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Brinkmanship: China’s dangerous game


Last March 14th, this prestigious daily published an article I had submitted, whose title – The China Syndrome – was borrowed from a 1979 Hollywood fictional thriller movie  that was about the deadly consequences of a possible nuclear accident. In that article, I used the movie’s fanciful title to describe the actual, nonfictional incidents of bullying – a real China Syndrome – done by the People’s Republic of China (PROC) or China, for short, against its nearest neighbors in the South China Sea (renamed West Philippine Sea by our Government).

By submitting to the United Nations (UN) on May 7, 2009 a map which highlighted  its territorial claims in that Sea, China has escalated – wittingly it seems – a potentially explosive international dispute. For that map’s nine-dotted line encompasses the competing claims of its five comparatively much smaller and much weaker neighbors – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – over some islets and shoals in the same marine area. More alarming, its nine-dotted line map covers “about 90 percent of the South China Sea’s 3.5 million square kilometers. [That] sea provides 10 percent of the global fish catch, carries $5 trillion in ship-borne trade a year and is believed to be rich in [oil and other] energy resources.” (Alexis Romero, “China ship blasts Pinoy fishermen with water cannon,” February 25, 2014,

And by unilaterally and repeatedly declaring “indisputable sovereignty” over the territories it has been claiming with heightened aggressiveness and belligerence, China must really be engaged in “the biggest attempted grab of territory since World War II.” (Gordon G. Chang, “China And The Biggest Territory Grab Since World War II,” 2013/06/02,

In the sphere of international relations, today’s island-creeping China Syndrome has a name – brinkmanship. It’s not a new concept or practice, though; it’s a “term coined during the Cold War to describe the tactic of seeming to approach the verge of war in order to persuade one’s opposition to retreat.” (WIKIPEDIA: The Free Encyclopedia)  It’s “the  technique or practice in foreign policy of manipulating a dangerous situation to the limits of tolerance or safety in order to secure advantage, especially by creating diplomatic crises.”

(The Free Dictionary)  Simply put, it’s waging a war on every conceivable front by any means possible except the overt use of military power or arms – a non-shooting war, in short.

The 1960s’ “space race” between the US and the USSR was a perfect example of a cold war.

By the way, the Cold War (1947-1991) was between the Western [or Democratic] Bloc composed of the US, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and their allies, and the Eastern [or Communist] Bloc composed of the then USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and its allies in the Warsaw Pact. It ended unexpectedly in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR, the cause of which was an effective use of  “people power.” The 15 Soviet

Republics that had composed it are now separate, independent, and sovereign states. Two of them are the Russian Federation or Russia, for short, and Ukraine. As we all know, these two are presently engaged in what could be a precursor of a new form of cold war over Crimea, an autonomous region under Ukraine. The US, the European Union (EU), and NATO have already shown their strong disapproval of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This, however, is another story.

Now, the most significant question: Why is China playing the dangerous game of brinkmanship in the South China Sea? Or, to recall the question aired by a netizen on May 27,  2013: “Why can’t China live in peace with its neighbors?” ( Or, to paraphrase Gordon G. Chang’s blunt words:  Why is China engaged in the biggest attempted grab of territory since World War II?

Certain China watchers around the world have aired their views and opinions through the trimedia and the internet about China’s motivations and objectives as an emerging world power. Their attention is now focused on China’s territorial claims, especially its brinkmanship in the South China Sea. Collectively, they have done much to help us understand  China’s alarming behavior; thus, we can now formulate our own logical answers to any or all the questions cited in the preceding paragraph.

With the honest intention of contributing to such market of ideas, I venture  to say that the essential answer to those questions can be found in the constitution and ideology of its sole governing political party – the Communist Party of China (CPC). Thus, according to its own constitution, the CPC adheres to six basic principles, the first two of which are Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. (“The Communist Party of China,”  WIKIPEDIA) 
For the purpose of this article, however, the other four principles are not discussed herein since they are merely changes and reforms – the Deng Xiaoping Theory, for example – which China  has had to adopt to  make its economic policies flexible and adaptive to the progress and development of the First World countries, particularly the richest Western nations. With the first two basic principles as anchor, the official explanation for its capita-listic economic reforms is that “[China] is in the primary stage of socialism, a developmental stage similar to the capitalist mode of production.”

Marxism-Leninism, in the context of government, politics and diplomacy, stresses “that imperialism is the highest form of capitalism . . . [It is] an expanded form of Marxism that emphasizes Lenin’s concept of  imperialism as the final stage of capitalism and shifts the focus of struggle from developed to underdeveloped countries.” (The Free Dictionary) 

And imperialism is “the policy of seeking to extend the power, dominion or territories of a nation.” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus, C. 2007)

Additionally,  Mao Zedong Thought is an integration of the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism with the practices of the Chinese revolution. Currently, the CPC interprets the essence of Mao Zedong thought as “seeking truth from facts; [therefore, the CPC] must proceed from reality and put theory into practice in everything. In other words, [the CPC] must [be flexible enough to] integrate the universal theory of Marxism-Leninism with China’s specific conditions.” (WIKIPEDIA)

However, some China watchers view the reforms effected by the CPC’s flexible approach as possible signs of an ideological crisis in China – as attempts at abandoning the Maoist revolution’s original ideology. In reaction to their criticism, Jiang Zemin, a retired politician who had served as General Secretary of the CPC from 1989-2002, President of China from 1993-2003 (ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA) and Chairman of the Central Military Commission from 1989-2004, has emphasized that the CPC “must never discard Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought . . . if we did, we would lose our foundation.” (WIKIPEDIA)

