China's hunger games

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

While the rest of the world was still reeling from its Christmas celebrations, including, I might add, playing with the numerous Chinese-manufactured toys given over the holidays, ironically China’s government seemed intent on continuing its role of being the village Grinch.

Last December (see Wall Street Journal, “China’s Hunger for Fish Upsets Seas,” Dec. 28, 2012), Argentine officials captured Chinese vessels illegally fishing in the former’s territorial waters: “Argentina authorities say the Chinese ships were intercepted off Patagonia, two nautical miles inside Argentina’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone, on Monday. A federal judge is questioning the ship captains, officials said. In a statement, China’s Foreign Ministry said it is trying to verify the facts of the case. The episode comes as China’s fishing boats increasingly find themselves embroiled in both cross-border and commercial disputes. Chinese ships fish in both international waters and under bilateral fisheries agreement in the waters of other nations.”

However, it wasn’t only the Argentinians: “In an October dispute involving a Chinese vessel, South Korean coast guard escorts Chinese sailors whose boat was seized for illegal fishing.” Reasonably, “South Korea seized a Chinese boat and detained 24 sailors for allegedly illegally fishing in the Yellow Sea. Vietnam has accused Chinese fishing boats of cutting its gas-exploration cables at sea. Chinese fishing boats have also sailed around disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu -- which means ‘fishing’ in Chinese-in China, contributing to worsening relations with Tokyo.”

So it’s no surprise that China’s government will seek to continually bully the Philippines. After its unnecessarily bizarre stunt of putting images of our territory in maps found in newly issued Chinese passports, China’s government then releases new official maps that include portions of our territory. As reported by ABS-CBN: “The new maps reportedly include more than 130 islands and islets in the West Philippine Sea, including the islands and waters that other countries such as Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia also claim as part of their territory.”

Appropriately, however, the DFA is withholding comment until further facts could be established: “The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has asked its Embassy in Beijjing to verify reports that China will be publishing new maps that include the disputed territories in the West Philippine sea. ‘We sent communication to Beijing on Sunday to verify reports on the new map of China... We are getting verification as to the extent of its coverage on the West Philippine Sea before we make any further comment,” DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said. Hernandez said they will only plan their course of action after receiving feedback from the embassy. The new maps will reportedly not be available to the public until the end of January. But if the maps violate the sovereignty of the Philippines by including its territories in the new map, the Philippine government will file a protest.

Nevertheless, if history is any guide, there is every reason why we should feel confident that the Philippine claim will win out in the end. James Holmes, an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, writing for The Diplomat (“Why Philippines Stands Up To China,” May 14, 2012), stated that indeed 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.”

The reason given, correctly in my view, is that “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.” The Diplomat’s point: “That the weak can vanquish the strong is an idea with a long pedigree” and “good things come to those who waited,” and, thus, “there’s some precedent for Philippine leaders to hope for diplomatic success at Scarborough Shoal.”

And if there’s still any doubters that the Philippines can succeed in this struggle should read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article “How David Beats Goliath” (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/11/090511fa_fact_gladwell).

The renowned writer of The Tipping Point and the Outliers noted that “underdogs win all the time, more than we continue to think.” In fact, “‘Goliath’ only wins 66 percent of the time -- which is first of all astonishing -- so 34 percent of time someone who is one-tenth the size of his opponent wins.” But what’s astonishing is that if the underdog shifts to intelligently adopting creative strategies and improvisation, the probability of the underdog winning rises exponentially to 63.6%.

So rather than picking fights with our actual allies like the US and listening to supposed intellectuals proclaiming how we’ll never win against giant China, perhaps we’d be better off thinking how we can prevail against those who seek to take what’s ours.