“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Sun Tzu
THIS APHORISM from China’s most famous military intellectual is the essence of the strategy China now uses against the Philippines and her allies in the standoff at the West Philippine Sea.
In statecraft, the strategy described by this aphorism goes by the name, “coercive diplomacy.” Coercive diplomacy and bullying share a similar method: the use of threats to impose one’s will on an opponent. In coercive diplomacy, the threat of force, and not force itself, is used to bring an opposing nation to heel.
In the military realm, this course of action is called the “Strategy of the Indirect Approach.” Championed by the British military thinker, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, this method has the aim of defeating the enemy without fighting. Unusual as it might sound, the indirect approach of winning without fighting is considered by both Sun Tzu and Liddell Hart as the “supreme art of war” or the perfection of generalship.
And what does the similar conclusion drawn by these thinkers have to do with the Philippines and its problem with China in the West Philippine Sea?
It sheds light on what China is doing and what she hopes to achieve. Coercive diplomacy and the indirect approach are two sides of the same strategic coin. When used effectively, either of the two weapons can advance a state’s national interests without resorting to fighting.
China will not war
It is worthwhile for the Philippines to remember that China, at this decisive point in her history, neither desires nor is prepared to go to war over the West Philippine Sea despite its enormous importance to her future.
China is now a victim of simultaneous and momentous political and economic events that will prevent her from resorting to force to attain her national interests in the West Philippine Sea, including the Panatag Shoal. These historic events will serve to limit China’s options to making ugly faces and horrifying noises at the Philippines, Vietnam and their three other allies for the remainder of this year until well into 2013.
The first of these events is the changeover of the top leadership in China that will occur in October. The other is the certainty that China’s third quarter Gross Domestic Product results (to be released also in October) will reveal that its economy has weakened further, and that the dreaded “hard landing” of 7.5% growth has become a reality.
When coupled with angry social unrest at the vast and widening income gap between the few communist rich and the rest of the population, and the crumbling banking sector that sustains its military machine, these events could set the stage for the extinction of communism’s hold on China this decade.
China’s sudden declaration this September that “the freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea is assured” is an admission she will first focus on resolving her dangerous internal problems before turning her attention to international affairs.
It has nothing to do with China suddenly becoming a kinder and gentler dictatorship or with relinquishing her claim to the West Philippine Sea. China is simply buying time so she can deal with these extremely dangerous local issues.
In October, President Hu Jintao will step down in favor of Xi Jinping while Premier Wen Xiabao will relinquish his post to Li Keqiang at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing. These new leaders will formally take over in March 2013 at the National People's Congress.
It will be in China’s best interests if its new leaders first portrayed themselves as peace loving champions and not remind the rest of the world of their predecessors’ troublemaking in the West Philippine Sea. It is a policy the new leaders might place on the backburner at the start of their terms in office.
There is every chance that the tensions of the past year provoked by China will subside, for some time at least, as these new leaders make their presence felt. It will be to the advantage of the Philippines and her allies if China’s attention were diverted away from the West Philippine Sea for as long as possible.
China’s mounting economic woes should keep its new leadership occupied with the flagging economy rather than pursuing its coercive diplomacy in the West Philippine Sea. A pause in China’s coercive diplomacy will grant the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei precious time to consider the wisdom of formal collective action against China.
A respite of a year or more from China’s relentless coercive diplomacy will see the Philippines and Vietnam better armed than they were at the start of this standoff. They and their three other allies will be better able to thwart China’s indirect approach military strategy should this confrontation be pushed by China to the brink of war.
If China prevails in her coercive diplomacy, she will also have succeeded in her indirect approach to the military aspect of this equation. She will have succeeded in dislocating her foes and fulfilled Liddell Hart’s aim of achieving a strategic situation “. . . so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce the decision, its continuation by a battle is bound to achieve this.”
China’s indirect approach is simple: keep the five claimants divided. Isolated, each claimant becomes more vulnerable to China’s coercive diplomacy and still more vulnerable to economic and political pressure.
Thus will China succeed in defeating “. . . the enemy without fighting.” It will be a triumphant application of Sun Tzu.
The solution to this indirect approach is equally simple: a military alliance. For the five allies, it is clearly a choice between defeat in detail or victory in unity. Stated in these terms, the allies are left with but one reasonable option.
It is in the best interests of the Philippines and her allies that China’s political situation turns for the worse after the transfer of political leadership this October, and that China’s economy collapses faster than expected. Ironically, these events (should they occur) could begin in October, the month that saw the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Communism might not live to see its 70th anniversary in China. This is the greatest disaster that will befall communism in China should events in the West Philippine Sea spiral out of communist control.
By standing fast and standing together, the Philippines and her four allies can be part of this great historical event in the making. It will be a Blood Red October for China.
|Filipino soldiers on Kalayaan Island|