Is China our biggest security problem?

August 7, 2013
Demand and Supply by Boo Chanco
(The Philippine Star) August 7, 2013
US embassies were ordered closed throughout the Middle East and North Africa because of so called credible security threats. For most western governments, they are mostly worried about terrorism from Islamic  fundamentalist groups like Al Qaeda.

But to many Filipinos, China tops the list of security concerns. We might have thought of China some years ago as a potential friend and partner but China’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea has stoked strong anti-Chinese feelings here… even among the Filipino Chinese.

Maybe it is paranoia but I have noticed strong expressions of concern over Chinese companies operating in key telecoms and power infrastructure here. One comment in an e-group of retired businessmen was quite angry about the participation of the State Grid of China in our national grid.

“This is a very dangerous and naïve policy on the part of the Philippines to allow an enemy country to control and run the national grid. Strategic resources like electrification that determine if a country runs or not should never be under the operating control of foreign nationals…  Chinese control of the technical operating capability of the grid allows them the possibility of concealing self destruct code or be accessed by program malware from abroad…”

Concerns have also been expressed in social media about Huawei, a Chinese telecoms company, over its links with Chinese intelligence. A major local telecoms company shifted from Cisco, an American company, to Huawei, as provider of its technical infrastructure. Is Chinese intelligence reading our text messages, listening to our conversations?

The worries arose after a former head of the US CIA, Michael Hayden, told the Australian Financial Review he believes Huawei would have shared information with Chinese state agencies. Britain, the United States and Australia have all raised concerns that Huawei’s alleged ties to the Chinese state could see telecoms equipment supplied by the company used for spying and cyber-attacks.

It does not help that the Chinese government allowed its relationship with us, Vietnam and a few other Asean members to deteriorate this fast from friend to enemy over the sea disputes. It seems they threw out all the goodwill they have painstakingly developed through the years since Deng Xiaoping created a new China.

As I once told the local Chinese Ambassador, there should be no reason for this enmity. We have deep friendly commercial and historical ties with China long before Magellan came to our shores.

All of a sudden China aggressively enforced its nine-dash-line territorial definition which effectively declared the South China Sea as Chinese domestic waters. If you look at how the line is drawn, it is so close to the shores of Southeast Asian nations like ours that it’s simply ridiculous.

Then China started to strut around its fast growing Navy and an expanding variety of warships. Of course its neighbors will be alarmed at such muscle flexing.

There is a strong suspicion that Chinese nationalism is being used to divert the attention of the Chinese people from the big problems in the economy as well as corruption in government and the Communist party. The party’s mouthpieces like the Global Times have been frothing in the mouth in denouncing the Philippines and Vietnam with commentary like this:

 “Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam believe China has been under various pressure. They think it is a good time for them to take advantage of this and force China to give away its interests.

“It is rare to see small countries using ‘opportunistic strategy’ on bigger countries. Hard-line response will cause trouble for China, but if the problems and ‘pains’ these countries bring exceed the risk China has to endure to change its policies and strategies, then a ‘counter-attack’ is likely…

“If these countries don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved.”

Last Sunday, I watched a CNN special report on China hosted by its Hong Kong based reporter, Kristie Lu Stout and she asked Wu Jianmin, former Chinese ambassador to the United Nations if China is using nationalism as a tool.

Mr. Wu defensively responded that “No, I don’t think so.” He went on to explain that “With nationalism, you’ll reject others. Can China afford it? No. We can’t. We can’t afford to alienate anyone. We need the world and the world needs China.

“That’s why the Chinese leadership is quite careful about the nationalism. If you look around the world, this is something which is quite worrisome. This rising nationalism and rising populism. The combination of these two “-ism”s quite dangerous.”

But Ms Stout followed up her question: “There are concerns about China becoming more militarily aggressive as it pursues the Chinese dream and of China also consuming more of the world’s resources as it tries to enrich itself. Is that going to be a source of geopolitical tension?”

Mr. Wu responded: “No. When we pursue our dream, how can we achieve it? Through a military way? No, that’s impossible. China is heavily dependent on the international community: resources, we need to send out manufacturing goods abroad. We’re deeply interdependent. If we go to war, that will end up a big failure. Everybody, I mean, most people in China, we understand that this is a wrong way.”

Evan Osnos, the former Beijing correspondent of the New Yorker agreed: “When we talk about where China’s headed, it can sometimes sound to us overseas that they’re beating the drums of nationalism and that they’re trying to prepare for some sort of conquest. The reality is I don’t think that’s part of where the Chinese want to go.

“They just have too much on their plate on the domestic front. The danger is about the unintended consequences. It’s about when we’ve got a Pacific that’s getting crowded because we’ve got larger navies or when we’ve got people fighting over ground. That’s where you run into trouble-when something gets out of hand. And that’s where that kind of communication is really important.”

Mr. Wu emphasized “Today, if you look at China’s relationship with outside world, we are deeply interdependent. Why the last 35 years, we did well was because of the opening. So when we go abroad, when we develop our international relations, we should base this relationship on the win-win basis. If the other side doesn’t benefit from China’s growth, China will be in trouble. For China, this is the only way to rise peacefully.”

But Ms. Stout was unimpressed. She asked, “How are the Chinese military and the PLA interpreting the Chinese dream?”

Wu explained: “With China’s rise, certainly, we need to modernize our defense… But, there’s a limit: no arms race with anyone- with US, with the rest of the world. We know how the Soviet Union fell. China will not follow their footsteps.”

What Mr. Wu is saying is likely how the current Chinese leadership feels. China’s President Xi Jinping, like any rational and responsible decision-maker will also consider the costs of escalating conflict with China’s neighbors, the United States and the international community.

This is why I think our Department of Foreign Affairs has taken the right strategy of bringing the conflict before an international arbitration panel, with or without China’s agreement. If our case is strong, the weight of public opinion will bear on China to act like a responsible world power that it should be.

It is also good that the DFA is now going on an international campaign to inform world governments about our position and eliciting their understanding and support. No one likes a bully and if China persists on acting like a regional bully, it risks its standing in the family of nations and the health of its economy as well.

We must remind the international community they also have a lot at stake in preserving freedom of navigation in the area covered by China’s nine-dash-line. Sea lanes here are used by about half of the world’s annual international maritime trade and rising still with the fast economic growth in this part of Asia. If they are not anxious now, Europe and America should be very concerned about unimpeded movement of vessels, goods, and persons in the disputed area.

We all have a lot to lose if the current belligerent attitudes toward each other persist. No matter how fiery some of the domestic voices may be about each other’s nationalism, no one wants any misunderstanding to escalate into a shooting war. But everyone should be worried about accidents, about unintended consequences.

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Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is Follow him on Twitter @boochanco