By BENJIE OLIVEROS
Bulatlat Perspective | Bulatlat.com
In his state of the nation address in July 2011, President Benigno Aquino III gave a fiery, saber-rattling speech warning China that the government is ready to defend the country against intrusions into its territory, specifically referring to Recto bank, a groups of small islands at the West Philippine Sea. At the same time, Aquino announced that the Philippines is strengthening its defense capabilities, beginning with the acquisition of a decommissioned coast guard cutter from the US.
When tensions between the Philippines and China escalated because of conflicting claims over the Panatag Shoal and the Spratly Islands, Philippine government officials sought out assurances from US officials that it would come to the country’s defense in case armed clashes erupt between the Philippines and China, citing the US –RP Mutual Defense Treaty.
By January 2012, Philippine government officials led by President Aquino announced that there have been ongoing negotiations between US and Philippine defense officials over the expanded presence of US troops, and more frequent visits of US warships and submarines in the Philippines. All through 2012 up to the present, President Aquino and Philippine defense and foreign relations officials have been justifying the proposed expanded presence of US troops by saying that it would help bolster Philippine defense capabilities, especially with the escalating tensions with China.
In April 2012, Balikatan joint US-RP military exercises were held at the West Philippine Sea. For the US, it was an apparent show of force, as it has a policy of containing the expanding influence of China in the region. For the Philippines, it was to show China that the country has an alliance with the US. As expected, this elicited strong reactions from China.
But recently, the Aquino government seems to be contradicting itself.
In an Inquirer report September 3, Defense Sec. Voltaire Gazmin was quoted as saying that the increased rotational presence of US troops in the country is not aimed at China. “They shouldn’t be agitated because we have a treaty with the Americans, and that includes helping us to be capable of protecting our territories and addressing disaster operations.”
Why is the Aquino government suddenly singing a different tune?
Earlier, around mid-August, President Aquino announced his intention to visit China during the ASEAN trade expo on September 3. “The President has accepted China’s invitation to attend the 10th ASEAN-China Expo (CAEXPO) to be held in Nanning, capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, from Sept. 3 to 6, Malacañang and Department of Foreign Affairs sources said.”
However, a few days after, the Aquino government announced that the president would no longer visit China. Apparently, Aquino’s proposed visit was not welcomed by China even as the Philippines was to be the “country of honor” during the trade expo this year. Traditionally, the leader of the government designated as the “country of honor” for the year’s expo heads the country’s delegation.
“The Country of Honor system has become a great arena for ASEAN countries to showcase their new images and seek new business opportunities. Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar have been the Country of Honor by turns and their leaders have headed a delegation to attend the previous nine sessions of CAEXPO. Thanks to this arena, the strategic partnership between the ASEAN countries and China has been deepened and the bilateral cooperation in all fields has been strengthened.”
Reports revealed that China never extended an invitation to Aquino. In an apparent attempt to save face, the Aquino administration claimed that China imposed “impossible conditions, ” which the government rejected.
This is the problem with the Aquino government’s handling of the China standoff and its saber rattling to hard sell to the Filipino people the proposed expanded presence of US troops, warships, submarines, fighter jets, and the like, and the maintenance of US military facilities, inside AFP camps, and stockpiling of armaments in the country. It has its blowback in the deterioration of the country’s relations with China, the world’s most populous nation and a haven for exporters and investors seeking to expand their market. The same Vera files report, being cited above said that “Since Xi became China’s president in March, he has met with all Asian leaders except Aquino.”
The Aquino government seemed to have overplayed its anti-China card that even the US reportedly asked Aquino to stop the government’s rhetoric against China.
The Aquino government now has a lot of mending to do. In its effort to please the US, it has escalated tensions with China, and even outdid the US – in its policy of containing China – with the Aquino government’s anti-China rhetoric and saber rattling. Now it is suffering the consequences of its actions, of being too eager to kowtow to the interests and demands of the US.
Of course, this is not the only blowback that the Aquino government received because of its propensity to grandstand to show that it is in control, without thinking about the consequences of its actions. It likewise received flak recently because of its defense of the pork barrel system, its handling of the “surrender” of Janet Lim-Napoles, and the special treatment it has been providing the latter. But this issue has already been discussed in previous articles.