Commentaries

Power Shift and the South China Sea: Questions for the Philippines

Fareed Zakaria, writing on the “post-American world” in 2008, began by saying “this is not a book about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else”. He argued that while America would still be the most powerful nation on earth, its relative power will be diminished. US liberal policies themselves had encouraged growth in other parts of the world, allowing China and India in particular to become powers in their own right, he said.

In October 2017, the same author Zakaria wrote a short opinion piece about the historic significance of China’s 19th Communist Party Congress. With a fresh 5-year mandate and having emerged as the strongest Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, President Xi Jinping announced to the world that not only would China continue to strive to be a power, but that its own model offered “a new choice” for other countries. Zakaria then cited surveys by Pew Research Center that showed how countries like Australia, Netherlands and Canada now have a more favorable view of China than of the U.S., and that Germans, Chileans and Indonesians were among the people who had greater confidence in the leadership of Xi Jinping than that of Donald Trump. He observed, this time, that "The shift in reputation that we are witnessing around the world is not so much about the rise of China but rather the decline of the United States."

Whether it is one country’s decline or another’s rise, or both occurring simultaneously and interactively, can be the subject of many academic studies. In Zakaria’s view as well as that of many pundits, the locus of power is shifting or has already shifted– not necessariy from U.S. to China, but from the West to the East. Asian economies are growing faster, with more innovation, scientific advances, optimism and openness, while many in the West have lost confidence and begun to turn inward. Few would argue, however, that the latter is irreversible. Moreover, China may be at the center of this power transition, but it is by no means the only actor. Nonetheless, in Southeast Asia, in the U.S., in Europe, Japan , India or Australia, it is the actor that we most think about.

Why do we think about China so much? China’s worldview and its self-image may be clear enough to close observers, but in many respects, its intentions, character and temperament as a great power on the world stage have yet to unfold. One theory was that as China’s economic power grows, political influence cannot be far behind. That is no longer just theory; we in the Asia Pacific region know that as fact, although we can debate the different degrees various countries experience it. And as its economic and political influence grew, it was only a matter of time before China asserted its need for greater military reach, initially for its own security, but also more recently to offer itself as a security provider in lieu of other powers who are seen as adversaries, primarily the U.S. There is a bit of irony in imagining China providing regional security as a public good when it itself is still seen as a source of insecurity by some neighbors, the Philippines included. But then, there are also security challenges that are common to China and its neighbors.

In the context of geostrategic competition between the major powers, the South China Sea and Southeast Asia – in China’s eyes - may well be a strategic backyard, adjacent to its vulnerable southern coastlines. China may feel it needs this area as a sphere of influence in order to better secure its homeland. On the other hand, the U.S. remains deeply engaged in the region as a security balancer. Over time and given recent political trends, it is possible that the regional balance of military capabilities may shift in China’s favor, not only because China may have more resources for defense modernization but also because alliance configurations could change if U.S. chooses to retreat from the region and weaker states choose to bandwagon with the new or rising power. Moreover, the U.S. will continue to have competing foreign policy priorities in other regions of the world, while China might remain dead focused on its immediate periphery. Even if serious decline in U.S. power may be a far-off scenario (especially if its new National Security Strategy is to happen as planned), its diminishing economic, political and diplomatic influence is a creeping reality that cannot be readily dismissed.

By most accounts, power shift defined as that point in time when the incumbent No. 1 slips to No. 2 , and No. 2 becomes No. 1 in terms of material wealth and military superiority, has not happened, nor is it expected to happen soon. While China’s recent advances in military technology may impress, its overall capability remains no match for U.S. military preponderance complemented by a system of alliances with both offshore balancing and forward basing components. China has one formal defense ally – the DPRK, and by the day, China increasingly finds itself an unwilling supporter of that regime that Beijing finds it cannot reason with. China has but one overseas military base thus far–in Djibouti, although it may have access to Indian Ocean ports along the so-called string of pearls, or it may be building -- as we speak -- future naval bases on the four reefs in the disputed South China Sea that they have radically transformed since 2014.

What concerns many observers are the perceptions and intentions of the two competing great powers. The U.S. will defend its primacy, no doubt, and China’s influence will erode that primacy, it is assumed. That this competition will be played out in the oceans has been clear since the time of Mahan and Mackinder. The fact that it already started several years ago, or that the immediate theater is the South China Sea, is still sometimes lost to many of us here in the Philippines, who see the West Philippine Sea only as fishing grounds and potential oil and gas fields. Some years ahead, Sino-American competition may play out in cyberspace, in the Arctic, in outer space even. For now, though, the South China Sea and nearby maritime spaces that connect to it through navigational sealanes remain important. Therefore, the Philippines and the role that it chooses to play now or in the future continue to be important.

Under the Trump government, there is much more uncertainty about the future directions of US policy and US-China relations. Optimists might argue that with the nonconventional approach of Trump, there may be an opportunity for the U.S. to move away from path dependent security dilemmas of the past, including in its relations with Russia and China (if only there were a strategy in place involving consultations with allies and partners). Pessimists will say US policy henceforth has become unpredictable, possibly calling into question the future of the US alliance system, thus leaving Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and relatively new partners like Vietnam and India in a lurch.

During his first visits to Asia and at the ASEAN and East Asia Summits, Trump emphasized the concept of Indo-Pacific, zeroed in on the North Korean nuclear threat, and also focused on bilateral trade and the need to cut American trade deficits. Significantly, he made no mention of the South China Sea. Some interpret this to mean that to the extent that China still plays a crucial role in North Korean denuclearization, then Trump will not want to confront or press it on the South China Sea issue, or even the East China Sea and Yellow Sea where China, too, has outstanding territorial and maritime disputes. On the other hand, what is “Indo-Pacific” if not the vast maritime reaches that connect the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean on the west and to the East China Sea and the Pacific to the east? It is the same maritime theatre of geostrategic competition between the U.S. and China, writ large.

Such scenarios of uncertainty, competition and impending conflict arising from power transitions are ones we acknowledge as possibilities. This is not because we relish the prospects, but because they need to be prevented; the kinds of conditions that lead the region closer to conflict must be managed, managed well, and managed collectively by states and peoples whose choices today will spell what kind of future our next generations can look forward to.

Among those countries is the Philippines. What the Philippines does, under the Duterte administration or beyond, to help manage great power competition or to exacerbate it, also matters.