If anyone doubted the wisdom of Rodrigo Duterte’s outreach to China and the bilateral agreement for both countries to mutually exploit the energy resources of the South China Sea, today it should be made clear that Duterte and his administration are on the right side of history.
China’s refusal to be bullied by the US
It was never China’s goal to militarise its South Sea, but circumstance has forced China to preempt any aggression from the United States which has made a habit of engaging in provocations in the region. China has surely noticed the US goal of attempting to – and in some respects succeeding in humiliating Russia through illegal threats against Moscow’s Syrian partner. As a result, China seeks to take no chances when it comes to the possibility of failing to project its strength to a US administration whose military aspirations in foreign regions are becoming increasingly bellicose.
Had the US recused itself from the South China Sea dispute early on, other countries with disputes regarding South China Sea territorial rights, particularly Vietnam, may have been able to reach a Duterte style agreement with China. China’s overarching dispute is not with its ASEAN neighbours but with the United States which looks to exploit ASEAN countries with South China Sea claims, as a means of retarding China’s economic progress as part of a great power competition that the US instigated and that China is naturally fighting back against. Thus just as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s, the US seeks to wage a proxy war against China in South East Asia in a battle that China does not want and that the ASEAN countries do not need. Duterte has already demonstrated that while others may fight, the Philippines will sit back and do business, thus enriching the wealth of its citizens rather than forcing them to die in a contest between two superpowers.
China’s unambiguous strength and its drive to become even stronger
It is against this background that China has conducted its current live-fire drills which have been led by President Xi Jinping. According to an official report on the event from Xinhua,
“President Xi Jinping reviewed the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea Thursday morning, saying that the need to build a strong navy “has never been more urgent than today.”
The navy review is the largest of its kind in the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949.
Xi, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), called for efforts to build a first-class navy.
Taking part in the review were more than 10,000 service personnel, 48 vessels and 76 aircraft. They included the aircraft carrier Liaoning and latest submarines, vessels and fighter jets. More than half of the vessels were commissioned after the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012.
At around 9 a.m., Xi, clad in military fatigues, boarded the missile destroyer Changsha. Flags flew. The military band played the national anthem. Xi inspected the guard of honor on the deck before the destroyer set sail to where the review was to be conducted.
At 10 a.m., navy commander Shen Jinlong and political commissar Qin Shengxiang reported that the fleets were ready for review.
Xi gave the commencing order.
Vessels sailed in seven groups according to their combat functions: strategic strike, submerged attack, open-sea operations, aircraft carrier strike, amphibious landing, offshore waters defense, and comprehensive support.
Helicopters and planes flew in ten echelons. They can perform surveillance, warning, air-to-air strike, air-to-ship strike, long distance escort and other duties.
Soldiers saluted Xi as their fleets passed by.
‘Salute to you, comrades,’ Xi called out to the soldiers.
‘Hail to you, chairman,’ they replied.
Xi alternated the greeting with “Comrades, thanks for your hard work,’ to which soldiers replied ‘Serve the people.’
The procession was directed by CMC Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang. Other senior military officials — Zhang Youxia, Wei Fenghe, Li Zuocheng, Miao Hua, and Zhang Shengmin were all present.
‘It is my utmost honour to be inspected by Chairman Xi,’ said Ma Xiaohui, a navy soldier. ‘I will maintain momentum, train hard, and always be Chairman Xi’s good soldier.”
Liu Furong, commander of an underwater attack combat group, said the review was a good demonstration of the navy’s “historic achievements” under Xi’s call for building strong armed forces.
Xi made a speech after the review, saying that it has always been China’s aspiration to have a strong navy, which serves as a key guarantee to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
He pledged to speed up the modernization of the navy.
Xi said notable progress has been made and today’s Chinese navy has “stood up in the East” with a brand new image.
‘The Party and the people are proud of the PLA Navy’, Xi said.
He asked naval officers and soldiers to fully implement the Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces, be firm in ideals and convictions, and uphold the glorious traditions, while pushing for technological innovation, developing new types of battle forces, and building a modern maritime combat system.
