THE People’s Republic of China (PROC) may no longer be an authentic “people’s republic” but it is still ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Old Guards who won the revolution for the party, like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao and even Deng Xiaopeng are all gone and the CCP is now being led by post-revolution communists, although I am sure they have retained much of the strategizing style of the old party especially in foreign policy.
Thus when I look at recent developments in the South China Sea, I would see these not as a sole triumph of the current CCP general secretary Xi Jinping, with whom our President Rodrigo Duterte is kowtowing to, but of the CCP style of strategizing itself. That China, according to reports, has succeeded in building military structures in islets and reefs within territories disputed by many southeast Asian countries is proof of this triumph.
China did not seize virtual control of territories it claimed to be within its nine-dash line using its military strength. It did so via diplomacy, which means weakening the resolve of the other claimants to the area, including the Philippines. Mao would often preach about looking for the enemy’s weakness, or the weakest link in the chain. His successors in the party did that and succeeded.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, when asked about China’s construction effort in Panganiban Reef, also known as Mischief Reef, answered lamely: “If the Aquino administration was not able to do anything about these artificial islands, what do they want us to do?” I describe it as lame because it can easily be debunked and was debunked by Abigail Valte, Ninoy Aquino’s former spokesperson.
Because our conflict with China on the territory we call the West Philippine Sea is mainly diplomatic, the biggest win by the Aquino administration and by extension the Filipino people, was in the United Nations (UN) Arbitral Tribunal that ruled the islands and reefs within the West Philippine Sea as part of Philippine territory. With that, our allies in the West could have helped us at the very least deter China’s expansionist designs.
The truth is, what China fears most is not the other claimants of South China Sea territories but the United States, which under former president Barack Obama, sought to provide a counterbalance of force in the Pacific. It is not just mere coincidence that the main ally of the US in southeast Asia is the Philippines. The Philippines’ win the UN Arbitral Tribunal surely had China wincing because the country is a US ally.
But while the Philippines was the most vociferous claimant of a portion of the South China Sea, it was also the weakest link because of its fragile democracy. That was proven when President Duterte took power. Xi Jinping and the CCP immediately exploited the Philippine president’s anti-US and pro-China posturing and used these to weaken the position of the US at least in southeast Asia.
To answer Roque’s question, yes, the Duterte administration could no longer do anything much after it painted itself to a corner. By negating the UN Arbitral win and shooing away the US, the Duterte government allowed China to thoroughly emasculate it.