China is flexing its muscles these days. Over the weekend, it declared a sprawling air defense identification zone that covers disputed islands controlled by Japan. And it has sent its lone aircraft carrier for first-time trials in the South China Sea, where Beijing has territorial feuds with other neighbors, including Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines.
None of this was making China any friends in Manila, where the Chinese government is particularly unpopular these days.
“It only tends to confirm and reinforce the fears and worries of many people in the region,” says Jay Batongbacal, a University of the Philippines law professor, who has spent a decade and a half studying territorial disputes in the South China Sea. “Right now, I think they are seen more as a bully, because of the actions that they’ve taken.”
Among those actions was last year’s takeover of a disputed and potentially strategic shoal in the South China Sea that had been under Philippine control.
It started when Philippine authorities tried to arrest Chinese they accused of illegally fishing inside the shoal, which is really a shallow, triangle-shaped reef with a small opening at one end. China sent marine surveillance ships to block action by a Philippine navy frigate.
“One of the measures that they put in place was to string a line across the mouth of that entrance,” says Batongbacal, “because if any vessel tries to cross that line, it will get entangled in the propellers.”
The Chinese effectively sealed off the reef from Philippine fishermen and took control of Scarborough Shoal without firing a shot.
The shoal, rich in fish, is about 140 miles from the Philippine mainland and more than 500 miles from China. At high tide, only five rocks stick up out of the water, but Philippine officials worry China might one day declare them Chinese territory.
Batongbacal says in the worst-case scenario — from the Philippine perspective — China could turn the shoal into a safe harbor for Chinese government vessels and a way to extend its influence and power in the region.
“Right now, it’s clear that their motivation is that they want to vindicate their claim to the entire South China Sea,” Batongbacal says.
A huge amount of trade and oil passes through the South China Sea, which China has claimed since at least the 1940s. Back then, though, it was militarily too weak to do anything about it. Today, China is the world’s No. 2 economy and a rapidly rising military power.
Dindo Manhit, president of Stratbase Research Institute, a strategic think tank in Manila, says China now wants to ensure it has a major say in what happens in the South China Sea. Like all economic powers, Manhit says, China wants to spread its influence.
“At the end of the day, any economic influence needs to be protected by either strong military or political influence,” Manhit says. “I think that’s where it’s coming from.”
Chito Santa Romana, who spent nearly four decades living in China where he served as the bureau chief for ABC News, thinks it also comes from a desire to restore China, which means “Middle Kingdom” in Mandarin, to what it sees as its rightful place as a respected global player.
“I would attribute it to what I call the resurgence of the ‘Middle Kingdom Complex,’ ” says Santa Romana, who works in Manila with a think tank, trying to forge understanding on the South China Sea dispute between the two countries. “The ‘China Dream’ that the Chinese talk about, they want to recover the glory that was lost when they were a pre-eminent power.”
The U.S. has dominated East Asia militarily for decades, ensuring the peace and security that allowed the region’s economies to grow so rapidly. The Philippines hopes America will back it up if its dispute with China turns violent, but some worry Washington’s deep and complex ties with Beijing will win out in the end.
“We just hope and expect that the U.S. remembers us really as the true ally here,” says Manhit, “because some people are saying that in a conflict between China and the Philippines, the U.S. will choose China because of the economic relationship.”
Jay Batongbacal, the University of the Philippines law professor, says turning its back on a longtime ally with whom it has a mutual defense treaty would have serious implications for America and its other diplomatic relationships. Most people in the Philippines are hoping it never comes to that.