In recent months, China’s flurry of reclamation work and building of military installations on several of the islets and reefs in the disputed portions of the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea have set alarm bells ringing about China’s aggressive design to claim almost the entirety of the area as part of its national territory. The Philippines, being one of the parties to the disputes over maritime rights and territorial claims in the sea, is rightfully aggrieved.
The disputed area encompasses traditional fishing grounds not only for Filipino fisherfolk but those from several other ASEAN countries. (China has been denying their access to these fishing grounds.) The rich marine biodiversity of the sea is nature’s endowment to our peoples; it should be wisely conserved while being sustainably exploited. (Chinese fishing vessels are well known to be engaged in destructive overexploitation of the marine environment.) There is substantial, commercially valuable petrochemical and gas deposits in the underlying seabed that would be a much-needed boost to the economic development of any of the claimant nations. (China is suspected of wanting to hog these resources.)
The West Philippine Sea/South China Sea is a geopolitically strategic and sensitive area. It contains vital sea lanes for much of the global trade in the region. Historically, it has been a stepping stone for Western imperialist inroads into China. Currently, it is a critical part of the Asia Pacific where US military might is being shifted to contain a resurgent China and maintain the US’ unchallenged dominance in the region.
The Filipino people must see through the geopolitical power play between the declining but still militarily superior US and its rival China, the new economic powerhouse, albeit with a far distant offensive military capability. The Filipino people must not allow the country to be used as a pawn in big-power competition, collusion and confrontation. Unfortunately, there is the widespread yet dangerous thinking, reinforced by a lingering colonial hangover, that the best, if not only, way to defend our sovereignty against any foreign country’s encroachments is to call on Uncle Sam for help.
The conventional wisdom is that the Philippines, being a poor, backward country, has no capacity to defend itself against China’s bullying and anticipated worse depredations to come — neither now nor in the foreseeable future. Besides, it is argued, hasn’t the Philippines always been under the US security umbrella through long-standing military agreements?
What is undeniable is the fact that the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and other such lopsided pacts have not resulted in the promised modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, ergo our external defense capability is one of the weakest among claimants. The year-round Balikatan joint military exercises that are supposed to be improving “interoperability” between the state-of-the-art war machinery of the US and the decrepit, outdated equipment of the Philippines merely reinforce the Philippine military’s state of awe, dependence and subordination to the US armed forces.
With the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the Philippines’ role as provider of forward stations, or “agreed locations” for the basing of US military troops and materiel, is sealed. Once more, the justification is EDCA will cover the gaping holes in our external defense, acting as a deterrent against China based on the groundless presumption that the US will go to war against China in our behalf.
Philippine authorities and other wishful thinkers mindlessly cling to the illusory notion of Big Brother immediately coming to our defense despite the fact that the US has repeatedly stated that it will not intervene in the territorial disputes in the disputed sea. They also ignore the reality that the US has far bigger, more important stakes in its relations with China than it has with its former colony.
This was made clear by no less than US President Obama when he declared during his visit in April 2014, at the height of the tensions over the disputed area, that US-Philippine military agreements, such as the MDT, do not bind it automatically to take military action to defend the Philippines in the event of a Chinese attack. Moreover, the presence of US troops, war materiel and facilities on Philippine territory, especially on the basis of a military alliance, could only serve as a magnet for attack from the enemies of the US, as in World War II when Japan attacked the Philippines which was then a US colony.
So if the Philippines cannot rely on the US against China’s aggressive posture and actuations, where can it turn to? Many foreign policy experts have pointed to the need for ASEAN countries to unite and pressure China to agree to a binding Code of Conduct in settling the disputes. Other opinion makers call for strengthening ties with India and Japan as a counterpoint to both China and the US. However, this ignores the fact that Japan remains more than ever the US fugleman in Asia while the US has, in recent years, forged closer economic and diplomatic ties with India.
Others call for quiet diplomacy at government-to-government and people-to-people levels with China geared towards minimizing frictions and increasing understanding and cooperation. While beneficial, it would be naïve to think that such diplomacy will, by itself, temper China’s aggressiveness. The logic of China’s burgeoning capitalist economy fans its expansionist ambitions despite declarations of its intention to a “peaceful rise” as a global power.
Still others say the thing is to be able to beat the two contending powers at their own game by playing off one against the other using a battery of experts in various fields to craft and implement such strategy and tactics.
All these approaches, however, overlook and grossly underestimate the power of a united people rising in mass protest and pushing the government to do what is necessary to uphold national interests, including imposing economic sanctions on Chinese enterprises in the country such as in construction, real estate, agribusiness, import-export, power generation and transmission, mining, banking, etc.
The Vietnamese people angrily took to the streets to denounce China’s grab of its claimed territory and exclusive economic zone in the disputed area. In the past, the Vietnamese navy had dared to confront the far stronger Chinese navy. Such courageous and defiant acts have stymied China’s intrusions to a significant extent. China has been given notice that Vietnam is no pushover.
The Filipino people need not feel helpless in the wake of stepped-up Chinese aggression. Building a revitalized patriotic movement that draws its strength from its own people, neither taking sides nor relying on one power to defend itself from the other, is the key to the assertion and defense of our national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The time to build such a movement is now.
Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two.
Published in Business World
June 7, 2015