Siling Labuyo: The Chinese Conundrum


Call it a problem, a challenge, or a puzzle; the current Philippine-Chinese relations is a conundrum in many ways. Whether it is on military, economic, or foreign policy matters, the Chinese government speaks with forked tongues. They will say something that is obviously patronizing but does something else to the contrary. The Chinese fortune cookie ideogram for this can best be expressed this way, "He who speak with forked tongue, not need chopsticks." To decipher their intentions, one must consider the fact that throughout China’s history, Chinese leaders have always spoken in forked tongues as influenced by the yin-yang duality of projecting power and discourse (or message projection). In essence, those with power talking (above) to one without power (below) must convey in straightforward manner (yang). Those without power talking to those with power must speak indirectly or convey in forked tongues (yin). It is when the natural order of things are turned upside down (like mixing yin and yang) that messages get mumbled. A case in point is the situation at the South China Sea. When U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called China on the militarization of the South China Sea to intimidate its neighbors, the Chinese government called it an irresponsible comment because China is doing it “to prevent others from invading them.” They call it a matter of national defense because they own the territory and therefore free to “deploy their army and weapons.” Now, everybody knows that the United Nation’s Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled that China does not own these islands and just merely redrawing their map to include such territories does not mean they own them. But such is the duplicity of China. When dealing with the Philippines these days, the Chinese strikes a different tone, one of benevolence and that of a good neighbor. The neighbors, of course, are members of the ASEAN who has been trying to craft a unified policy of non-aggression (meaning demilitarization of contested islands) that China would often say it supports but lobbies vulnerable countries (those who owe China) to not sign on such agreement. That’s the reason why up to now that the ASEAN could not come up with a unified front. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who now chairs the ASEAN plays the role of a lumberjack rolling a log on the South China Sea, always making nonsensical arguments of why we should not confront China. “We can’t beat them in a shooting war,” he boasted. “So, why bother?” Or blames America for the Chinese adventurism on Spratly Islands. “The Americans allowed China to do it,” he said once. “They could have stopped them, if they wanted to,” he continued. His spokesman, Harry Roque, “expertly” predicted that “the U.S. will not come to our aid, if we are attacked.” Roque is not alone. Some of Duterte’s factotums are basically making the same argumentum ad hominem that the U.S. will not live up to its part on the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) if called upon by its longtime ally. This is how stupid Philippine leaders (and spokesman) has become when commenting on the MDT when they don’t understand the nuances of it. The United States will never be on record affirming such scenario because dealing in hypotheticals get countries in trouble. The actual interpretation will come when it happens. Responsible leaders understand the value of treaties and that is to serve as deterrents. China is not foolish enough to wanting to find out if the Americans would truly engage them in a shooting war because they understand that it is a point of no return. Thus, China would push the envelope (like building military structures, deploying weapons, etc.) on the South China Seas. In the meantime, Americans will always talk about diplomacy while on the same breath will say, “We know how to blow up man-made islands and we’ve done it before,” as a cautionary tale. With a Philippine leader playing chicken, China knows it could exploit these islands for their benefit while at the same time offering carrots to these rabbits. President Xi Jinping is very adept at luring Western allied countries to its ambit through economic help that comes with stiff conditions. There are lots of lessons learned from other impoverished countries who were hoodwinked by China into borrowing money for big infra projects only to come in the losing end when the country defaults on these loans. Another case in point is the North Korea-U.S. denuclearization talks of the Korean Peninsula. American President Donald Trump is so eager to get a Nobel Prize that he is willing to give legitimacy to Kim Jung-on by agreeing to a summit without studying first the ins and outs of such talks. Even if there will be no substantive outcome at this summit, he will claim a win by just having it – a photo op. Trump does not realize that China is really the one calling the shots here. President Xi’s calculus does not include a unified Korea friendly to the West (especially America) so he will milk this to the hilt by stroking Trump’s ego while maintaining control over that corner of the planet. China says they favor denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula (after tacitly giving approval for North Korea to continue testing for nuclear weapons) BUT China will tell Kim to demand for U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea (which the U.S. military will not agree to) but Trump might just be foolish enough to agree for his coveted Nobel Prize. China’s duplicity in this matter is very obvious but that the Trump administration is willing to ignore. When the U.S. got the United Nation’s Security Council to agree (China voted for it) to add more sanctions on North Korea, Trump claimed that that was part of the reason why out of nowhere Kim agreed to these talks. Trumps defenders also credit Trump’s tough-talking the “Little Rocket Man” and his small buttons (for nuclear missiles). In reality, it was China who decides when to turn the economic spigots on North Korean like helping the dictator get around the sanctions and for a while turned the heat on the dictator upon the U.S. urging. The sudden acceleration of the future summit talks, however, caught China by surprise (well, the Americans were just as surprised) and the con game began. First, China started allowing the illegal trade to continue thus giving a breather to Kim whose people are starving. Then Xi invited Kim to China for a state visit not once, but twice in months. There the coaching began about the yin and the yang. When Trump started bragging about the upcoming summit, China put the breaks to it by having the Kim government do the silly dance of antagonizing and demeaning the National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence that got Trump’s goat and had to cancel. Kim did not answer tit-for-tat and instead portrayed himself as a mature statesman by taking the high road, “we are ready to meet them anywhere, anytime.” The con game continues as the summit is on again in Singapore. President Xi has just gotten himself elected for life not by chance but by altering China’s Constitution thus allowing him to serve as long as he wants and therefore would still be in power while Trump is out of office. That is not a conundrum. Trump and Duterte think they are master showmen, but Xi is far more skilled in diplomacy. Instead of hairsplitting the Chinese conundrum, heed Confucius’ admonition: “Study the past if you would define the future.”