The cat’s paw

Strategic proxies have disproportionate negotiating power

This month’s Asian Balance argues that China is indeed being ‘bullied’ by the Philippines. Such a statement is likely to cause many people to jump because of the value judgement placed on the term ‘bully’ as well as the David and Goliath-like setting. Shorn of those value judgements and biases, though, this statement holds up. As the column notes, the Philippines has more to gain and less to lose by behaving in a provocative manner than China.

One reason for this is Manila’s treaty alliance with Washington. This affords it with the security that the United States will have to intervene in some form if the Philippines is attacked by China. Washington has let it be known that it is unlikely to intervene in a territorial dispute. This allows China to act against the Philippines in the disputed territory—if Beijing takes military action beyond the disputed islands, and onto sovereign Philippines territory, then it raises the risk of US intervention. The exact red line might be fuzzy, but both Beijing and Manila know that it exists. The game then is to exploit the space before the red line is crossed.

The United States might well be using the Philippines as a proxy to indirectly contain China, its strategic adversary. However, this is not without its own strategic costs—failure to manage the proxy can drag the United States into a conflict it does not want to get into. Manila knows this and can exploit it, for instance, by demanding that the United States sell it arms so that it can defend itself better.

China is at the receiving end in this case, but is quite an accomplished player in the strategic proxy game. North Korea ties down the United States, Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia. Pakistan checks India and the United States in the subcontinent. All in the game.

Is China being bullied by the Philippines?

The disproportionate negotiating power of strategic proxies

Today’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

The small-country bullies
China’s aggressive posturing over maritime boundaries has caused East Asian countries to look at other powers for support

It’s those Chinese fishing vessels again. Last month they ventured into a shoal in the South China Sea, presumably hunting for giant clams, when they were apprehended by the Philippines’ naval patrols. If the Philippines claims the Scarborough shoal – a few hectares worth of low-lying rocks 200 kilometres from its shores – China claims the entire South China Sea as its own. In what has become a familiar pattern over the last few years, the Chinese fishing vessels triggered off a confrontation that quickly escalated into a maritime and diplomatic stand-off. Chinese tourists left the Philippines, and Filipino bananas face an uncertain prospect now in clearing China’s food safety tests.

The two countries are now trying to back off at this time, but not before the “w” word surfaced in the popular discourse.
War? Over some uninhabited rocks in the middle of nowhere? Between China (GDP $7.3 trillion, defence budget $106.4 billion) and the Philippines (GDP $213 billion, defence budget $2.3 billion)? Who would want it?

Not China. While it certainly wants to keep its territorial claims alive by letting intrepid fishing vessels do to South China Sea islands what dogs do to lamp posts, it knows that an outright military conflict will be counterproductive to its longer-term interests.

Provocative fishing vessels and Beijing’s aggressive diplomatic posturing over maritime boundaries have already caused East Asian countries to look at the United States, India and other powers for support. In case China finds itself in a war with the Philippines, opposition to Beijing will consolidate, and the US will make strategic inroads into the region, making it harder for China to achieve its goal of dominating the Western Pacific.

The US too does not want a war. It has a military alliance with the Philippines, and Manila could call upon US support if it is attacked. Washington is understandably reluctant to let itself be dragged into a war against a great power by a small ally over a tiny issue. The Obama administration has signalled that territorial disputes are outside the scope of the defence pact. Even so, if it is seen as shirking from supporting its ally, the value of Washington’s strategic promissory notes in East Asia will sharply depreciate. It cannot, however, support its ally without provoking Beijing. A war would cause the US to choose between losing its reputation and getting into an unwanted confrontation with China.

Most East Asian countries do not want war either. They have spent the last decade attempting to engineer “regional security architectures” – essentially multilateral forums that discuss security issues – that hope to solve tricky geopolitical disputes without being bullied and without having to fight. Yet for all its achievements, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) has little to show in terms of ability to manage armed conflict, even between its member states. Thailand, for instance, has stonewalled the deployment of Indonesian military observers over its border dispute with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple.

Nor has Asean been very vocal in insisting that China comply with the code of conduct in the South China Sea they agreed to in 2002. Its member states are unlikely to want their solidarity to be put to the kind of test that a China-Philippines naval conflict would entail.

What about the Philippines itself? For Manila, maritime boundaries in the South China Sea assume an economic significance that goes beyond nationalistic sentiment over territory. The seabed is supposed to have rich reserves of oil and natural gas, although estimates vary. The technology to exploit natural gas fields in the South China Sea is maturing. China National Offshore Oil Corporation already has semi-submersible deep sea drilling platforms. Manila has its eyes on healthy revenue streams from energy exports which can make a substantial difference to its fiscal position and overall economic health.

