According to Chinese mythology, dragons are legendary creatures that symbolize power and strength. Today, the Chinese Dragon is China’s national symbol just like the eagle is to the U.S. and the bear to Russia.
In 1949 Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drove the Kuomintang government out of Mainland China in a bloody civil war and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). No sooner had Mao gained power than China started expanding its domain beyond its borders. In 1959, China occupied Tibet and incorporated it into the PRC and declared it as one of its national core interests.
In 1972, then U.S. President Richard Nixon went to China and held talks with Mao. Relations between the two countries warmed up and in 1979 the U.S., under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, established formal diplomatic relations with the PRC and severed ties with Taiwan. However, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which states that the U.S. must help Taiwan defend itself. To this day, the U.S. remains Taiwan’s main supplier of arms.
China’s emergence as an economic power – second only to the U.S. today – may be attributed to its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). The U.S. saw China as one of the fastest growing markets of American goods and services; thus, endorsed China’s admission into the WTO in 2001. Hence began China’s economic miracle.
In my column, “Chinese Dream: Beyond the First Island Chain” (December 1, 2013), I wrote: “Admiral Liu Huaqing, the mastermind of China’s modern naval strategy, was quoted as saying in 1982 that it would be necessary for China to control the First and Second Island Chains by 2010 and 2020, respectively. “The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040. If China is able to dominate the Second Island Chain seven years from now, the East China Sea will become the backyard of the PLA Navy,” he said.
In the 35 years since then, the Chinese Dragon has set its eyes on the East and South China Seas. In 1974, after China defeated Vietnam in a naval battle in the Paracel Islands, China established de facto control over the Paracel Islands.
In 1991, the Philippine Senate rejected the renewal of the U.S. bases. The American forces left the following year. Their departure created a power vacuum in the South China Sea.
In 1995, China took possession of the Mischief (Panganiban) Reef in the Spratly archipelago, which the Philippines claimed as part of its exclusive Economic zone (EEZ). Consequently, China grabbed Subi Reef, which is just a few miles from the Philippine-controlled Pag-Asa Island. With a navy with no warships and an air force with no warplanes, the Philippines was left at the mercy of the Chinese Dragon.
In 2012, after several months of standoff between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards, China took de facto possession of the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ EEZ.
The following year, China started building artificial islands in the Spratly islands. Today, seven of these man-made islands were fitted with runways, harbors, and buildings. Recent satellite images show that radars and surface-to-air missiles have been installed in most of them.
Uncle Sam vs. Chinese Dragon
Last year, China started building its first overseas military base in Djibouti, which is strategically located at the mouth of Gulf of Aden into the Red Sea.
Purportedly built as a logistical base for fighting piracy in the region, the Chinese naval base is just a few miles to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which is one of the U.S.’s largest and most important foreign bases. With the two rival bases closely situated to one another, one wonders if the Chinese base’s primary purpose were to monitor activities at Camp Lemonnier. One might say, “The Chinese Dragon has come too close for comfort.” Indeed.
One wonders, how did all these happen? Why didn’t the U.S. stop China from building these artificial islands? Could it be because Uncle Sam was still licking its wounds after the Philippines kicked the U.S, bases out? Did then President Barack Obama purposely appease the Chinese Dragon to punish the Philippines for evicting the U.S. bases? But instead Obama kept repeating that the U.S. remains neutral in the territorial disputes between the Philippines and China.
But on a similar situation in the Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers and China claims, the U.S. went on record that any attack on the Senkakus would be defended by Japanese and U.S. forces under their Security Treaty.
The difference between the Philippines and Japanese defense treaties with the U.S. is that the U.S. has 50,000 military personnel stationed in Japan in addition to a forward naval operating base and several air bases scattered around Japan. In the case of the Philippines, there are none except for a small contingent of about 100 special operations personnel who are helping the Philippines in combating terrorists in Mindanao.
In 2013, after losing the Scarborough Shoal, then President Benigno Aquino III invited the U.S. to come back to the Philippines. The U.S. agreed and in April 2014, the two countries signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which would allow American forces to be deployed to several Philippine military bases around the country.
With the ascension of left-leaning Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency in 2016, the security situation in the Philippines changed with Duterte establishing close economic, political, defense relationships with China. Duterte had openly admitted that he is appeasing China because the Philippines doesn’t have any chance of winning a war against the Chinese Dragon. It is the same situation with Japan; however, the difference is that Uncle Sam has Japan’s back while Duterte has given Uncle Sam the middle finger and called Obama, “Son of a whore!”
In the short time that Duterte has been playing ‘footsie” with the Chinese, openly admitting that he’ll never go to war against them, the Chinese Dragon is spreading its foothold into Philippine territories. In February 2016, the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) reported that several Chinese ships were seen in the Benham Rise.
The following July, China Daily published a report about China’s “secret undersea exploration” in the Benham Rise area. The report said that China discovered massive mineral deposits.
During a press conference last March 10, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that the Philippines can explore and develop the natural resources in Benham Rise as a sovereign right but she cannot take the region as her own territory.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) sought clarification on what Geng said. In response, the Chinese informed DFA that they recognize the Philippines’ sovereign rights and they are not disputing Benham Rise.”
Although China backed off, it’s a red flag about China’s ultimate goal. All we have to do is go back to Admiral Liu’s “naval strategy” that he laid out in 1982. “The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040,” he said. Well, he’s not too far behind in his timetable. With virtual control over the South China Sea, the Chinese Dragon is stealthily waving its way out of the First Island Chain into the Western Pacific and beyond.
Obama might have realized at the end of his presidency that appeasement or using “soft power” approach in dealing with the Chinese Dragon was a tactical mistake. Duterte is beginning to realize it too that appeasement is not going to work.
He should take cue from U.S. President Donald Trump whose mantra, ”Peace through strength,” keeps the Chinese Dragon at bay. However, one should – nay, must! – be vigilant. As Sun Tzu wrote in his “The Art of War” 2,500 years ago, “In war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.” Appeasement is a sign of weakness and should be avoided at all cost.
Yes, there is no substitute for strength.