The battleground that is the South China Sea, where the small Philippines is pitted against the mighty China seems to provide the perfect modern day David vs Goliath story. The big kid on the block having acquired a new set of toys begins to flex his muscles and brandishes it in the neighborhood. Alarmed, it takes the simple poor lad to stand up to the bullying, but not before arming himself with the governing laws of the land—righteous and mighty. Now, all we have to do is seat back and witness the inevitable victory of the underdog.
This role-play is comforting. But the latest development sparked by China’s reclamation work suggests that somewhere down the line, the supposed victory of the underdog appears to be fleeting. The speed and scope of China’s massive reclamation project spanning several locations in the contested area baffle the wildest imaginations—China has unilaterally altered the status quo at everyone’s expense. To add salt to injury, no one has been able to put up any form of resistance. Indeed the Philippines, from its government to its military, has conceded it has been left with no recourse at the moment whatsoever, except of course to wait for the decision of the arbitration case it has pending.
This is the one lifeline which the Philippine government has placed all bets on—at the very least to attain a moral victory. The key word here is “moral”. Because experts on all sides have also resigned themselves to the very possible scenario that the giant may simply ignore any decision and get away with it scot-free, given that there is no police force in the international community who can execute the court’s decision. (Of course we are assuming here a one-sided victory, where other scenarios are also very possible).
Where did the modern storyline go wrong?
A BETTER GUIDE
The Philippines needs a better guide to understand the ongoing dynamics and to start the process of looking for alternatives to the unenviable predicament of having only one choice. Inspiration may be gotten from the New York Times best seller book by Malcolm Gladwell, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants”.
The first line of Chapter 2 begins: “David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants… powerful opponents of all kinds—from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression. Whether the next part provides a source of hope or despair is up for the reader to decide, “We consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them.” On one hand, if the Philippines is reading the situation correctly, then all we have to do is wait for the underdog’s inevitable victory. On the other hand, if it is misreading the conflict, then an upset story may be difficult, if not improbable. It is for these very possibilities that alternative scenarios must be properly considered and assessed.
“The act of facing overwhelming odds, produces greatness and beauty”.
In the South China Sea narrative there are two main characters, China and President Aquino. Scholars agree that China’s well-played soft power game in the Southeast Asia region that began in the 1990s when it was asked to join the ASEAN Plus Three regional conglomeration and would culminate in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct basically disintegrated post 2010. Although it projects a façade that seems to indicate otherwise, all indicators point to a public relations headache for Beijing if the arbitration case sides in favor of the Philippines—it would be easy to imagine that Beijing’s internal machinery is scrambling to find a face-saving way out. China is a practical country. Why risk damaging its international status and even piercing the impregnable image of the ruling party at home?
In the other side of the scene, President Aquino is currently the only person who has the unblemished reputation of incorruptibility. Coupled with the pending arbitration case, President Aquino is in the best position to negotiate with China from a position of strength. If President Aquino can single-handedly turn a quagmire into a zone of peace or even just to have the giant pacified, his legacy in-spite of its earlier fumbles would be established in the history books. And the confluence of these situations could very well produce a “miracle”.
“Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to given them strength are often the sources of great weakness.”
David’s victory was made possible by one incontrovertible fact: David had the ability to see what everybody else did not. A description of the ancient scene is warranted here:
“The truth is that Goliath’s behavior is puzzling. He is supposed to be a mighty warrior. But he’s not acting like one. He comes down to the valley floor accompanied by an attendant—a servant walking before him, carrying a shield. Shield bearers in ancient times often accompanied archers into battle because a solider using a bow and arrow had no free hand to carry any kind of protection on his own.”
Gladwell leads to the question, “Why does Goliath, a man calling for sword-on-sword single combat, need to be assisted by a third party carrying an archer’s shield?”
At the initiation of the battle, Goliath demands of David “Come to me”. Again the question, why can’t Goliath go to David?
What many medical experts now believe, in fact, is that Goliath had a serious medical condition called acromegaly—a disease caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. The symptoms include: the tumor causes an overproduction of human growth hormone, which would explain Goliath’s extraordinary size and vision problems including severely restricted sight and double vision. We are not saying that China has an incurable disease that gives justification for it to be treated differently. Every size has its problems. The key here is the proper assessment of China is necessary to allow us to deconstruct its actions accurately, understand it, and ultimately respond to it. China is often portrayed as a behemoth, which it is not; a revisionist state out to apply strictly Western models of realist statecraft, which cannot be completely precise because it completely discounts the influence of thousands of years of pacifist philosophies enshrined in the Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism to name a few. As Martin Jacques emphasizes: To understand China we need to start by accepting that it is very different from western societies and it will remain very different and only if we understand China in its specificity, can we make sense of it. Seeing Goliath for who he really is may be a good start.
The rise of China has been described as one in steroids, a giant that had grown too fast too soon. But this seeming strength can also be its source of great weakness— for David, a great opportunity. Indeed this weakness was inevitably felt reverberate in the form of its mishandling of the South China Sea issue. Ultimately, the consequences include a premature giant who has not yet mastered the finesse, norms and traditions the international arena warrants. Before the dispute escalated, China regarded the Philippines as the appendix of the geopolitical textbook, but would soon realize it should be the first chapter.
