So here we are again. It seems like it’s once a year in Beijing that police and media assemble outside a foreign embassy, waiting for the patriotic crowds to gather and decry the nation that dares question China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over (insert name of disputed territory here).
On Friday, it was the embassy of the Philippines that drew the swarms of police and media. The disputed chunk of rock this time is what most of the world calls the Scarborough Shoal – the Chinese and Filipino governments each have their own name for it – a tiny and uninhabited outcrop more than 800 kilometres southeast of Hong Kong and 220 kilometres off the coast of the main Philippines island of Luzon in the resource-rich South China Sea.
In past years, the angry crowds have gathered in Beijing outside the Japanese embassy to shout about another disputed bunch of rocks, the islands that Japan calls Senkaku and China names Diaoyutai. A few years before that, it was the French embassy targeted, over its alleged support for Tibetan independence. Someday it will be the Vietnamese embassy over the Spratly Islands, in another part of the South China Sea.
(Beijing claims nearly all of the 3.5 million square kilometres of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also claim large parts.
To date the dispute between Beijing and Manila has involved a war of words, as well as a parallel, small-scale, buildup of naval forces by both sides. It seemed unlikely to devolve into anything more serious until the state-controlled Chinese media began beating the drums of conflict this week, led by the nationalist Global Times newspaper, which declared “peace will be a miracle” unless Manila backed down fast.
When a dispute has gone on as long as the argument over the Scarborough Shoal has (a helpful Philippine Daily Inquirer graphic traces the shouting back to at least 1965, it’s hard to separate a sudden flare-up from the domestic politics of the countries involved.
In China, the headline-sucking flare-up comes at a time when the central government could use some relief from the relentless speculation over the fall of former Communist Party star Bo Xilai, which has highlighted a political system rife with corruption, as well as a distraction for international media still following the twists and turns of the embarrassing Cheng Guangcheng affair which saw a persecuted blind dissident take refuge inside the U.S. embassy after getting no protection from China’s own legal system.
The Philippines, meanwhile, seems to feel that now is the time to be more assertive towards its larger rival, buoyed by the Obama Administration’s “pivot” towards Asia and a stated confidence that the U.S. Navy has its back.
Stoking nationalism serves both Beijing and Manila for now. But the problem with repeatedly invoking national honour is that the populations can start to believe it, quickly limiting the policy options sober diplomats like to keep open in times like these.
Thus, the Global Times – just two days after declaring we were on the brink of war – proclaimed Friday that “ cool heads must prevail.” The newspaper said the dispute did not “merit the attention of the whole nation,” a line many Chinese would have interpreted as advice to keep their “invade the Philippines” placards in the closet for now.
The protest outside the Filipino embassy in Beijing’s Chaoyang district drew only a handful of protesters, who were badly outnumbered by the busloads of police. An anti-Chinese protest in Manila drew 500 people, a number that also fell short of organizers’ expectations. They shouted about Chinese “bullying,” tried to burn a Chinese flag, and left.
So the dispute, for now, can calm, since neither side has an impassioned public currently forcing it into a nationalist corner. But time is running down for a negotiated solution to the standoff. (At last count there were four Chinese surveillance ships and 10 fishing boats in the disputed waters, as well as a Philippine coastguard vessel and a fisheries bureau ship, with larger flotillas nearby.)
Online opinion in both China and the Philippines is disturbingly pro-war, and with China’s ruling Communist Party headed for a once-in-a-decade leadership transition this fall, there’s a danger that incoming president Xi Jinping will feel the need to take a hawkish position in order to shore up support in the People’s Liberation Army.
A shooting war between China and the Philippines seems a longshot now, just as a real war between China and Japan seemed impossible in 2010. But if Asian neighbours keep manufacturing crises for domestic consumption, one day the anger they manufacture will be all too real.