On the essence of the CPC’s concept and application of flexibility, Ye Xiaowen, a politician who held various top posts relating to state regulation of religion from 1995-2009, and who was subsequently appointed to direct the Central Institute of Socialism, has declared thus:

I am a Marxist. The essence of Marxism is change, [...] Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton by stressing change. The Marxist in China today is not a stubborn, dogmatic, and outdated 19th-century old man, but a dynamic, pro-change, young thinker. We have a flexible approach; if Marx’s words are still applicable, we will use them; for things he did not articulate clearly, we will spell them out; for what he did not say, we will boldly come up with something new. (WIKIPEDIA)

Inevitably, China’s foreign policy must have been shaped by its flexible approach in all governmental matters. In 2007, Qin Gang, Spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, stated that China has an eight-point diplomatic philosophy. However, I am herein citing in toto only five of the eight points because I believe that they are the most germane to this article’s topic and purpose:

1. China maintains all countries, big or small, should be treated equally and respect each other. All affairs should be consulted and resolved by all countries on the basis of equal participation. No country should bully others on the basis of strength.

2. China will make judgment on each case in international affairs, each matter on the merit of the matter itself and it will not have double standards. China will not have two policies: one for itself and one for others. China believes that it cannot do unto others what they do not wish others do unto them.

3. China advocates that all countries handle their relations on the basis of the United Nations Charter and norms governing international relations. China advocates stepping up international cooperation and is against unilateral politics. China should not undermine the dignity and the authority of the U.N. China should not impose and set its own wishes above the U.N. 
Charter, international law and norms.

4. China advocates peaceful negotiation and consultation so as to resolve its international disputes. China does not resort to force, or threat of force, in resolving international disputes. China maintains a reasonable national military buildup to defend its own sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is not made to expand, nor does it seek invasion or aggression.

5. China is firmly opposed to terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. China is a responsible member of the international  community, and as for international treaties, China abides by all them in a faithful way. China never plays by a double standard, selecting and discarding treaties it does not need. (“Foreign relations of China,”  WIKIPEDIA)
At this juncture, one might infer that China’s difficult attitudes and provocative actions  regarding its territorial claims are inconsistent with – even in direct contradiction to – its  avowed diplomatic philosophy. So, is this an indication of how China defines “flexibility?”

The second part of Ye Xiaowen’s declaration seems to hold the answer: “We have a flexible approach; if Marx’s words are still applicable, we will use them; for things he did not articulate clearly, we will spell them out; for what he did not say, we will boldly come up with something new.” (Underscoring mine)

What then are we to make of the apparent inconsistencies between China’s words and actions? A relevant circumstance could provide some needed help. On the basis of China’s involvement in the still on-going search for the missing Malaysia Airlines’ Flight MH370, a China watcher has asked: “So is the world seeing the emergence of a more enlightened, more co-operative, more altruistic China?” (Peter Hartcher, “Self-interest the only principle guiding China,” March 25, 2014, The Sydney Morning Herald, 

Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, in his  own analysis of China’s participation in the search as quoted in Hartcher’s internet article, does not think so: “It’s not necessarily about international co-operation – it’s about Chinese  moves to assist themselves in an international situation. . . . It’s also a pretty narrow definition of Chinese interest – their motivation here is the 153 Chinese nationals on the flight. Their foreign policy is driven by a very sharp link to their domestic political base.”

The foregoing observation is corroborated by Hartcher himself: “If you look at a couple  of other instances of [China’s] recent foreign policy, you would [see] the hardest, narrowest definition of the national interest.” The first instance: “China loves to sermonize on the inviolable principles of national sovereignty and the United Nations-based system of international order. . . . But the moment [an] ally displays rising militarism, China is only too happy to connive. [So,] when the UN Security Council debated a motion condemning Russia’s invasion of Crimea, China was strangely silent. . . . It abstained on the vote.”

The second instance: “When the chairman [of the UN commission on human rights,] former Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby, accused [North Korea] of ‘crimes against humanity’ and demanded China stop the forced repatriation of North Koreans who manage to escape its gulags, who was the first to defend North Korea? Its great ally, China.” Hartcher’s conclusion: “When the acid tests are applied to its [avowed] principles, China is shown to have only one – narrow self-interest.” Therefore, I now venture to state that China’s definition of flexibility subsumes inconsistency – even self-contradiction – as long as its narrow self-interest is served.

Be that as it may, the urgent question of the hour is – how can China be persuaded to discontinue playing its dangerous game of brinkmanship in the South China Sea? Recourse to the rule of law is the most promising strategy, I believe. Two distinguished Filipinos share this view:  Former DILG Secretary Rafael Alunan III and former National Security Adviser  Roilo Golez “agree [that] the arbitration case [our Government filed last March 30th with the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea or ITLOS] is the best approach to the territorial dispute.” (“Philippines: Former Interior Secretary Warns of Possible Reactions By China to The Philippines’ South China Sea Arbitration Effort,” March 25, 2014, 

They also believe that “an ITLOS ruling in favor of the Philippines would give the country the legal backing and the moral high ground and prove that China is the interloper.”

Furthermore, according to Alunan: “If we play our cards right in the United Nations, the General Assembly itself could issue a statement detrimental to China.”

And so, the ball is now in the court of the ITLOS, as it were. But the media – the global networks, especially – has a crucial role to play not only in reporting about the proceedings  of the ITLOS but also in shaping the right perception about the potentially explosive situation in the South China Sea. For, according to an insightful China watcher: “Just because China is a dictatorship doesn’t mean that its government is immune to public opinion.”

(Peter Hartcher)

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