Xi asked naval officers and soldiers to remain on high alert, answer the calls of the Party and the people at all times, resolutely defend the national interests, and strive to contribute more to upholding the peace and stability of the region and the world.
The officers and soldiers reacted with long applause….”
China’s push for Naval modernisation and expansion is driven both by internal concerns regarding the development of China as a moderately prosperous society, which necessarily means having a navy that is state of the art in terms of capacity and scope, but it is also inspired by Xi’s drive to expand and modernise the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, which is driven by external threats.
While President Xi did not name any adversary against which the Chinese Navy is posturing, it is obvious that China is sending a message to the US which has declared a trade war on China, in spite of the increased opening up of Chinese markets, including to the US products. The timing of the drills also coincides with the US sending its naval resources towards Syria in an attempt to intimidate Russia.
Russia’s Syrian setback and Russia’s pro-western folly
While Russia is currently pursuing diplomatic options in respect of Syria, China has taken a slightly different route. While many are quick to point out that China’s relations with the western powers are more significant than those that Russia has with the west, the truth is far more nuanced and manifold.
If one looks at trade for example, China has more dollar-for-dollar relations with the west than Russia, but nevertheless, China is shielded from being susceptible to western political influence in a way that post-Soviet Russia is not yet fully protected from. The collective decision making process of the Communist Party of China combined with the meritocratic approach through which Chinese political decision makers attain their positions, is incredibly different than that which exists in Russia.
In spite of vast political normalisation, Russia’s socio-economic and political system is still more reminiscent of a tribal or clan based society than China’s more sophisticated system. While the leadership of the Russian Federation, including those in the Foreign Ministry have achieved excellence on a meritocratic basis, those who still hold a significant influence on Russian policy markers are the tribal oligarchs on whom the government of the Russian Federation is still too dependant.
Tribal state versus meritocratic state
The situation expresses itself in the following way: In Russia so-called ‘patriotic oligarchs’ are essentially big businessmen, but more specifically they are businessmen whose industries often work closely with the public sector. Energy is one of the sectors in which so-called ‘patriotic oligarchs’ exist with a great frequency.
While a great deal of both Russian and Russophobic media frequently portraying legally defined criminal “Russian” oligarchs living outside of Russia on the proceeds of stolen wealth from the state, the patriotic oligarchs also have much to answer for in terms of retarding Russia’s policy independence, even if they have technically broken no laws.
Currently, Russia has much looser laws on taking capital out of the country when compared with China’s firm regulations. Because of this, many patriotic oligarchs take millions out of Russia and in the process, develop treasure troves of assets in Europe and North America and often times even have families in foreign lands, with the children having grown accustomed to non-Russian lifestyles in places such as New York, London and Monaco.
There exists an unspoken rule wherein Russia will not push the west too hard for fear that the assets or even the wives and children of Russian patriotic oligarchs in the west will come under both financial and physical threat. On the surface of things, there is of course nothing wrong with wanting to preserve one’s wealth and one’s family, but there is something very disturbing about the fact that the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, a nuclear superpower, is still partly dependant on the whims of a clan of billionaires whose homes dot the wealthy areas of New York, London and Monaco.
China does not have such problems because its economy is more diverse and perhaps more importantly, its rules on capital inflow and outflow are far better shaped to insure political independence. Finally, China’s politicians are largely only beholden to themselves and wider global trends, rather than a surprisingly small tribe of oligarchs who even without articulating their worries, are ultimately dictating to the Russian government in far too many ways.
Many in the US still see China is a reactive rather than proactive power. This assessment is ultimately wrong. Unlike Russia which has not made any significant threats to the US in respect of Syria, in spite of fake news reports to the contrary, China is actively taking steps in the South China Sea which clearly demonstrate that US antics in Asia will not be tolerated to the degree that Russia tolerates them in Syria and the wider Middle East. Thus, those, such as President Duterte’s government who are cooperating with China for the sake of mutual economic enrichment are in a far better position than those who would be dragged by the United Sates into a wider conflict with China, one that China is clearly prepared to fight, based not on any hatred of its ASEAN partners, but based on the fact that unlike contemporary Russia, China will stand up to the US, in spite of its economic links to the wider world, including the west.