The Philippines is hopelessly mismatched against China in pure military terms. But there are historical reasons why it won't back down in the South China Sea.
Last month, I wrote a column for Global Times in which I observed that a dominant Chinese Navy lets China’s leadership deploy unarmed surveillance and law-enforcement vessels as it implements policy in the ongoing stand off at Scarborough Shoal. It can flourish a small, unprovocative seeming stick while holding the big stick – overwhelming naval firepower, and thus the option of escalating – in reserve.
That, I wrote, translates into “virtual coercion and deterrence” vis-à-vis lesser Asian powers. If weak states defy Beijing, they know what may come next. Global Times readers evidently interpreted this as my prophesying that Southeast Asian states will despair at the hopeless military mismatch in the South China Sea – and give in automatically and quickly during controversies like Scarborough Shoal.
Not so. Diplomacy and war are interactive enterprises. Both sides – not just the strong – get a vote. Manila refuses to vote Beijing’s way.
Military supremacy is no guarantee of victory in wartime, let alone in peacetime controversies. The strong boast advantages that bias the competition in their favor. But the weak still have options. Manila can hope to offset Beijing’s advantages, and it has every reason to try. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? China has been the weaker belligerent in every armed clash since the 19th century Opium Wars. It nevertheless came out on top in the most important struggles.
That the weak can vanquish the strong is an idea with a long pedigree. Roman dictator Quintus Fabius fought Hannibal – one of history’s foremost masters of war – to a standstill precisely by refusing to fight a decisive battle. Demurring let Fabius – celebrated as “the Delayer” – marshal inexhaustible resources and manpower against Carthaginian invaders waging war on Rome’s turf.
Fabius bided his time until an opportune moment. Then he struck.
Similarly, sea power theorist Sir Julian Corbett advised naval commanders to wage “active defense” in unfavorable circumstances. Commanders of an outmatched fleet could play a Fabian waiting game, lurking near the stronger enemy fleet yet declining battle. In the meantime they could bring in reinforcements, seek alliances with friendly naval powers, or deploy various stratagems to wear down the enemy’s strength. Ultimately they might reverse the naval balance, letting them risk a sea fight – and win.
Victory through delay represents time-honored Chinese practice. Mao Zedong built his concept of protracted war on stalling tactics, and, like Corbett, he dubbed his strategic vision “active defense.” For both theorists, active defense was about prolonging wars to outlast temporarily superior opponents.
Mao pointed out that China boasted innate advantages over the Japanese Army that occupied Manchuria and much of China during the 1930s. It merely needed time to convert latent power – abundant natural resources and manpower in particular – into usable military power. Mao’s Red Army later overcame stronger Nationalist forces by winning over popular support, and with it the opportunity to tap resources, establish base areas in the countryside, and the like.
Good things came to those who waited.
So there’s some precedent for Philippine leaders to hope for diplomatic success at Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine military is a trivial force with little chance of winning a steel-on-steel fight. But like lesser powers of the past, Manila can appeal to law, to justice, and to powerful outsiders capable of tilting the balance its way. Sure enough, Philippine officials have advocated submitting the dispute to the Law of the Sea Tribunal and invoked a longstanding U.S.-Philippine mutual defense pact.
Despite all of this, the deck remains heavily stacked against Manila. Why persevere in defying China, with its overwhelming physical might? Thucydides would salute the Filipinos’ pluck. The Greek historian chronicled the Peloponnesian War, the protracted 5th century BC struggle between Athens and Sparta. One of Thucydides’ best-known precepts is that “fear, honor, and interest” represent “three of the strongest motives” driving societies’ actions.
In one infamous episode, Athenian emissaries inform the leaders of Melos, a small island state, that “the strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must” when their interests collide. They demand submission. The Melians balk, but have no hope of help from Sparta or any other rescuer. When they remain defiant anyway, the Athenians put the men to the sword while enslaving the women and children.
Fear, honor, and interest animate small states like Melos and the Philippines as much as they do superpowers like Athens and China. Maritime claims are a matter of self-interest for Filipinos. They are also a matter of honor. Beijing can't expect Manila to simply tally up the balance of forces, acknowledge it faces a hopeless mismatch, and buckle. Philippine leaders can solicit foreign support, and they know Beijing has no Melian option.
Why admit defeat prematurely, any more than Fabius or Mao did?
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy