For the first time in its 45-year history, the Association of South East Asian Nations failed to issue a joint communiqué at the end of its annual conference. This self-imposed muteness merely confirms what the Philippines has long suspected: that Asean members will do nothing to disturb the beneficial economic relationship they each enjoy with the giant next door. The meeting may have been the wrong time and the wrong place for any of the 10 member-countries to discuss their common problems with China. But, the organization’s silence in the face of repeated Chinese bullying signals a subservience that is appropriate only to tributary states.
It may have been the wrong time because China is in the middle of a leadership transition whose outcome will be known in October at the 18th Congress of the Communist Party. In a season like this, every politician is expected to wear the flag and pander to every call to defend and protect the national interest. Any implied criticism of China by its neighbors at this time can only bring out the most bellicose chauvinism among the country’s rival leaders. Since the death of Mao, nationalism, rather than socialism, has become the gel of Chinese unity.
Cambodia is also the wrong place from which to issue a joint declaration expressing concern over China’s behavior. Cambodia is to China as the Philippines is to America. Deeper ties bind them to these big powers, and others tend to see them as proxies for the latter. China came to Cambodia’s rescue in 1979 after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in order to end the atrocities of the China-backed Khmer Rouge. As host of the conference this year, Cambodia has made sure there would not be even the slightest mention of any discussion of territorial concerns in the South China Sea. No wonder, China’s foreign ministry hailed the conference as “productive.” Asean’s muteness was music to Chinese ears.
It is eerie to feel the return of a Cold War rhetoric warning against the threat from China. We had mocked such warnings in the 1980s at the height of the debate on the fate of the US bases. But the threat posed by an aggressive China that asserts sovereignty over practically all of the South China Sea has become too palpable to ignore. China’s behavior in these disputed waters in the past few months contradicts its avowed quest to build a harmonious society in the context of a peaceful and stable regional and global environment.
Of course, it has long been known that the rise of China as a global power reinforces the racism inherent in its self-image as a civilization-state. The “Middle Kingdom” mindset inclines the Chinese to treat everyone outside their borders, particularly people of color, as barbarians. It would be hardly surprising if they regard Filipinos as unworthy claimants to maritime territory they have always regarded as Chinese. Understandably, they want us to deal with them bilaterally—one-on-one rather than multilaterally, or in accordance with international norms—because they look upon us not as an equal sovereign state but as a tributary nation. And this is exactly how they expect all the member states of Asean to comport themselves—as economic vassals of a rising empire.
One can understand what prompts this arrogance. Japan, China’s historic aggressor, has long been in the doldrums, politically and economically. The American hegemon retains its technological and military superiority, but its own massive economic troubles have rendered it powerless to offer anything substantial to the world’s emerging economies. The Soviet Union, China’s erstwhile patron and rival, is no more. Thus, the new China stands virtually alone today as the world’s highest-performing economic powerhouse, capable of sharing its economic vitality with others, and cutting out those who would not accept its rules. That, in simple terms, is why Asean has suddenly lost its voice.
We are definitely out of China’s loop. We cannot respond to its provocations without calling upon our neighbors and the US to help us. That is good; it teaches us an important lesson about sovereignty—that the basis of self-rule ultimately is self-reliance: the capacity to feed, develop and defend our own people. We must take this to heart if we don’t wish to live as a colony or as a tributary. It may do us no harm if we review how China arrived to where it is today.
China rose from a history of humiliation dealt by foreign powers by uniting its people under a common purpose and demanding discipline and sacrifice from entire generations. China’s peasantry and working class have paid dearly for the nation’s economic achievements. Farm workers continue to bear the brunt of producing cheap agricultural products to support low-wage workers in the city’s global factories. Now that they have caught a glimpse of the good life, they demand their just share of that prosperity.
The new China in recent years has generated its own privileged class—high-living multimillionaires and billionaires related to or somehow connected to the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. The ordinary Chinese know who they are and how they live. Indeed, much of the on-going debate within the Party precisely centers on the corruption that has flourished in the overlapping spaces of party, government and economy. This can only grow worse every year, for as long as China’s closed political system cannot move apace with the exigencies of an open economy.
We can only wish China well. An internally troubled China is as much a threat to the stability of the region as a prosperous and triumphalist China. Be that as it may, it is of the utmost importance to the security of the region that Asean finds its collective voice soon.