On Sunday, Beijing launched an apparently coordinated campaign to intimidate the Philippine government, which has recently moved to increase defense cooperation with the US.
In recent days, Manila revealed that American reconnaissance planes and warships are planning to rotate through Philippine bases and that the Pentagon is discussing the sale of equipment and the provision of additional training. Philippine and US marines will practice defending and retaking oil rigs in the disputed South China Sea. In March, the two countries will be holding further defense talks.
Why is Manila reversing two decades of cool relations with the United States? Beijing claims as its own the entire South China Sea and virtually all the islands in it, and this expansive notion puts Beijing into conflict with countries, like the Philippines, that have historically occupied islands close to their shores. Aggressive Chinese moves in the area have driven such nations to seek Washington’s help in the past three years.
“Without a deterrent force, we can be easily pushed around,” said Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Friday, after two days of talks in Washington. “Our territories will be violated. Now that we have a good neighbor on the block, we can no longer be bullied.”
The Chinese evidently think otherwise. “We hope that relevant parties will make more effort towards peace and stability in the region,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement faxed to AFP. The mild words, issued on Sunday, have to be seen in the context of a barrage of belligerent comments from Chinese state media.
On Sunday, the Global Times, owned by the official People’s Daily, ran a hostile article titled “Make Philippines Pay for Balancing Act.” Beijing, the paper wrote, “will not accept a small country in the region creating military tensions by playing a balancing strategy. A price should be paid for violating this principle. The Philippines will not be an exception.”
And what is the price? “Well-measured sanctions against the Philippines will make it ponder the choice of losing a friend such as China and being a vain partner with the US.”
Then the official China Daily chimed in on Monday by running an extraordinary piece threatening a downward spiral in Sino-American ties. Paraphrasing Wang Junsheng of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the paper wrote that enhanced defense cooperation between America and the Philippines “sends a very dangerous signal that could cause China to misjudge the US’ intentions, and raise suspicions between the two countries.”
Earlier this month, Shi Yinhong of Renmin University stated that Beijing would go after the Philippines because it was, among the nations bordering the South China Sea, “the most active and critical country in trying to gain US support over the past year.” As the Global Times said, Beijing, to protect its claims, had to “single out a few cases and apply due punishment.”
The paper specifically urged Beijing to use economic leverage to cut ties between Manila and the nine other countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and if there was any doubt that this was just the opinion of one state-run paper, Shi, who Beijing often uses as a mouthpiece, had suggested the same thing in an interview with Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “I think our peaceful means will win support from Southeast Asian friends,” he said, “and isolate the Philippines.”
But the other nations in Southeast Asia are also lining up against Beijing because China claims their islands too. So Shi’s prediction reveals how much Beijing is out of touch with sentiment throughout the region, and this misperception is an indication of why things could go terribly wrong in the South China Sea this year.