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The Eclipse in the Mainland: United States vs. China in the world and in Philippine Politics - Politixxx Today
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Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Eclipse in the Mainland: United States vs. China in the world and in Philippine Politics

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Micah Shane Calivo
Micah Shane D. Calivo graduated as Valedictorian in Senior High School and now a freshman student at San Beda University, taking BS Economics and Public Policy as her pre-law. She was also a former President in Bedan Model United Nations Society at San Beda University-Rizal where her interests in global economy made her pursue Economics.

co-written by Emil Samaniego

In order to fully make sense of the territorial and maritime disputes surrounding the South China Sea, it is imperative to look at it from the lens of geopolitics, Philippine domestic politics and current events. 

I recently attended a webinar where Dr. Alfred McCoy, a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of several articles on drugs, global trade and economy, military and the police, was the keynote speaker. The webinar’s title is The Geopolitics of Philippine Politics, which was held last August 24. It was organized by the Philippine Political Science Association (PPSA) and attended by 1,496 participants— the largest attendees of any webinars organized by the PPSA to date.

China’s Economic Revival and Its Territorial Expansionism

When Mao Zedong imposed its isolationist policy which cut off China’s participation in the international trading system, the country’s economy saw a period of unprecedented decline, poverty, and famine. Leaders after him, particularly Deng Xiao Ping, however, adopted more pragmatic economic policies focused on market and trade which led to rapid economic growth and full employment. This period of rapid growth coincides with China’s increasing political influence in the world stage.

However, China’s export-based economy faces the challenge of overproduction of surplus amidst declining domestic consumption. This led to an economic set back following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis wherein exports to Western market dropped significantly. But China’s quest for growth is relentless. As a leading exporter and importer of raw materials and energy resources, China’s appetite for natural resources compels them to set their gaze to South China Sea and other distant territories such as in Africa and South America, in particular to the seas of Galapagos Island where Chinese largest industrial fishing fleets were recently seen.

“Because of china’s economic success, more and more countries see china as an example to emulate. a model of development that could mean moving from rags to riches within a generation.”

– bert hofman, world bank

The Geopolitics of China’s nine-dash line and the US-Sino rivalry

The sea has always been the primary system of communication and transportation in South East Asia as it offers an efficient way to navigate the region and facilitate trade. In fact, for ancient people particularly in the Sulu Sea region, the sea is res communes- it cannot be owned. However, as the western colonizers brought their own system of law and property in Asia, they began to divide the sea and make it their property. Thus, when former colonies attained independence, they inherited this view that the sea is within the commerce and control of man. This prompted the former colonies to assert their own claims over the sea. One of these is Beijing’s territorial claims known as the nine-dash line whose provenance can be traced back on an ambiguous map from the 1940s. The nine-dash line covers an area of the South China sea, 2000 kilometres away from mainland China. It practically covers the entire South China Sea.

But China’s territorial and maritime expansionism is not only limited to the South China Sea. In fact, its geopolitical strategy through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and maritime silk road resembles an upgraded version of the old geopolitical theory of Halford Mackinder, the Heartland theory. Under this theory, Mackinder deemed the control of Eastern Europe as an integral factor to govern the world. Let us assume that China controls the Eurasia:

Who rules East Europe controls the heartland:

Who rules the heartland commands the World-Island:

Who rules the World-Island commands the World.

The Heartland Theory of Halford Mackinder

Heartland is similarly pertained to China’s pivot areas, bridging all countries of Europe, Africa, Asia and South America as the World Island through the BRI and maritime silk road. However, some analysts have argued that in the age of modern warfare, the theory is outdated as countries with wide navies were at an advantage over those who could not navigate across the ocean. Additionally, the use of aircraft has extensively transformed the power to control the territory, heightening geopolitical pressure among the political leaders.

Meanwhile, from a diplomatic front, China has attempted to engage the United States on the South China Sea. Last June 27, 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. In this visit, the United States expressed its intention to strengthen its bilateral ties with China. It should be noted, however, that China withheld its true intention during this dialogue, stating that the Chinese people are morally building a great and modern socialist country without the motive of seeking the direction to expansionism and colonialism nor spur commotion to the world.

However, as Dr. McCoy elucidated in the webinar, China’s pronouncement was different from actual realities on the ground. Dr. McCoy added:

“today, the shoals of the south china sea are arguably the only place where there are serious risks of our conflict between nuclear arms. this conflict seems to be a strategic serious dispute between Beijing and Washington. they are now harboring the existing global orders, militarizing the south china sea by predatory economics and massive death on others,”

– dr. alfred mccoy

However, students of geopolitics must ask, if Mackinder’s theory should be deemed as outdated, could this offer the United States a chance to rule over? Considering the United States’ global power, their navy and vessels have rapidly expanded than that of China, making it easier for them to push their maritime interest across the globe. In fact, Chinese officials warned them regarding the warships that they brought to the contested waters through freedom of navigation operation (FONOP), igniting war if deemed necessary.

President Duterte’s Pivot to China

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte before the bilateral meaning during the Belt Road Forum in Beijing, May 15, 2017. Image courtesy of Reuters.

The relationship between the United States and the Philippines has been historically strong. However, the election of Rodrigo Duterte, the former mayor of the frontier city of Davao, enlisted transitions in the Philippines’ foreign policy. Deemed as a ‘socialist,’ with long-established linkages to leftist-progressive groups, President Duterte has vowed to seek an ‘independent’ foreign policy which features a diversification strategy that continues to push the alliance of the United States-Philippines to the edge.

Behind President Duterte’s equidistant turn of Philippine foreign policy towards China is his interest over massive Chinese infrastructure and investments loans in order to fund his flagship Build Build Build program which aims to benefit not just the industrialized northern Luzon, but, conceivably of even greater burden, Mindanao, which has been strained by deprivation, tension, and underdevelopment for approximately half a century.

The Philippines’ Uncertain Future

The Philippines is in a precarious geopolitical situation being in the middle of warring superpowers in South China Sea. In fact, it is still unknown whether President Duterte’s China gambit will prove to be fruitful or detrimental to the Philippine national interest in the long run. But with China’s relentless militarization of South China sea and the growing skepticism of Filipinos towards China and the Chinese intention despite the obvious pro-China rhetoric from President Duterte, it would perhaps take longer time for China to have another golden opportunity to reform its image before the Filipino public once President Duterte steps down from power.

Thus, it is imperative to ask: Has China wasted its chance to fully take advantage of President Duterte’s popularity to reform its image or build trust and confidence with the Filipino people? Our answer is yes, and in this game of geopolitics, it is only China which is to blame. The only option left for China, therefore, is to find a suitable Filipino candidate for 2022 national election who will be sympathetic to its interest. But this is easier said than done. Who between China or the US will emerge victorious in 2022? No one really knows, but we can only hope for the best.

*Artwork by Micah Shane Calivo

Micah Shane D. Calivo graduated as Valedictorian in Senior High School and now a freshman student at San Beda University, taking BS Economics and Public Policy as her pre-law. She was also a former President in Bedan Model United Nations Society at San Beda University-Rizal where her interests in global economy made her pursue Economics.

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