Superpowers’ rivalry: Can PH adapt?
Recently, I came across two books that improved my understanding of the rival powers of today, namely, China and the United States. These are “When China Rules the World” by Martin Jacques and “China Inc., How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World” by Ted Fishman. Though written by western authors, they both satisfy rigorous standards of objectivity and depth of analysis.
China as a rising global power
China’s growth is both a threat and an engine of growth for the rest of the world. Its influence has spread like wildfire in the Asean region, especially in investment and trade. Its economically aggressive yet stealthy approach has taken many countries by surprise. Indeed, some investment-hungry nations have been sweet-talked into their offer of concessional loans and possible prosperity.
Asean economies are pressured to collaborate with Chinese firms to keep pace with advancements in technology, infrastructure, and other competitive fields. In addition, China is attempting to counter American financial sanctions through creating alternative banking and financial transfer systems. These alternatives are not just to keep pace with American business but also a retaliation against them and American trade sanctions.
At the moment, China’s primary concern is the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). More than just a massive buildup of military hardware, it also involves psychological control of the population. China is trying to turn public opinion against the United States by portraying it as a declining power. This is done through shrewd and consistent propaganda, a manifestation of its proclivity to use military power for psychological use.
On the organizational and structural side, China is controlled by the Party, whose main concern is to perpetuate its rule. Legitimacy of the Communist Party rests on prosperity and national self-assertion, and not on economic doctrine. The Party will no doubt deny any aspiring obstructions to its power. Historically, China has undergone several humiliations, from the Opium War by the British to World War II against Japan. In fact, China still harbors strong hatred against Japan. China is also mobilizing to replace the United States as the preeminent power in the Pacific. Will the United States take such a challenge to its global dominance sitting down?
Nevertheless, there are doubts as to whether China can sustain its exaggerated image of power. The PLA is a conscript force limited to only two years of service. Moreover, it lacks a strong NCO corps—the backbone of Western militaries. Added to these military weaknesses are recurring waves of corruption in government. All of these raise doubts on whether China can truly challenge the United States at this point in time.
Is the United States in decline?
As the world’s dominant power, the United States faces many geopolitical challenges. Aside from the rise of China, it is grappling with its struggle against Islamic extremism and its rivalries against Iran, Russia, and North Korea. The United States has managed to maintain its global dominance through its well-rounded strength across many dimensions of power. Politically, it has a well-established political order, a reliable network of friendly relationships abroad, and strong political and social cohesion. It has a productive economy that allows it to sustain its global military power. In fact, China’s defense budget is only about a quarter of America’s—a testament to American might.
History has also shown that the United States will never take any challenge to its dominance lightly. It is committed to neutralize all obstacles in its way. Many challengers to US dominance have found their leaders decimated or their governments destabilized. One only needs to look at the Middle East, a hotbed of conflict, to see this. It must also be emphasized that the United States forms the nucleus of alliances all over the world. Within the Pacific region, the United States is supporting Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, India and the Asean to form a chain surrounding China.
The dominance of stronger nations over weaker ones has proved to be a political truism. Stronger nations have a variety of approaches, both soft and hard, to assert their dominance over weaker ones, all in pursuit of what Machiavelli called “the sweetness of domination.” One soft approach to dominance is through economic support through direct investment, concessional loans, and trade sanctions. All of these are calibrating mechanisms to attract weaker nations and slowly strangulate their resolve, creating a culture of dependency. What China is doing to the Philippines illustrates this dilemma. If and when the Philippines finds itself unable to repay China’s financial support, what sanctions will they impose on us?
Meanwhile, the hard approach involves military intervention, starting from saber-rattling, harassment, and escalating to more violent means. All of these are designed to intimidate and emasculate weaker nations to leave them unable to stand up for their national interests and sovereignty. China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea are flagrant manifestations of this intent.
The United States has exercised the full spectrum of its power to enforce its worldwide dominance. After all, the American people hate a loser. Yet, as of the moment, they are less active in the Pacific, allowing China to build up its military and diplomatic options. This has led to the clash of power we see today. Is America’s seeming hiatus a sign that it is momentarily consolidating its might, both military and political, to be unleashed at an opportune time?
In this scenario, how well can the Philippines cope? What will be the magnitude of the turmoil this shift in global power will create? We are caught in the crossfire, trying to take advantage of both Chinese and American benevolence. But up to what point can we play our cards?
In the course of this power struggle, it seems that our national identity is being eroded. As a result, we have downplayed our diplomatic options, short of war, that we can exercise to assert our identity and sovereignty. To achieve military superiority over China will always be a dream, but a mind-set built on victory can be a reality. We can show our serious resolve to fight for our sovereignty by fostering a mind-set of diplomatic assertiveness. Such a mind-set can generate consensus from the Asean members and garner support from even beyond Asean.
Let us not act like a spokesperson for China. Let us shed our fears and cast aside the defeatist attitude that sometimes pervades even from our top diplomatic officials. Only then can we begin to stand up for ourselves in accordance with our dignity as a sovereign nation.
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