May 14, 2012 By James R. Holmes
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.