This, coupled with the security guarantee the Philippines enjoys by virtue of its alliance with the US, has caused it to stand firm and confront China. So much so that Dai Bingguo, one of Beijing’s top foreign policy hands, accused the Philippines, “a smaller country”, of bullying China. He has a point. As China’s leaders ought to know all too well, small countries that are backed by great powers have disproportionate negotiating power, and they “bully” both their adversaries and their backers. The Philippines might calculate that it has relatively less to lose by letting tensions escalate.

That’s the main risk — when pesky fishing boats, Chinese law enforcement vessels and Philippines naval ships are facing off each other, an accidental trigger can cause an unintentional escalation. Given the turbulence in China’s civil-military relations ahead of this autumn’s leadership transition, and the numerous Chinese state agencies engaged in the South China Sea, the risk of escalation is higher on its side. The onus, therefore, is on Beijing to keep a lid on the tensions.

Unrelated to the stand-off, a contingent of four warships from the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command is on a routine long-range overseas deployment to the South China Sea, and ports in China and the Philippines are among those it will call on. It does come at an interesting time, given its mission of what the Navy terms “generating goodwill among the neighbouring countries”.

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All Rights Reserved.

Damming the Mekong

Who can resist China?

While researching for today’s Business Standard column I came across Ame Trandem’s article in Vietnam’s Than Nien newspaper on the controversy relating to the Xayaboury (Xayaburi) dam in Laos. Here’s an excerpt of my subsequent email interview with Ms Trandem:

Nitin Pai: What is China’s position on the downstream dams that Laos is building & Thailand is financing? China is not in the Mekong River Commission (MRC) but are they playing a role in the shadows?

Ame Trandem: While China is not a member of the MRC, it is a dialogue partner. However China’s own upstream dam construction on the Mekong has helped pave the way for the Lower Mekong mainstream dams to re-emerge on the region’s agenda. With four dams built on the mainstream in China, its dams have begun changing the river’s hydrology and sediment flow, which has helped ease past reluctance in mainstream dam building.
Continue reading Damming the Mekong

Why do Europeans take a dim view of India’s international role?

Views of India remain positive, but have taken a “somewhat negative turn” in 2008

This year’s poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org finds that while international opinion of India is positive overall, average positive views have declined from 41% to 39%, while negative views have increased from 30% to 33%. Among the 21 countries polled, 12 (which includes India itself) had predominantly positive views, six had predominantly negative views, and in three, opinions were divided.

Chart: 'BBC' World Service Poll 2008/WorldPublicOpinion.org
Chart: 'BBC' World Service Poll 2008/WorldPublicOpinion.org

People in Western countries, Africa, Asia and South America generally had positive views, while those in Islamic countries didn’t. This is not unexpected—democracy, Anglophony and traditional “third world” ties would account for the popularity.

But the exceptions to these trends are interesting. The Philippines is the only non-Islamic Asian countries to share a predominantly negative view, and Indonesia is the only Islamic country to have a predominantly positive view. Among Western countries, four major continental European countries—Germany, France, Italy and Spain—see India’s role as predominantly negative.

The mystery of the unimpressed Filipinos might be due to the unpopularity of local ethnic Indians in the Philippines. That’s because they have been in the moneylending business, and the exorbitant rates of interest they charge for unsecured personal loans don’t endear them to the people. Their unpopularity might be rubbing off on India. (This explanation came from one of Pragati’s editorial advisors at a recent lunch. Emperical evidence is awaited)

Cultural links between India and Indonesia have been strong, causing the democratic country with the world’s largest Islamic population to have a net positive view of the democratic country with the second largest. So that’s explained.

But whatever happened to the Europeans? The negative swing has been 12% to 20% in the four major European countries. The poll was conducted in late-November/early-December 2008, after the global economic crisis had set in, and after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. So it might be that a combination of the anxiety over the ‘rise of China and India’, the impasse at the WTO’s Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations and economic worries caused Europeans to feel this way. John Pomfret attributes this to “an element of racism” in the context of China’s unpopularity (via The Peking Duck), a factor that might apply in India’s case as well. From the geopolitical angle, the US-India nuclear deal might have also contributed to the negative perception. Indians, however, continue to have a predominantly positive view of the EU.

As compared to the 2007 survey (see the Acorn’s March 2007 post), more Indians take a positive view of India’s role in the world. Around one in two persons, or 51% feel India’s role is positive, up from 47% two years ago. Only 7% have a negative view, down from 10% in the 2007 survey. That’s still lower than the Chinese, a whopping 92% of who are convinced that their country is playing a positive role. Whatever others might think of them, that is something.

Related Post: India is big in Afghanistan