Opinion: The Hague South China Sea ruling… who cares?

In the wake of the recent favourable decision for the Philippines at The Hague there are many who seem to feel that this is going to make a huge difference to the situation in the South China Sea. It won’t. China will not acquiesce control of the oil and gas reserves in the region, nor will it give up access to the food resource.

What we have now is basically a Sino-American stalemate in the area and the only reason the Americans care is because of the volume of maritime trade that relies on access through the area. For once I am pleased to see the corridors of power in lit with common sense. With recent announcements suggesting that the mood in Malacañang is one of diplomacy, rather than the alternative – which quite honestly does not bear thinking about.

Exports to China and Hong Kong from the Philippines amounted to some $24 billion last year. Think about that figure for a moment. Compare it to offshore remittances at $26 billion, the Business Process Outsourcing Industry at $25 billion and just soak that up. Sure the Philippines imported quite a bit from China too, but when it comes to the breakdown of major trading partners China is our biggest and we’re most certainly not theirs.

It’s easy to upshift the patriotic rhetoric, but something that the people of the Philippines seem yet to have come to accept in the context of this discussion is that they are not the United States. The USA can afford patriotic rhetoric, this country can’t afford to fall out of favor with its single biggest trading partner. To all those in the country that are waving their star spangled banners and screaming that the United States will defend the country in the event of any military entanglement with the Chinese, you need to think on that a little bit too.

You see, it’s pretty clear that the United States is the only country on the planet that can afford to take on China in a military offensive. If that did happen, and we all really have to hope it doesn’t, they would not be defending the sovereignty of the Philippine Islands. They would be defending the shipping lanes that they rely on to get goods down into the straits of Malacca (among other places). The would also potentially be defending their “last line of defence” in the Northern area of this part of the pacific, that being Guam. There is a lot of evidence of them tooling up on Guam in preparation for such.

So why the Philippines? They are convenient. Take a look at a map. Look at where Guam is, look at where China is and look at the only significant piece of land in between them.  Well, 7,107 pieces of land to be precise. What is almost laughable is the country actually allowed the Americans back into their bases here. That wasn’t a case of Team America, World Police to the rescue. It was a case of America, with fires left and right on the home front, protecting its own self interest. The days of the American superpower are well and truly behind us, the days of the American supernova are ahead of us. Maybe not in the next 10 years, but most certainly within the next 100. Superpowers seldom go peacefully.

The conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea

Over the course of my own lifetime I’ve seen China, on my first visit (which was five years before the end of the cold war) go from guys in blue suits and bicycles, tourists not being allowed to take photographs and broad ranging post-cultural revolution poverty to a total powerhouse. In the same span of time I’ve seen America go from the savior of the free world and a bastion of freedom and democracy to an overbearing pseudo-democracy that spies on its own people and has a failing economy.

Many of the axioms that underpin both China’s rise and the fall of the United States have been present in the rise and fall of every other empire since man worked out how to light a fire. The Khmer, The Romans, The Moghuls and The British. All were once hugely important, dominant forces in the world. Economic powerhouses that were (to coin a phrase that the Americans have certainly introduced into the global narrative in the past decade or so) far too big to fail. They did, and it is about to happen again. If you want to see the irony of it all then go and visit New Delhi, when I did our city tour involved both Moghul tombs and an exhibition about the Empire upon which the sun will never set.

So the ultimate question is, what does it all mean? It’s not complicated. The only appropriate course of action for the Philippines is to diplomatically engage with the Chinese, to accept that this is Asia and not the United States and to take steps to bring about an axis of power within ASEAN. Give China her turn at the wheel for 200 years or so and then, who knows, maybe a great Malay empire will rise from the ashes of that Phoenix. Either that or DAESH is going to destroy the lot and we’ll end up with a caliphate based out of Bandar Seri Begawan, but that’s another article entirely.