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.