Caixin
May 23, 2012 07:44 PM

Steadying the Ship

The standoff between China and the Philippines over Huangyan Island, or Scarborough Shoal, has dragged on for weeks. But, thankfully, both sides have toned down their rhetoric in recent days, suggesting that the worst is over. We've stepped back from the brink of hostilities. 

That tensions have eased is due largely to Beijing's restraint. The two countries are vastly mismatched. If China had opted to press its advantage with threats and even go to war to defend its sovereignty, the result would almost certainly be victory. But Beijing did not take the tit-for-tat route.

Rather, in the face of Philippine warmongering, China's response has been to reiterate its determination to defend its territorial integrity while engaging in diplomacy to resolve the crisis. Even when repeated Philippine provocations have sparked calls at home for retaliation, the government has not overreacted. Instead, it calmed things down through diplomatic, political and economic means.

The Philippines triggered the crisis by deploying warships to harass Chinese fishing boats in Chinese waters. This put the Philippines on the offensive and China on the defensive, in sharp contrast with their global influence. The incongruity has rankled some at home who saw the government as being too weak. Even now, there are calls within China for Beijing to go to war.

And what of the Philippines? Actions by its leadership suggest it, too, wants war. By making an issue of damaged vessels and some casualties, the Philippines has tried to create the impression that it was being bullied by a strong country. It wants to win international sympathy, stake out the moral high ground and gain political leverage in any resolution of the South China Sea disputes. This is a commonplace strategy in international politics.

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