How do you solve a problem like China?


    AS I expected, the visit to and lecture in Manila of British journalist Martin Jacques stirred up mini hornets nests at least among some of my friends and many of those who saw the social media plugs as well as those who listened to him last September 10. To those who are open to the idea of a further decoupling by the Philippines from America, the future, as laid out by Jacques, is less a disturbing one than one filled with opportunities – opportunities for the Philippines to situate itself within an emerging “new order.”

    Those opportunities include seeking collaborative approaches to issues that divide our two countries, most prominently the sovereignty dispute over portions of the South China Sea. They also include being part of the Belt and Road Initiative – which I see as the foundation of a new multilateral system of economic relations with China at the center, designed to assure China both of raw materials and markets for the goods that it produces. And as China moves up the value ladder in manufacturing it is very possible that some of the countries who sign up for the Belt and Road – and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (China’s answer to the western-led World Bank and the Japanese-led Asian Development Bank) — could turn into future “factories” for China itself.

    Let the less developed countries produce the baseball caps and keychains and ballpens and other souvenir items, while China starts manufacturing cellphones and aircrafts and satellites.

    Those who worry – or are angered – by China’s activities see them as “muscle flexing” by a “new hegemonist.” The decade-long “occupation” of Tibet and the most recent “bullying” in the disputed waters of the South China Sea are some of the long line of events cited as proof of her expansionist intentions. And this expansion is made even more dangerous, say critics, because it’s being coupled with economic muscle – investments and loans that, like a web, further entangle the “target” in the web.

    From my perspective China is simply going down the path that almost every world power has taken when they began to expand and flex their muscles, albeit in a less martial way. We all know how Spain, Portugal, England, Germany, France and even the Dutch used the power of arms to conquer and control distant lands to secure raw materials and territory, as did the Egyptians and Ottomans and Greeks and Persians centuries before them.

    China is doing the same with the Belt and Road Initiative — but with the critical difference that it is not sending warships and infantry to subdue resisting people. (If Tibet is seen as an example to the contrary, the Chinese will argue that Tibet has historically been a tributary State and in the interest of its security – from India as well as from the then USSR – it was better to put Tibet under China’s control.)

    Neither is China (at least so far) engaging in “regime change” that the United States has been known to do for decades (successfully or not) – from Chile to Cuba, Nicaragua to Venezuela, South Vietnam to the Philippines.

    Again, except for the special case of Tibet, when has China engaged in “regime change?”

    In fact, even on the issue of Hong Kong, China has steered clear of clamping forcefully down on a city that is undeniably part of China, politically if not spiritually. It has obviously been working closely with the elected leaders of the special administrative region to contain the protests but by and large all that Beijing has done is issue veiled warnings.

    Sending troops of the PLA into Hong Kong would be politically disastrous – but can be justified — especially if protests turn violent, resulting in the widespread destruction of buildings and public facilities.

    China will never give up Hong Kong – the territory that Britain forcibly took at a time when China was powerless to resist.

    But to say that China will never resort to aggression or military occupation because history is the guide is false and misleading. From my perspective it is only now, with the advent of modern communications and technology coinciding with the rise of China economically, that it has the capacity to do what the now-faded imperial powers of Europe once did: roam the world and impose your rule by force of arms when necessary. It definitely is an option open to the leadership in Beijing that was almost never open before.

    Clearly, China is poor at telling its story, and to be frank in the Philippines it does not help if the most fervent storytellers are Filipinos of Chinese ancestry. China has to learn and learn quickly from the United States on how people to people exchanges are the best way to lower levels of distrust and build a community of cooperation. Then again the ability of the United States to have its story told over decades by people of multi-racial descent is an advantage that China will never be able to equal, much less surpass, even despite Trump.

    How do you solve a problem like China?

    With lots of patience.


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