by W. Scott Thompson and Oliver Geronilla
Somewhere in the first of Trollope’s 6-volume set Palliser Novels, “the Prime Minister,” the Duke of Omnium, also the premier, tells his usually silly wife that—and we paraphrase—nations are like people: they elicit (the) respect from outside powers to about the same extent that they do so on a personal basis—according to how much respect they give themselves.
We respect countries and people who respect themselves. Costa Rica is truly a tiny country, but it eliminated its military, developed peaceful relations with its neighbors, and is considerably the most prestigious country in its neighborhood. Botswana, by far the richest black state in Africa, even used its adversity during a drought to make itself still richer, but had a unified proud country pulling with it.
Recently, we have been reading with great interest the debate in the Philippine press of how to deal with China. One of us has been reading this sort of thing for 42 years. This is in fact the most substantive debate on foreign policy we have seen here.
But we are bothered by a few things. Let’s get some facts straight first. The Philippines is not a ‘small’ country and it is not a ‘powerless’ country. It’s going beyond even being a middle-sized country as it hits the 100million mark.
Now, in all respects China is bigger, richer, and far more militarily powerful. So? What else is new? Throughout history smaller countries have had to find ways of dealing with stronger ones. The only thing the smaller country must never do is make a big deal about how powerless it is. For by such it becomes far weaker, even pathetic, in the eyes of the stronger.
How should the smaller power act? There are some old shoes to use. Of course one constantly reiterates the sovereign equality of nations. It’s a bit meaningless if one is talking about navies, but it has a basis in history and law, at least back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It means that there is a prima facie basis for each power, no matter what size, respecting the others.
Now, to be sure, China has been ascending up a steep ladder. Britain and then America, as they expanded, found ‘natural and historical’ rights to establish coaling stations (Shanghai, Bombay) that became colonies or extra-territorial enclaves. Empire Britain became. America found ‘friends’ to rent all over the world as cold war fever swept over it, and poor countries like Ethiopia sold rights to its Asmara high ground, where a vital communications link was built to bring the world together—under American hegemony.
China historically has not gone in that way. It never established a world empire. It thinks regionally–whence its invasion of Vietnam in late 1978, to ‘teach it a lesson,’ though it seems like it was China that got taught a lesson. Yet here’s the rub for the Philippines: It’s right in the way of China’s claim to maritime supremacy in its region.
Manila is right to build up its navy to minimize the danger. It is wrong to go around feeling sorry for itself. No one respects that. But there is precedent. One of us, in September, will be publishing a long and authorized biography of former President Fidel Ramos, in which a major player is General Jose Almonte, himself quite a card to play, as the region’s foremost and smartest strategist. FVR assigned Joal the job of dealing with China over the first real eruption of major problems with China over the Spratly islands. Joal told us—and we are paraphrasing from the forthcoming biography—that he didn’t even believe in FVR’s assignment—to find a solution. Joal understands power; he didn’t believe he had any cards to play. But he rallied the region, even consulting Koreans and other nearby non-Asean powers. He put China on the defensive and they began asserting that they were not a traditional great power; they weren’t trying to use might over right. Ha!
General Almonte, to his own astonishment, achieved his purpose. The Chinese backed down. Of course there’s a lot of water over the dam since then—and a far larger Chinese navy. What worked then must be tried harder today. Insist in all fora on the ‘equality of nations;’ work the region as a whole. Differences among Asean countries must be eliminated, as they play right into the Chinese hand.
Above all, achieve coherence at home. Nothing strengthens a country more than the integrity of its political system and a growing economy. Respect your president—give him the free hand he needs. So far he’s been a winner abroad. Does China want to look like a bully against a freely-elected (and overwhelmingly supported) young and popular leader?
Fight all you want domestically for advantage (but Ampatuan methods are ruled out), but as a nation be as one. Foreign policy begins at the water’s edge, we always said.
Yet there are times when might makes right—for a time. Still the picture of the beleaguered exiled emperor of Ethiopia at the League o Nations, after Italy defeated his forces in 1935, appealing on the grounds of sovereignty and dignity of his country, is one of the most popular of the 20th century.
If the Philippines doesn’t want to see its sovereignty violated, it must be wholly united, not by asking for pity on grounds of its powerlessness, but on grounds of its rights as a united political entity. This time it’s going to be a lot more difficult. The Foreign Secretary looks like he’s got it right—and he’s a man of dignity who had to work for years in Washington with a weak hand to play; but he did it well. Get Behind Secretary Del Rosario. Be two nations if you will: a squabbling one internally (though the less so the better) but a coherent people with respect to foreign policy.
The Philippines has never had much interest in statecraft—compare Thailand. Manila felt for too long it was protected by the US. Even now it is putting wordly faith in its mutual defense treaty with Washington. That has to get substantive. Call a conference. Put America more and more on the spot. Card by card build your hand. The Philippines can’t stand up to China in a military conflict, but the Philippines can make that the least likely of scenarios. In fact, we see the Philippines as having a quite strong hand in law of the sea, ASEAN unity, history, international law, and international prestige (the latter as applied to China as it wishes to present itself internationally). Go for it!
Oliver Geronilla is a language instructor based in the City of Dasmarinas . W. Scott Thompson, D.Phil. served four presidents in the United States and is professor emeritus of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston . He lives in Washington and Makati City and is the author of 14 books on international relations and Southeast Asian politics.