Between the Eagle and Dragon

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    ‘As for the Philippines, we just need to do much better watching out for our own interests. And just accept the fact that for the next 23 months we won’t have a Winston Churchill at the helm who would ‘fight on the beaches… in the fields and in the streets’ and ‘would never surrender.’’

    ARE we headed towards a Second Cold War? It seems this way at least on the surface, with the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China engaged in a tit-for-tat closure of consulates, after the US ordered the Chinese to close their Houston consulate and the latter retaliated by ordering the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu.

    Tensions are high on the high seas. The United States, speaking through its Secretary of State, has lambasted China for its “aggressive” action in the South China Sea (of which the West Philippine Sea is a part), even mentioning China’s activities in territory that has been ruled to be part of the Philippines’ maritime zone.

    The US has also stated time and again that it intends to exercise its “freedom of navigation” in waters that China considers its own. US warships from the Pacific Fleet and manned and unmanned aircraft crisscross the area, but so far there have been no encounters with Chinese warships or aircraft.

    This is in sharp contrast with the experience of Filipino fishermen who regularly encounter Chinese Coast Guard vessels and are warned off for being in Chinese waters.

    During his SONA last Monday, President Duterte repeated a message he had said before: China is powerful, and we are in no position to take on its military might. I have to admit that it was the part of his speech that I reacted to most, because of the undisguised signal it was sending, not just to China but to any militarily powerful neighbor. And the message is clear: you can squat in our territory and we will raise hell but that’s all we can do.
    Heck, we may not even raise hell, depending on who you are.

    Then again, PRRD needs to be conscious of the geopolitical reality the Philippines almost uniquely faces: we straddle a body of water that the two biggest economies with the two most powerful militaries in the world are now flexing muscles over. And while we have had a long-standing relationship with the United States on many levels (cultural, economic, social and political), of late China has also increased its level of influence if not on the psyche of the Filipino people then at least on the psyche of the current administration. This is why PRRD needs to swing both ways – revoking his cancelation of the VFA on the one hand, whole vowing to Chinese President XI Jinping that the Philippines will not become a staging ground of anti-China activities.

    It’s tough to be caught between the claws of an Eagle and a Dragon.

    But will this Second Cold War reach the same levels of tension as did the first one, which had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war a number of times?

    Hopefully not, especially if one looks at the continuing trade between both powers.

    China exports over $490B to the US and imports $100B in annual trade, resulting in a trade imbalance that ruffles Donald Trump. But so far the political tensions have not spilled over to the trade sector and the trade deal both countries signed in January of this year remains in force. I suspect that if the big powers keep trading, their muscle flexing will remain just that.

    But expect more fireworks especially because it’s an election year and Trump, on the ropes, will demonize China and the “China virus” in the hope of rallying his base. It wouldn’t hurt President Xi as well to rally his people behind a foreign devil, always good domestic politics for any leader facing a crisis.

    As for the Philippines, we just need to do much better watching out for our own interests.

    And just accept the fact that for the next 23 months we won’t have a Winston Churchill at the helm who would “fight on the beaches…in the fields and in the streets” and “would never surrender.”