In its naval clash with Beijing, Manila seems to be taking its cues from a third-century Roman dictator.
- By James HolmesJames Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.
Quintus Fabius lives. And the third-century B.C. Roman dictator celebrated as Fabius "the Delayer" seems to be advising Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on strategy at Scarborough Shoal, where Philippine and Chinese ships have faced off for more than a month.
In early April, the Philippine Navy flagship Gregorio del Pilar discovered Chinese fishing boats at the shoal, a group of rocks enclosing a lagoon some 120 nautical miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon. Boarding parties found coral, giant clams, and live sharks on board the boats and prepared to arrest their crews for poaching in Philippine-claimed waters. Within 48 hours, ships from China Maritime Surveillance — a nonmilitary agency entrusted with enforcing jurisdiction in Chinese-claimed waters — arrived on the scene and interposed themselves between the Gregorio del Pilar and the alleged poachers.
Manila quickly withdrew its frigate and replaced it with an unarmed Philippine Coast Guard search-and-rescue ship, evidently foreseeing a diplomatic debacle (imagine the political furor should photos emerge of a Philippine warship with civilian Chinese ships under its guns). Stalemate between nonmilitary ships ensued. Although neither government flinched from its claim to the atoll and surrounding waters, both disarmed their presence.
To understand the military mismatch between China and the Philippines, look no further than the Gregorio del Pilar itself. The warship — the pride of the Philippine Navy — is a retired, 1960s-vintage U.S. Coast Guard cutter grandiosely rebranded as a frigate. The Philippines’ previous flagship, an old U.S. Navy destroyer escort, fought in World War II. Juxtapose these relics against the increasingly modern Chinese Navy that keeps U.S. and allied naval commanders up nights.
By relying on coast guard-like vessels, Beijing reaffirms the legal boilerplate that it holds "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea — including the waters lapping against Scarborough Shoal. Its ships, according to this narrative, are simply enforcing domestic law in waters that have belonged to China since antiquity. And indeed, last week the official China Daily reported that Beijing will add 36 more nonmilitary vessels to its fleet by next year.
But Beijing’s victory is far from certain. Manila seems to be employing what could be called a Fabian strategy — one premised on delay, diplomatic maneuver, and righting military imbalances. The Philippines stands no chance of winning in combat. It may win a peacetime confrontation.
Historians of classical antiquity considered Fabius the paragon of guileful, patient military statecraft. Polybius, a Greek historian of Roman imperialism, tells the tale expertly. As the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s vastly superior army rampaged through Italy, Fabius assumed personal command of Roman forces and encamped near the foe. Upon learning that the legions were nearby, Hannibal resolved to "terrify the enemy by promptly attacking," Polybius writes.
The Roman riposte: nothing. Fabius grasped his army’s "manifest inferiority." He "made up his mind to incur no danger and not to risk a battle" against battle-hardened Carthaginians, according to Polybius. And Rome was fighting on home turf. Its armies were beneficiaries of an "inexhaustible supply of provisions and of men." He could convert these assets into superior military might — eventually.
Fabius’s story reads like a parable about contending strategic paradigms. Soldiers typically covet decisive engagements that yield clear results along with renown for the victors. That means offense. But Fabius was an atypical, defensive-minded soldier. Rather than risk everything in offensive actions, he mastered the art of lurking near superior enemy forces yet shunning decisive battle, waiting and watching until ideal circumstances arose. Only then, when the risk was low and the likely gains high, would he undertake major combat.
The Fabian precedent does not fit precisely with today’s Sino-Philippine deadlock. The mismatch between Carthaginian and Roman forces was far narrower than the chasm separating the Philippine from the Chinese military. Rome wasn’t dependent on outside intervention. Over time, Fabius could transform latent into usable military power, marshaling the Italian peninsula’s resources to redress the force imbalance.
Philippine leaders have no such luxury. Nevertheless, they evidently believe time is on their side — and they could be right. Great powers boast obvious material advantages when confronting lesser opponents. But weak powers can stall for time, opening up new strategic vistas. With an adequate respite, they can marshal additional resources, seek help from powerful allies, or try to undercut the stronger contender’s advantages.
Sure enough, Manila has done what the weak do. Aquino’s government has appealed to law and justice while courting allies. The leadership has entreated Beijing to submit the quarrel to the Law of the Sea Tribunal. And it has requested American support under the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, which obliges the United States and the Philippines to "act to meet the common dangers" of "an armed attack" on either party’s territory or armed forces.
For its part, Beijing appears visibly flummoxed by the Filipinos’ refusal to bow to overwhelming physical might. China seems to be waging "war by algebra" in the South China Sea, and expecting outmatched neighbors to abide by that austere mathematical logic. Coined by Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz, it’s the idea that war can be drained of its dark passions under certain circumstances. If dispassionate war occurred, "one would never really need to use the physical impact of the fighting forces — comparative figures of their strength would be enough."
When a controversy erupted, diplomats and soldiers would in effect compare their militaries’ write-ups in Jane’s Fighting Ships or the IISS Military Balance. Whoever sported the biggest, most capable, most deployable military would win without ever firing a shot — simply because everyone would know who would have won a shooting war. That’s peacetime coercion.
But even Clausewitz appeared to view war-by-algebra as a largely artificial construct, doubting that diplomacy and war could be rid of the passions that suffuse competition. One would think China — which has started out as the lesser belligerent in almost every war since the 19th-century Opium Wars, yet oftentimes prevailed through popular passions, patience, and sheer hardheadedness — would instantly recognize the motives behind Philippine actions. Not so, it appears.
Aquino & Co. shouldn’t take too much comfort in Chinese myopia: Perseverance and delay on their part aren’t enough. If Manila cannot muster enough resources to win a war of perceptions, it must attract outside help — particularly from the United States, which has other interests in Southeast Asia apart from honoring its defense treaty with the Philippines. Freedom of navigation ranks high on Washington’s priorities list, as does avoiding needlessly affronting a major trading partner that also happens to be a great power on the rise.
While the United States would doubtless defend Philippine soil, offshore waters or uninhabitable territory like Scarborough Shoal is another question. Nor is it clear what the lightly armed U.S. Navy vessels that anchor the American presence in Southeast Asia would contribute during a showdown with heavy Chinese naval forces. Effective U.S. support for the Philippines is scarcely a foregone conclusion — and Manila’s Fabian gambit cannot succeed without it.
But the longer an impasse with a sorely outclassed rival drags on unresolved, the more the stronger antagonist starts looking both bullying and irresolute — the worst possible outcome in power-politics terms. Although militarily, China can do what it wants at Scarborough Shoal, the controversy looks increasingly like a political loser for Beijing.