Asia that employed coercion and force through military power in
dealing with smaller and weaker counties.  That is, if  China wants to
gain the respect of its immediate ASEAN neighbors in its backyard.

     In my meetings and discussions with our Chinese counterparts -
academics and scholars -- my purpose was to engage, seeing to it that
our point of view and national interests (not of the elite, but of the
Filipino people) is not compromised, that there is a fair and equal
opportunity in the engagement (exchange of views, discussion, debate,
etc. ).  I know that the Chinese are trying to win us over to their
side in their strategic competition, struggle and quarrel with the
United States for a dominant position in the world.  But, let us ask,
why have we already  surrendered our sovereignty to the other dominant
big power, which supplies and arms us with already obsolete ships and
aircraft - instead of state of the art for our external defense
capability - to ostensibly "modernize" our armed forces?

    But we must assert and assert our sovereign rights and our
independence, not a witting or unwitting pawn of either Big Power.  We
can study well and learn from the experience of our smaller neighbor,
Vietnam, in dealing both with China and the Soviet Union who were at
odds with each other, to gain and to uphold their country's
independence and higher interests. It is in this context that I speak
of engaging in the exchange of views, dialogues, discussion or debate
with the Chinese especially the Chinese people.  There should be more
economic cooperation between the two countries, and more people to
people exchanges to gain insights and to understand each other better.
There should be more educational and training exchanges. In fact,
since 2004 when we signed the Memorandum of Understanding on Defense
Cooperation with China, we have been sending AFP officers for
schooling at China's National Defense University in Beijing; at
present, there are two AFP officers studying there. We should also do
the same with the Americans, the Japanese, or Europeans -- always for
the purpose of protecting and promoting the interests of our country
and our people in mind.

     China's immediate neighbor, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,
with whom China shares land borders, taught China and all big power
bullies a lesson. That smallness in size of economic and military
strength is not necessarily an invitation to being pushed around.  We
must develop and have our own capability to defend what is ours.  The
Vietnamese nationalist-communists who were once our enemies, showed
the French, the Americans and even especially China that when their
independence and sovereignty is threatened, they are determined to
fight to the end and win. China today highly respect the Vietnamese
for this and relations have more than normalized with closer ties.


     The ideal strategic goal is for the Philippines to enjoy the
friendship of the U.S., Japan and China and not be a pawn in their
inevitable conflicts.  If China can be made to realize that we mean
genuine friendship, that our relations with the U.S., Japan or other
powers are not directed against China, then the conditions will be
improved for the eventual resolution of our disputes.  For China's
leaders, the most important starting point is strategic trust and
friendship.  Once that is established, the nitty-gritty of legal,
technical, and other detailed negotiations will eventually fall into
place.

     Personally, I am for securing the best interests of our nation
and for taking control of the territories and resources that
rightfully belong to us.  The issue is strategy.  A strategy that
draws us further away from our goals and threatens to reduce us into a
pawn in great-power conflicts will be tragic for our country and
people. A new strategy that seeks to win our case without firing a
single shot is still possible.

     My visits to China made me realize how little we know about
China.  That we need more Filipino academics, researchers, political
AND military analysts to specialize on China, as this neighboring
country emerges globally and rapidly into an economic and military
power.  We need to understand the level of our understanding of
China's impact on the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific region, and to
increase our familiarity with the complexities of Chinese politics,
economy and governance. To effectively defend and pursue Philippine
national interests and sovereignty as the Asian dragon emerges and to
engage it as a neighbor, we need to know how it thinks, what its
strengths and weaknesses are.  Remember what a Chinese ancient general
and author Sun Tzu wrote in 500 B.C.?  " Know your enemy and know
yourself.  You will win a thousand battles, a thousand victories."

      Even if China was not an enemy, but a friendly but powerful
neighbor, we will still have to deal with it in trade negotiations,
economic negotiations, and in other bilateral relations. The potential
for cooperation is still there, and it should grow.

      We need to understand this giant neighbor more deeply -- with a
critical eye, from our own perspective, and from the vantage point of
our national, economic, political, diplomatic and security interests.
This is what I mean when I say that in order to earn the respect of
the world, especially the Big Powers, we must pursue an INDEPENDENT
PHILIPPINE FOREIGN POLICY. Let us defend the integrity and sovereignty
of our beautiful country and its people, not any foreign interests.
Soldiers of our beloved Republic: If I may use the Philippine Marine
Motto: serve with KARANGALAN, KATUNGKULAN, KABAYANIHAN (HONOR, DUTY, VALOR).

     Thank you and good morning, and MABUHAY!

   

 

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