There is no question that China is bullying everybody else in the tension in the South China Sea. It does so because it can do so. It does so because no claimant nation, except perhaps Vietnam, has the courage to stand up to Beijing, no matter how feeble the attempt would turn out to be.
I am convinced that those nations that claim the Spratlys and its surrounding areas have lost a long time ago in their battle to control whatever territory they could. For the Philippines, it ceded control of the Spratlys when it mindlessly allowed the Chinese to influence its affairs by way of accepting the aid and loans that Beijing has dangled before it.
It is utterly naive of the Philippines to even think that all that money coming from Beijing does not have strings attached. Manila has been getting as much as $2 billion a year in the past three years from Beijing in the form of loans and aid, making the monies coming from such multilateral aid agencies as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, as this story points out, puny.
China seems to be pouring more money into the Philippines than into Brunei, Vietnam or Malaysia, the other claimants of the Spratlys. For good reason, I suspect. If you look at the map, the Philippines undoubtedly has the most convincing claim on the Spratlys. But it is also the most economically and militarily weak among the claimants. It makes sense, therefore, for the Chinese to try to co-opt Manila in the hope of using those strings attached to those loans as leverage. (Of course, aside from this policy of co-optation, they earn interest off of those loans. We’re being fried in our own fat is what it is.)
There’s nothing in what Manila has done so far that suggests an overt opposition to Beijing on this matter (except perhaps renaming the South China Sea into West Philippine Sea, as if all of this will vanish because of one single fiat.) All it has done is issue rhetoric. In contrast, Vietnam decides to flex some muscle by schedule a military drill right where the conflict is simmering.
Apart from having been compromised by these Chinese loans, Manila does not have a navy to speak of, so each time the Chinese fires at Filipino fishermen who wander into the Spratlys, we would just scratch our head in embarrassment.
To add insult to all this, Manila has looked to the United States for help, invoking the so-called Mutual Defense Treaty between the Americans and the Filipinos. But it is a treaty that has never been tested to benefit the Philippines and, of course, Washington would be wary to engage Beijing even in a verbal tussle over the Spratlys simply because the cost of doing so would far outweigh whatever benefit. Because, let’s be honest, if the US chooses to side with the Philippines and risk offending China, what would the Americans get out of it?
Put another way, would the US – its global dominance waning and its economy increasingly reliant on China – go to war for the Philippines? Why on earth would the Americans do that?
The supreme irony in all this is that what Beijing is doing – co-opting another nation, compromising its sovereignty and integrity – is no different from what America has been doing to the Philippines since the American colonial period at the turn of the century.