It’s been three weeks now since the start of the standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal, a group of mostly submerged rocks in the West Philippine Sea that the Philippines and China are claiming as part of their respective territories. While a diplomatic way out of the impasse is being sought, a complex signaling exercise involving the deployment and withdrawal of maritime vessels is also going on. What further complicates matters is that the standoff began just a few days before the start of the US-Philippine joint military exercises. The Philippines insists the two events are unrelated, but that is not how the situation looks from a geopolitical perspective.
You don’t pick a fight with someone bigger than you. But if you must defend yourself, you need to find an ally as big as he is, or get the backing of other small entities that may feel similarly threatened. Such support has its own costs. It may mean giving up certain things in return, or going against some cherished ideals. That is what realpolitik is about. It may seek cover behind principles, but, in essence, it is political conduct based on a clear calculation of long-term interests and a sober recognition of the pragmatics of power. Realpolitik applies to persons as well as to states.