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.

Though often contrasted with the politics of principles, realpolitik has its true opposite in political behavior ruled by impulse or emotion. One expects this of individuals, but not of nation-states. They are supposed to be more circumspect in the moves they make, less given to knee-jerk reaction to crisis situations.

So commonsensical are these ideas that they may not deserve to be represented by a word as somber as “realpolitik.” But at no other time has it been more necessary to keep them in mind as we ponder the current standoff between China and the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal. What, in heaven’s name, is going on here? On both sides of these submerged uninhabitable rocks, patriotic impulses are being dangerously fanned, almost as if the survival of both nations depended on their possession.

From our side of the ocean, China looms as a resurgent empire that treats everyone in its backyard as if they were nothing more than its tributaries. Basking in the astounding growth of its economy in recent years, it seems bent on consolidating its territory and “historic” maritime surroundings as if it were superior to international law. This is not just the “Red China” we feared during the Cold War. This is a far more aggressive country that imagines itself restored by economic power to its old self as a civilization-state.

From China’s side, on the other hand, the Philippines appears as no more than a puny group of islands ruled for centuries by Western powers, unable to get hold of its own destiny, and quite content to serve as the colonial outpost of the West. While the rest of Southeast Asia falls in line to partake of the bounty of China’s economic dynamism, this troubled country, so oblivious of its Asianness, inflates its ego by latching on to an America in decline. Having thrown out the US bases in a rare moment of national pride in 1991, it has lost no time in bringing back US troops in the guise of hosting joint military exercises. These exercises were supposed to be focused on the global war against terrorism. But it is now clear that they are designed to frighten China. Thus, it is not a coincidence that these joint exercises involving live firing on the western side of the Philippines are taking place in the midst of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

In a 1999 paper he wrote on the Scarborough Reef issue as visiting fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, the Chinese researcher Zou Keyuan noted a shift in US-Philippine military relations as a result of the Visiting Forces Agreement. He said that on Aug. 3, 1998, US Defense Secretary William Cohen assured Manila that the United States would come to the aid of the Philippines if the latter’s troops were attacked in the South China Sea. Previously, said Zou, the American view was that the disputed islands and reefs were not covered by the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty. It is not certain if Cohen’s remarks accurately expressed the US official position, but they apparently alarmed China. Zou writes: “Such a change may encourage the Philippines to take more ambitious actions around Scarborough Reef, even to the extent of sending troops to occupy it. If so, it will escalate the tensions in Sino-Philippine relations, as well as create instability in the whole South China Sea.” (

What can one say? Both viewpoints call upon the memory of past events to gain credence. Igniting latent racist sentiments on both sides is the easiest thing in the world to do. Despite centuries of interaction, and despite the fact that most Filipinos have Chinese blood, Filipinos and the Chinese have little fondness for one another. Regarded as an inferior people during the Spanish colonial period, the Chinese were marginalized from the nation’s life, and became the target of recurrent pogroms and exclusion. In this hostile setting, they, in turn, looked to the ancient Middle Kingdom of their ancestors as their point of orientation. Their miserable status obviously no longer holds today.

China’s own view of itself is more complex. Few observers have captured China’s self-image as eloquently as the writer Martin Jacques in his work “When China Rules the World” (The Penguin Press, 2009). “In an important sense, China does not aspire to run the world because it already believes itself to be the centre of the world, this being its natural role and position. And this attitude is likely to strengthen as China becomes a major global power. As a consequence, it may prove to be rather less overtly aggressive than the West has been, but that does not mean that it will be less assertive or less determined to impose its will and leave its imprint. It might do this in a different way, however, through its deeply held belief in its own inherent superiority and the hierarchy of relations that necessarily flow from this.”

How do we engage a neighbor like China? We can’t begin to answer this question without knowing where our long-term interests lie.

– Randy David