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China is probing the Philippines with bayonets, looking for mush

Strategic wisdom requires prudence, but also a clear-eyed understanding of a determined aggressor's intentions and tactics. Beijing routinely probes with bayonets--it escalates tensions and creates instability in order to extract concessions. It is like an arsonist who lights fires, then blames its victims and demands they put them out at their own expense.
Ray Powell | DECEMBER 27, 2023
China is probing the Philippines with bayonets, looking for mush

Ray Powell

Director

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In a recent column in The Diplomat, Sarang Shidore contends that the Philippines' newly assertive stance toward Beijing's maritime aggression, while legally justified, fails to meet the "strategic wisdom" standard, while also chiding Washington for "excessively emboldening" Manila through its statements of support. He calls for both to show restraint in order to prevent a "full-blown crisis in the South China Sea".

While it's hard to argue against wisdom and restraint as guiding foreign policy principles, a policy too weighted toward crisis avoidance carries its own downside risk when dealing with an aggressor who adheres to Lenin's maxim*: 

“You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.”

Yes, strategic wisdom certainly requires prudence, but it also requires a clear-eyed understanding of a determined aggressor's intentions and tactics. Beijing routinely probes with bayonets--it escalates tensions and creates instability in order to extract concessions. It is like an arsonist who lights fires, then blames its victims and demands they put them out at their own expense. 

China has already used these tactics to extract major maritime concessions from the Philippines, and it intends to extract even more. In 2012 China seized control of their traditional fishing grounds at Scarborough Shoal. Manila and Washington responded to the event primarily as a crisis to be managed rather than an aggression to be countered. In the end their wisdom and restraint achieved stability at significant cost, while Beijing was able to reset the board in its favor.

Beijing probed and found mush, so it pushed.

Of course, China had previously seized Mischief Reef, which it has since turned into a major military base deep within the Philippines' own internationally recognized exclusive economic zone (EEZ). From there it now stages the forces necessary to carry out an illegal blockade of the Philippines' outpost aboard the grounded BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal, with the stated intent of denying Manila the ability to repair and maintain its structural integrity so that it must be abandoned

China has also effectively taken control of Whitsun Reef through use of its maritime militia ships, which it "rafts" together to create floating outposts that the Philippines lacks the capacity to disperse. Beijing has used similar tactics to stake its claim to other features within the Philippines' EEZ, such as Sabina Shoal and Iroquois Reef.

Now as we turn into the second year of its new policy, the Marcos Administration finds itself facing a significant strategic dilemma. Unable hold off these aggressions by itself, it has reached for what tools it can find to increase its leverage--its network of partners and allies, international law, and the compelling power of visual information to tell its story to the world. Naturally Beijing finds Manila's new steely resolve to be "provocative"--as it does any resistance to its hegemonic ambitions--and regularly issues demands that the Philippines "stop pursuing the wrong course". 

Manila's resolve has not yet deterred Beijing from its gray zone aggression, but it's early yet. Deterrence is a long game requiring great patience and fortitude, qualities that Beijing is betting the Philippines and its U.S. ally don't possess.

In other words, China is still aggressively probing because it believes the metal its bayonets have found will prove not to be tempered steel, but soft aluminum.

*Author's note: The maxim's connection to Vladimir Lenin himself is likely apocryphal.

Ray Powell

Ray is the Director of SeaLight and Project Lead for Project Myoushu at Stanford University's Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He's a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and was a 2021 Fellow at Stanford's Distinguished Careers Institute.

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