The territorial dispute over the resource-rich and strategically-located Spratlys islands, highlighted by alleged recent incursions and other aggressive actions of China into areas also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, underscores the importance of an independent and non-aligned foreign policy for small and weak nations like the Philippines.
This is in stark contrast to the current tack of the Aquino administration of invoking the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty and so-called historic ties as well as undertaking high-profile diplomatic lobbying in the US to involve it in the conflict. US meddling, under the cover of the Philippines’ entreaties, would surely complicate and becloud matters, heighten tensions and likely fuel open hostilities.
Renewed public attention on the Spratlys issue is thereby an occasion to review and deepen our thinking on international relations.
At the outset, we must set aside narrow notions of nationalism that underlie the emotional appeal to engage in China bashing – including egging the Left to demonstrate at the Chinese embassy and twitting them for being unpatriotic when they don’t – just because the Philippines is staking its claims.
The Aquino administration’s actuations so far unnecessarily and mindlessly drag into the controversy the big-power rivalry between the US and China and declare the Philippines as squarely on the US side no matter what. This makes the Philippines appear ridiculous to the international community since neither China nor the US, at this point, have any intention or interest in a confrontation – even a diplomatic one – over the Spratlys.
In the first place, there is no imminent danger or immediate possibility of any armed confrontation between China and the Philippines, with or without US backing. China has no use for driving away the Filipino troops and inhabitants of the Kalayaan Islands nor blasting away the Philippine facilities there. Neither can the US afford provoking China at this point, what with its forces already engaged in three major theaters. The AFP on its own challenging the Chinese troops is absolutely out of the question.
Like a half-awake volcano, the dispute may continue to fester and even exacerbate, or it could fizzle out now but surely reemerge at a future, more volatile moment. That is because the underlying interest of China and the US, the two big powers in the region, is not only the oil and natural gas beneath the Spratlys, but the sea lanes through which half of their trade pass. The US and China are both racing on trajectories that are bound to bring them to a future collision, and the South China Sea and the Spratlys in particular could one day be that point of intersection.
Unfortunately what is consistent and highlighted through all this is the Aquino administration’s propensity to turn to Uncle Sam, reminding if not beseeching, the US of its “responsibility” to take up the cudgels for “little brown brother”. For in truth, the country’s capabilities for external defense, after decades under US tutelage and purported assistance, are pathetic if not laughable even in comparison to those of similarly small and weak co-claimants like Vietnam and Malaysia.
This mendicant and servile approach of the Aquino administration is antithetical to the principles of an independent foreign policy which is the bedrock of any truly sovereign and free country. For small and weak countries, non-alignment or neutrality is also an indispensable aspect of foreign relations. This was true in the era of the Cold War; it is true now with the US as lone Superpower and China fast emerging as an economic, if not yet military, powerhouse.
The principles undergirding an independent, non-aligned foreign policy are well articulated in the Afro–Asian Summit Conference – also known as the Bandung Conference – of 1955. It remains a shining historic precedent wherein small and weak nations uniting against colonialism and all its vestiges and post WWII reincarnations, hammered together a Declaration of Ten Principles to guide state-to-state relations and international relations in general.
This was preceded in a substantive way by the formulation of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in 1954 by China and India. The principles are mutual respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.
One might say these are all principles that are up in the air and matter little in the real world when push comes to shove in actual disputes between countries especially between an elephant like China and a flea like the Philippines.
On the contrary, because these principles are grounded on the objective interests of the vast majority of countries and their peoples, most especially the poor and weak ones dominated by the forces of imperialism, big power chauvinism and racism, they provide the correct and only viable frame for the Philippines to assert its national interests.
Perhaps the more relevant question is whether the Aquino administration, given the Philippine state’s long-standing neocolonial relationship with the US and its own demonstrated eagerness to be considered the latest reliable vassal regime, would even consider hewing to such principles much less translating them into practice.
It would appear that Mr. Aquino is using the Spratlys issue to reinforce the mindset and policy frame that keeps the country dependent on the US for its external defense, including the so-called “modernization” of the AFP, and the pursuit of its “national interests” vis a vis other countries.
The US, for its part, loves the game because it has a platform to swear by its undying “friendship” for the Philippines, making much ado about the long-debunked RP-US “special relations”. It reiterates vague allusions to unfounded claims that the MDT provides for US backing in case of a shooting war over the Spratlys. The US is also able to project its vested interests in the South China Sea in order to justify any future interference in the area for tactical and strategic purposes.
The Philippine government has a long way to go to gain credibility in its pose of upholding and defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity, a critical missing ingredient in its loud assertions of Philippine claims in the Spratlys.
In the final analysis, only a truly democratic and patriotic government can stand for a self-respecting and genuinely independent foreign policy. In the meantime, it is up to a strong people’s movement for genuine democracy and freedom to push and fight for one.
Published in Business World