Boundaries in a globalized world

One would have to see the world with bellicose eyes not to feel uneasy over the absurd talk about China doing to us what Russia supposedly did to Ukraine recently—annex territory by force. In the first place, the people of Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine. Moreover, Crimea had been a part of Russia until it was capriciously given to Ukraine in 1953 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. But, more importantly, China would be crazy to court worldwide condemnation and retaliation by invading a sovereign nation like the Philippines.

What, then, could be behind all such talk? I could be wrong, but here is what I think. The tension between the Philippines and China over the disputed shoals and reefs in the West Philippine Sea (or South China Sea) is real.  But, it has been there for a long time, waxing and waning in accordance with the pressure to accommodate shifts in the geostrategic plans of the United States. I think it would be wise to decouple these two issues, and avoid using our problems with one country as a fulcrum to promote our friendship with another.

In the globalized world we live in today, the use of territorial considerations as basis for decision-making has survived mainly in the realm of politics. In almost all other areas, notably the economic, territorial boundaries have become largely irrelevant. Take a look at the global flow of trade and investments, of mass communications, of scientific and technological information, of public opinion, of religious belief, of artistic forms, and cultural trends. We can only stand in awe of the way all these events mock political boundaries.

One can therefore only laugh at the reported dismay of the bureaucrats of China’s Communist Party over the inability of the Chinese cultural machinery to produce television fare that can match the immense popularity of Korean telenovelas in Chinese homes. It is not farfetched to think that some autocrat has broached the idea of banning Korean popular culture from Chinese television. But what a foolish thing to do; it would only have needlessly unleashed a political catastrophe more serious than the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

In our case, it may be worth reminding ourselves that, even as we trade inflammatory words with China, a long-time neighbor, we have permitted a Chinese state corporation to operate in one of the most sensitive areas of our country’s economic life—electric power transmission. If we had been even minimally bothered by the implications of this for national security, we would have considered the entry of the State Grid Corporation of China as a service provider and part owner of the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines unacceptable from the start. Today, we worry about what China might do, and that’s natural. But to allow the direst scenarios to drive our relations with China achieves nothing in the long run.

Having made the decision to allow it on economic grounds, the Philippine government cannot now cancel the contract with the SGCC, unless the Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional. In any event, to do so at this time can only add more fuel to the conflict. On the other hand, it is unlikely that China would use its economic presence in the Philippines as a weapon for sheer political retaliation. The costs would be too high—who would want to deal with China after that?

There is no denying the fact that countries can and do impose sanctions to express their displeasure over another country’s behavior.  These typically take the form of a withdrawal of privileges or accommodations, but not of deliberate acts of sabotage—unless we are at war.

Though there may be a frost in our current relations with China, we are not at war. We continue to maintain our diplomatic relations with one another. A newly-appointed Chinese ambassador is waiting to present his credentials to our country’s president, and that can only be a good thing.

In many ways, the problem between the Philippines and China over disputed maritime borders is an outcome of the political and legal need to assert local jurisdictions in a world that has largely conducted its business as if boundaries did not exist. I view the demand for clear boundaries as a rear-guard attempt by national governments to preserve political control over processes that have long become global and interdependent. For China, the definitive date was May 7, 2009, when it formally submitted to the United Nations a map with the so-called “nine-dash lines” indicating its territorial claim to the South China Sea. That map instantly triggered diplomatic protests by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and even Indonesia, which did not have a claim in the area. For indeed, this map was tantamount to an assertion of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, a move that left China’s neighbors with hardly any choice but to either negotiate bilaterally with a powerful neighbor, or to challenge its claim in a proper legal forum.

Only the Philippines has opted to challenge China before an international arbitration tribunal. China views this as an act of hostility.  The Philippines sees it as the only peaceful way to stand up to a bully. I wish we had done so with the backing of Asean. I think both countries have valid reasons to feel aggrieved. Refusing to talk to a neighbor because you would rather see him in court hardly promotes friendship. But neither does displaying superior military force or using water cannons to shoo away the other promote neighborliness.

It is difficult to say where this dispute will take us. But surely, both countries can do better than insult each other’s people or burn each other’s flag.

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