China has had its share of odd behavior in its handling of the South China Sea. For one, it should be questioned why Beijing has never allowed itself to be embroiled in the petty “name-callings” even though there is a clamor domestically to elevate the issue to one of CHINA’S “national core interest” as important as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. Before the Philippines filed the arbitration case, Beijing would often leave public pronouncements of the issue to the organizations in its periphery, especially those in the South. Even at the height of the tension, Presidents Xi and Aquino in the APEC 2014, the former’s sincerity was even acknowledged by the latter. Asked to describe the Chinese leader, Aquino said: “He seemed very sincere… Let me comment first on his leadership. He seems to be in the same mould as I am.” Another is the question: why did it take China 20 years to start reclamation work (if we use 1995 as the benchmark when it occupied Mischief Reef)? The revisionist school would posit that China is just fulfilling the predictions of realist thought. However although China’s military expenditure has increased dramatically over the past two years, a closer analysis would reveal most of these increase went on software (including increasing the salaries of its million strong uniformed men) rather than hardware.
Rather than fear China’s puzzling moves in the South China Sea, perhaps assessing these properly may uncover weaknesses, opening, where everyone else sees as strengths. But more importantly, while the “escalation” has not yet reached the point-of-no-return, David may yet still conquer Goliath and maintain the moral high ground.
A LONELY FIGHT
Just like the ancient story, David’s lone fight with the giant was sealed when he decided to descend down the mountain, the Philippines is fast realizing it is really alone in the fight with the giant since it filed the arbitration case. Yes, other countries continue to provide support in the form of cheers from the sidelines, donations of second hand military equipments, and Filipino and American soldiers may even be engaged in joint military exercises. But if the Philippines cannot even rely on its treaty-allied big brother, as the Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff recently acknowledged “US won’t defend the Philippines against China”, the former cannot possibly expect any one else to burn the bridge with it.
Unless China’s geo-political maneuvering adversely affects the economic interests of the other countries invested in the South China Sea, they would rather prioritize the balancing act of statecraft than antagonize their top trading partner.
Put another way, the Filipinos now, as it was with David then, are on their own against the giant. However rather than dwell on the matter, accepting that this is the very definition of an underdog may actually lead to something positive. It becomes imperative that it studies exactly what elements contributed to David’s success and which ones can be applied today. The alternative is the outcome that has met many unnamed underdogs: the fate of being a non-entity.
Gladwell in his research: “Being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.” President Aquino can very well deliver the unthinkable, the situation has presented itself and he has the moral ascendancy to deliver a lasting victory. Fortunately, unlike in the ancient times when the only option David had was to choose the right sling, close in on the one weak spot, and make sure the hit is lethal; President Aquino has other options on the table. Indeed as a Catholic country, the Philippines is blessed that the ways of man were expounded in the New Testament which went beyond the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth approach— alternatives which can allow the user to end up not only victorious but still maintain the moral high-ground (something David never had).
At the very least, Gladwell’s book is valuable in that it allows for alternatives to be considered. One of those options is negotiation. The Philippines should not do it because it has “paid a high price” for filing a case against China, but because it has already “invested so much”. President Aquino can broaden the definition of what an advantage is. As Gladwell states, “we think of things as helpful that actually aren’t and think of things as unhelpful that in reality leave us stronger and wiser. The arbitration case, rather than being used as an all-or-nothing sling shot, which may actually boomerang in an uncertain environment (like the international system) can also be employed as a bargaining chip.
Another option is to challenge the current approach to working on the problem.
It is possible to win the fight without firing a single shot. Astute strategy and diplomacy--that prioritizes our national interests as distinct from the interests of other nations or even our allies--will enable us to engage China in a rational but complex game of "unity and struggle", developing cooperation where common interests exist while maintaining struggle on unresolved disputes, using expanding cooperation to build mutual trust and eventually resolving the disputes in the Philippine's favor but in a manner that will enhance, not undermine, China's security.
A chief driver of Chinese foreign policy is vulnerability to threat, and the Philippine behavior, rightly or wrongly, may well be stirring up Beijing's fears of containment.
There are many lessons in China's history that bear out China's strategic preferences, specifically that it is possible for China to give up some territories in exchange for greater security. Why, a Chinese strategist may ask, would China give up disputed islands and waters only to allow the Philippines and, by extensions, US and Japan to use those forward territories to threaten or attack China as part of the military alliance against China?
The territorial disputes are very complex and over-simplification can be dangerous. But the best solution for the Philippines would only come about when objective debate is allowed and for alternative strategies for dealing with China welcomed. We must dare to question the "status quo" of the current strategy or the conventional school of thought. Two points: One, China will be the Philippines eternal neighbor and unlike Japan or the US, it has no history of invading the Philippines. Two, it is possible for a David to become the Goliath in strategy and vice versa.
Most importantly, we must realize, even if China loses to David, both still have to live with each other. And at that point, it will be more difficult to pacify the angry giant, for anybody.
(This essay is a collaborative effort including other authors who wish to remain anonymous at this time. The views herein are personal in nature and do not necessarily reflect the organizations in which they represent.)