Rodrigo Duterte is a fool.
Doesn’t he know that Scarborough Shoal is the place to draw a “line in the sand”? That, with the United States, he and the Philippines could make Xi Jinping “lose face” there? That the shoal should be the launching point for a new concerted effort to challenge “every Chinese overreach, early and often,” and is a dispute worthy of “indecent” operations? He seems blissfully unaware that China’s activities around the shoal, along with its other maritime territorial claims, are mere precursors to China claiming the entire Pacific Ocean and achieving “global hegemony.”
It’s not just foreign voices. Duterte is ignoring Filipinos too. His own predecessor took China to the Hague Tribunal and won just a few months ago—an advantage that Duterte is calmly throwing away. A Filipino law professor opined last April that “Southeast Asian states will not quietly surrender sovereign rights guaranteed by international law. Against overwhelming power, the only logical recourse is to gravitate closer together, and join with external powers.” The expert consensus is overwhelming: regional governments “cannot back down because that risks encouraging China to be more aggressive still.”
Yet, in the teeth of the evidence, the government of the Philippines has recently shown itself to be uninterested in drawing lines in the sand, making China lose face, challenging China’s territorial claims or joining the United States as a junior partner in checking China’s rise. To the contrary, President Rodrigo Duterte has declared that he would pursue an “independent posture and independent foreign policy.” Here’s what that policy looks like.
First, the Philippines has been signaling that it will conduct bilateral territorial negotiations with China, as opposed to America’s preferred method of lawsuits or multilateral discussions. Bilateral talks on Chinese investment, infrastructure and trade are being planned first, to promote cooperation before tackling the more difficult territorial issues. “The natural effect of engaging China in other areas of concern will precisely open the door for more open discussions of the [maritime] dispute with the view of resolving the dispute peacefully,” Perfecto Yasay, the Philippine secretary of foreign affairs, said in September. This sort of practical engagement will evidently begin next week, as Duterte visits China with hundreds of business executives in tow.
Second, President Duterte has declared that the Philippines will no longer conduct patrols with the United States in the South China Sea: “We will not join any expedition or patrolling the sea. I will not allow it because I do not want my country to be involved in a hostile act.” Lest any doubts remain, the Philippines’ defense secretary has since confirmed it.
Third, Duterte has indicated that he wants U.S. Special Forces to leave the Philippines, and is looking to China and Russia for arms purchases.
Why is Duterte pursuing such irrational policies? He apparently rejects the three myths that have seduced the American commentariat. What myths?
1. China could gracefully submit to the Hague ruling.
2. Amped-up American and allied “resolve” would force China to comply.
3. China’s rejection of the ruling signifies its rejection of international order.
Disagreeing with the ruling of a tribunal in The Hague (not, by the way, the UN, as some erroneously claim) hardly expresses an intention to destroy international society or dominate the Pacific. Disagreeing with your local court doesn’t mean that want to overthrow your nation’s government. Duterte isn’t irrational. He prefers to work with China to resolve the dispute in a mutually beneficial way. He agrees with an influential Filipino commentator: “Relations between China and the Philippines should go beyond the South China Sea issue.”
Scarborough Shoal has become an abstraction for everything commentators dislike in China: North Korea’s nuclear program, “aerial intrusions” in the East China Sea, “seaborne incursions” in Okinawa Prefecture, human-rights abuses, aircraft demonstrations when U.S. defense secretaries are visiting Beijing, the “calculated humiliation” at the G-20 summit, “economic and trade matters,” and “environmental degradation” in the South China Sea. Among such commentators, the solution is obvious: reinforced U.S. primacy, stronger regional alliances and the trumpeting of America’s “undoubted ability to prevail.”
To make Scarborough Shoal—or any other rock or reef of the South China Sea—serve as an abstract picture containing every complaint the United States has about China is foolish and dangerous. Political scientists have shown that territory is already the single issue any two states are most likely to fight over. Packing all other issues of contention into a territorial dispute—an exercise in grab-bag hawkishness—is a certain way to enflame the territorial dispute and to make it unsolvable.
There is nothing new here. In the spring of 1913, Russian foreign minister Sergey Sazonov told Serbian prime minister Nikola Pašić, who was eager to extend Serbian territory into the former Ottoman state of Albania, that Russia was not going to risk a war with Austria-Hungary over a few small towns. Pašić replied:
Here it is not a matter of Djakova, Dibra and Scutari, but the question is: Is Russia with its friends stronger or weaker than Austria and its friends? The whole Slavic world and everybody else will consider Russia defeated through the policy and threats of Austria. The belief and confidence in Russia will not only be weakened, but it will be annihilated, and the Austrian-German policy will triumph.
This was what dispute abstraction looked like before World War I. Aware that Russia had no actual territorial interest in the small towns of Albania, Pašić abstracted the issue into one of prestige and credibility, attempting to make the dispute a “trial of strength” between Russia and Austria-Hungary (and its ally Germany).
Today in the South China Sea, the Philippines is opting out of dispute abstraction. Duterte apparently cares about rehab centers more than unpopulated reefs, and has decided that the costs of antagonizing China outweigh the benefits of cooperating with it. But segments of America’s foreign policy elite disagree. These elites desire to abstract the territorial disputes of the South and East China Seas into a modern-day “trial of strength.” That is what all the tough talk of “indecent” naval operations and drawing lines in the sand is about. The specific issue hardly matters. According to these elites, China must be put in its place. The way to do this is to reassert American primacy.
Such a perspective is myopic, ahistorical, and foolish. In 1914, a trial of strength turned into a world war. In 432 BC, the Corinthians convinced the Spartans that they should stand up to Athens using four arguments. First, they said, Athens was growing stronger and Sparta had done nothing to check its growing power. Second, the Corinthians explained how the Athenians “gradually encroach upon their neighbors,” or what critics today call “salami slicing.” Third, they declared, “The likeliest way of securing peace is . . . to make it perfectly plain that one is resolved not to tolerate aggression” (Thucydides, 1.71)—i.e., to pursue a policy of deterrence. And finally, the Corinthians argued that Sparta had to maintain its “greatness.” Today, we say “primacy,” but the idea is the same. Back in 432 BC, the Spartans were convinced by the argument of the Corinthians, and in 431 a war broke out between Sparta and Athens that would last twenty-seven years and end the Athenian Golden Age. Today, we—the United States and China—risk walking down the same road to war.
Duterte is no fool. He has stepped off the road to war by rejecting the abstraction of disputes. That means considering each dispute individually, seeking to understand the other side’s argument, refraining from pursuing a moralistic or legalistic position, and recognizing that in a world with multiple great powers, the only way to live at peace is to ignore areas of minor disagreement and to respect one another’s vital interests. If, in your reading of history, you find that being pushy is a better way to get along, by all means, speak up. If not, then no more myopia, abstraction and presumption about other states’ purported interests, please.
Jared McKinney is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Pangoal Institute in Beijing, a Junior Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, DC, and an incoming Ph.D student in International Relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Image: A Philippine Marine member of the Joint Rapid Reaction Force posts security after executing an amphibious landing during Exercise Balikatan 2016. DVIDSHUB/Public domain