I will avoid touching upon the sensitivity issues or who is right in the South China Sea dispute. Rather, I want to show how a mis-labeling of China has actually been the weakness of the Philippines's foreign policy. Both countries share a common goal: improving the economic status of its people. Or at least this was what I thought.
Although China is the second largest economy, its government acknowledges it has problems: a widening household income gap, growing disparity between urban and rural development, and environmental concerns. The Philippines, which delivered the 2nd largest economic growth in 2013, right behind China, has its own set of domestic problems-- among them a growing unemployment rate despite economic development, political scandals, and a brewing separatists movement in the southern part of the country.
David and Goliath
The Western media like to portray the South China Sea conflict between the Philippines and China as that of David and Goliath. This story of David and Goliath is a reference to the famous story in the Bible that portrayed a heroic David defeat the giant Goliath who was terrorizing the civilization in which David was but a humble shepherd boy.
Military actions by China are said reinforce this notion. China’s purchase of its first aircraft carrier dwarfs the largest naval ship in the Philippine arsenal. The dramatic increase in China’s military expenditure supports views that it is taking the stance of a belligerent bully flexing its muscle.
But viewed in a global context, China’s defense maneuvering is more in line with taking protective measures to ensure its survival and establish defensive capabilities to ensure the status quo. One example is the substantial annual increase in military spending by the Chinese government, which has been used as the prime example of China's revisionist intentions and as the focal point for which the Philippines has used to strum up support for its military response. To use a case in point is its purchase of the aircraft carrier several years ago.
China Shows Self-Restraint
China is highly dependent on trade. And if we compare China’s current position to those of its peers in the economic powerhouse BRICS – made up of Brazil, Russia, India,
China and South Africa – we find that except for South Africa, and China at that time, each country has one aircraft carrier.
While it may be the largest economy in the Asian region, it is only the third Asian country to have an aircraft carrier, after India and Thailand.
By contrast, the U.S. has 11 operational aircraft carriers. Moreover China’s overall increase in its defense budget is in fact the smallest percentage of its gross domestic product among the top military-spenders.
According to Henry Kissinger, an authority on China politics and author of the book On China, at the rate China’s coffers are growing, with domestic pressure from some groups for a bigger allocation for its military, China’s recent double digit increase in defense since the late 1990s signals this shift in China’s internal politics.
For the Philippines, with its unresolved issues with the giant, this can be perceived as a direct show-of-force reaction as the situation in the South China Sea receives more attention. However, if we take the recent mobilization as an internal power play, then China’s situation actually reflects a common problem in any country with strong economic growth.
Recent scholarly studies showed Deng Xiaoping actually ushered in the country’s economic miracle by sidelining military interest in 1979 with the promise that the military will be able to share in the economic growth when the country becomes rich. In addition, a big increase in allocation actually went to the improvement in the salary of the military personnel which has not grown commiserate to their other counterparts in the private sector. Therefore, its current military development can be characterized as an internal accommodation rather than external reaction.
This is just one contemporary development and more recent and critical ones have ensued. However the point is: if accusations were built on faulty information, then any moral high ground built on top of it becomes highly questionable.
A Giant of Peace
Perhaps a change in attitude will be easier if there is a shift in perception. Instead of seeing China’s growing assertiveness as Goliath picking on David, we see China instead as a Gulliver among Lilliputians. In the story “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, Lemuel Gulliver lands on an island where people were six inches tall. Initially, they thought him a threat and tried to subdue him. Eventually, realizing that the giant was in fact a man of peace, they learned to live with the giant and actually benefited from his presence. Such change in mentality, far from being fatalistic, can lead to cooperation that can benefit both parties. *I'm not saying one is a giant or the other is a 6-inch being in any derogatory term, except the fact that there are two peoples coming from two different worlds.
Change of Attitude
The Philippines is in an ideal position to benefit from the economic growth of China, due to its proximity (only 5 hours plane ride from Beijing to Manila), complementarity in goods and capabilities, and its generous treatment of ethnic Chinese business and political leaders. The combined business and financial successes of the Filipino-ethnic Chinese, who are said to control 80% of the country's wealth, is a testament of the Philippines bounty and generosity. In fact 7 out of 10 of the richest Filipinos have Chinese blood. The current President himself has grandparents from the mountain of Fujian. These individuals found success in their adopted country, and it is important that the ordinary people share in their accomplishments.
With the growth of World's economy, these taipans and bigwigs will continue to get richer. With an exacerbating situation in the South China Sea, corporations that manufacture weapons for the military will be the only ones to see windfalls. If the Philippines mistreat China base on biased perceptions, the very people the government is supposed to represent will be the ones who will really suffer. This is the challenge on which government and policy-makers ought to focus. Not on getting international media mileage.
**How can we help the world understand and see that China is a giant of peace?
(This is an abridged version of an article first published in from: http://www.kaisa.org.ph:16080/tulay/archive/2013/100813/100813-V26N9.html#editorial)