Is Rodrigo Duterte a Fool, a Genius—or Both?
Disagreeing with the ruling of a tribunal in The Hague (not, by the way, the UN, as some erroneously claim) hardly expresses an intention to destroy international society or dominate the Pacific. Disagreeing with your local court doesn’t mean that want to overthrow your nation’s government. Duterte isn’t irrational. He prefers to work with China to resolve the dispute in a mutually beneficial way. He agrees with an influential Filipino commentator: “Relations between China and the Philippines should go beyond the South China Sea issue.”
Scarborough Shoal has become an abstraction for everything commentators dislike in China: North Korea’s nuclear program, “aerial intrusions” in the East China Sea, “seaborne incursions” in Okinawa Prefecture, human-rights abuses, aircraft demonstrations when U.S. defense secretaries are visiting Beijing, the “calculated humiliation” at the G-20 summit, “economic and trade matters,” and “environmental degradation” in the South China Sea. Among such commentators, the solution is obvious: reinforced U.S. primacy, stronger regional alliances and the trumpeting of America’s “undoubted ability to prevail.”
To make Scarborough Shoal—or any other rock or reef of the South China Sea—serve as an abstract picture containing every complaint the United States has about China is foolish and dangerous. Political scientists have shown that territory is already the single issue any two states are most likely to fight over. Packing all other issues of contention into a territorial dispute—an exercise in grab-bag hawkishness—is a certain way to enflame the territorial dispute and to make it unsolvable.
There is nothing new here. In the spring of 1913, Russian foreign minister Sergey Sazonov told Serbian prime minister Nikola Pašić, who was eager to extend Serbian territory into the former Ottoman state of Albania, that Russia was not going to risk a war with Austria-Hungary over a few small towns. Pašić replied:
Here it is not a matter of Djakova, Dibra and Scutari, but the question is: Is Russia with its friends stronger or weaker than Austria and its friends? The whole Slavic world and everybody else will consider Russia defeated through the policy and threats of Austria. The belief and confidence in Russia will not only be weakened, but it will be annihilated, and the Austrian-German policy will triumph.
This was what dispute abstraction looked like before World War I. Aware that Russia had no actual territorial interest in the small towns of Albania, Pašić abstracted the issue into one of prestige and credibility, attempting to make the dispute a “trial of strength” between Russia and Austria-Hungary (and its ally Germany).
Today in the South China Sea, the Philippines is opting out of dispute abstraction. Duterte apparently cares about rehab centers more than unpopulated reefs, and has decided that the costs of antagonizing China outweigh the benefits of cooperating with it. But segments of America’s foreign policy elite disagree. These elites desire to abstract the territorial disputes of the South and East China Seas into a modern-day “trial of strength.” That is what all the tough talk of “indecent” naval operations and drawing lines in the sand is about. The specific issue hardly matters. According to these elites, China must be put in its place. The way to do this is to reassert American primacy.
Such a perspective is myopic, ahistorical, and foolish. In 1914, a trial of strength turned into a world war. In 432 BC, the Corinthians convinced the Spartans that they should stand up to Athens using four arguments. First, they said, Athens was growing stronger and Sparta had done nothing to check its growing power. Second, the Corinthians explained how the Athenians “gradually encroach upon their neighbors,” or what critics today call “salami slicing.” Third, they declared, “The likeliest way of securing peace is . . . to make it perfectly plain that one is resolved not to tolerate aggression” (Thucydides, 1.71)—i.e., to pursue a policy of deterrence. And finally, the Corinthians argued that Sparta had to maintain its “greatness.” Today, we say “primacy,” but the idea is the same. Back in 432 BC, the Spartans were convinced by the argument of the Corinthians, and in 431 a war broke out between Sparta and Athens that would last twenty-seven years and end the Athenian Golden Age. Today, we—the United States and China—risk walking down the same road to war.