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US on Spratly: Slow Burn to China

12:05 PM June 25, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO—Hail Mother Philippines for deploying the warship Rajah Humabon to the South China, I mean West Philippine Sea, to stare down Chinese incursions! Our third-hand warship could be as old as the rajah himself, so make sure it heads home before it runs out of coal. Just kidding.

For the Philippines, there’s nothing to lose in standing up to China and showing we’re no pushovers.

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One, when the first Chinese aircraft carrier blows us out of the water, world sympathy will be with us. China will be so unpopular Americans will start calling Chinese restaurants “freedom restaurants.”

Two, our archipelago doesn’t lie geologically opposite the Chinese mainland. So when all the Chinese people jump at the same time from a height of six feet, the resulting antipodal earthquake will destroy Argentina, not us. We might get a bit of tsunami but that’s it.

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The only possible problem is one so unlikely as to be nonexistent: In case—just in case—China surrenders to us, how are we going to feed 1.3 billion prisoners of war? It’s worrisome, but that’s just me.

Seriously now, we’ve got the United States watching our back on this, right? Right? It wasn’t all that clear at first that Washington would come to our defense, because the initial response from the US embassy was so tepid.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, left no doubt two weeks later that the US would help the Philippines defend itself. But not before crotchety old warhorse John McCain blasted the White House’s less-than-muscular initial stance, especially as Beijing was publicly telling Washington to butt out.

US trepidation

Senator McCain, who is virtually the lone GOP leader to pay attention to the Spratly issue, is also generally dismayed at the drift towards isolationism in foreign affairs among the stars of his own party.

Truth is, there’s much trepidation in US political circles nowadays about brandishing the American stick against adversaries more formidable than Libya. There’s even bipartisan opposition in the House of Representatives to the US intervention there.

And surprise of surprises, “antiwar Republicans” have emerged. Some anti-spending GOP presidential aspirants are even calling for a US pullout from Afghanistan. America’s stubborn recession and deepening fiscal crisis are turning traditional hawks into doves-ish.

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The shift of economic power to Asia also stokes fears that America’s stick may turn out to be a wet noodle if severely tested by tougher adversaries, like China. And it’s not because China owns most of America’s debt (the lender also potentially has much to lose in the relationship).

With deficit spending growing while the country’s economic engines seem stuck on idle, there’s growing doubt if the US is still sufficiently dominant to impose solutions to global crises.

Thus, George W. Bush-era unilateralism, mortally isolated over Iraq, has given way to a rebounding multilateralism. With a practical emphasis on “multi,” as shown by NATO’s more prominent profile in Afghanistan and leading role in Libya.

Just to make sure everyone gets the point, outgoing US defense secretary Robert Gates recently hectored NATO to quit penny-pinching and start carrying more of the West’s frontline defense burdens.

To be sure, America still dwarfs everyone in nuclear armaments, but doomsday weapons have little practical impact on small-scale everyday challenges. Regional conflicts that turn hot involve conventional military confrontations, which can be extremely costly, as US experience in Afghanistan—and even Libya—has shown.

So, bolstering Asean countries militarily, diplomatically and economically, rather than directly throwing down the gauntlet, is the expected US response to China’s current saber rattling.

Chinese tantrum

If there’s much Chinese hubris these days it’s because it took China only two decades to turn its poor self into a major industrial power. It took Europe a century to accomplish a similar transformation. Some US economists are saying China will be the world’s largest economy in five years. We’d be swaggering a bit too it we racked up a similar achievement.

But it’s never too early to put Beijing on notice that throwing its military weight around is bad diplomacy and terrible marketing. China is in danger of becoming the object of mistrust among its weaker neighbors, much like what Japan became at the height of its postwar economic rise.

It’s a good thing that Southeast Asian countries, including those with competing claims on the Spratlys, want to deal with the matter in the Asean. Better yet, we, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei could coalesce specifically against China’s claim to convince it to quit playing a game of military chicken and that negotiating a workable arrangement is the better option.

When push comes to shove

And if China is factoring in sagging US morale in the shrillness of its response over the Spratlys, it’s making a big mistake. The US is on a slow burn, but when push comes to shove, it still can and will act as a superpower.

Deep down, China’s leadership is likely aware of this, as well as the risk of political isolation among its neighbors—and potential markets—that comes with a militarily aggressive behavior. They didn’t get where they are now by being dense.

Consider Beijing’s saber rattling as reflexive, part of its growing pains. China is growing so big, so strong, so fast as a capitalist power it’s thrashing into things in the, well, china shop. For its own good, Beijing will soon have to stifle its tantrums and learn to speak softly while carrying that big stick.

So to everyone in the region that’s being bullied by China today, let Lady Gaga console you: It gets better.

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TAGS: ASEAN, China, Defense, geopolitics, Military, Philippines, Politics, Security, Spratly Islands, Spratlys, US
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