Second of three parts
Well, we told you so. As the Monday installment of this article said, even with the new defense pact, “we’d be dumb to think US policy will suddenly change” from decades of lambasting China in maritime tensions with the Philippines—but not doing anything more. Certainly not anything like sending two B-52 bombers to challenge Beijing’s air defense identification zone over Japan-administered islands last November.
Now it’s official from America’s Commander-in-Chief. Asked twice how the United States would respond if our China disputes turn violent, President Obama evaded. He stressed peaceful resolution, but never gave the kind of assurance he reiterated in Tokyo last week: that the US would defend Japan in a conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands also claimed by China.
Still, the Aquino administration signed and cheered a new deal for greater deployment and bases access for US forces, even if those ships, subs and planes would not help the country in territorial conflicts.
What’s worse, Beijing will now include among missile targets the bases and internal waterways offered to the Seventh Fleet, which can attack China and its vital sea lanes from our territory.
Thus, despite zero pledge of armed support, Aquino lets American nukes, warships and planes in, putting our bases, waters, and nearby communities in danger of attack in any Asian conflict the US engages in. Is that dumb or what? (But don’t ask Congress: it’s now held hostage by pork barrel papers in Palace hands.)
Dealing with maritime incursions
Plainly, the next leader must devise ways of securing our territory without hosting nuclear-armed American forces (yes, they have nukes). Here’s one approach to secure our islands, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and extended continental shelf (ECS):
1) Acquire long-range anti-ship missiles like India’s supersonic BrahMos, to deter EEZ and ECS intrusions. Urged by former National Security Adviser and US Naval Academy graduate Roilo Golez, a system of 200 BrahMos truck-mounted projectiles would make us a porcupine state aggressors would not mess with (see March 7 column).
2) Negotiate and undertake joint offshore exploration and maritime cooperation with Beijing and other rival claimants, as discussed during Aquino’s August 2011 China visit, but dropped after his US trip the following month. In such undertakings, Beijing has to cease aggressive moves, which block collaboration.
3) As part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), press China for a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, with the added incentive that if a CoC is implemented, US forces in the Philippines would be reduced. Beijing would accept CoC strictures if only to minimize the nuclear threat emanating from our territory.
4) If Asean wants US power to balance Chinese might, the best base could be Brunei. Its immense wealth, international Muslim backing, and distance from China make it largely impervious to Beijing’s pressure. And Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah may just like to host and be protected by the planet’s most powerful navy and air force.
Let’s not be China’s Cuba
The above scheme might have its flaws, like the new defense pact. But one thing the four-point strategy avoids is making the Philippines a threat to China, provoking military, geopolitical, and economic countermeasures, including a Chinese naval buildup near the archipelago to counter US forces here.
How bad can it get? Think Cuba. Half a century ago, its leader Fidel Castro, spooked by America’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion, threw his lot with Russia and agreed to host Soviet rockets. That led to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Moscow agreed not to put projectiles in Cuba, and Washington quietly withdrew atomic missiles from Turkey.
But that wasn’t the end of it. For the next half-century, when America was the world’s leading engine of growth, it embargoed trade, aid and investment in Cuba. And unless Aquino’s successor stops the Philippines becoming China’s Cuba, we may be shut out of the biggest source of trade, tourism, aid and investment today. And all that for absent US defense of our territorial claims.
The separatist threat
Turning to domestic security, rebellion may escalate. That seems unlikely with the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), subsuming the 2012 Framework Agreement (FAB), six Annexes, and one Addendum, to end the Moro Islamic Liberation Front insurrection. But there are three strategically worrisome aspects of the MILF deal which could pave the way for a Bangsamoro breakaway.
First, the accords have no explicit statement recognizing the Constitution. By contrast, the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front declares among Whereas statements right at the start: “…the parties affirm the sovereignty, territorial integrity and the Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines.”
Lawyers can claim implicit acceptance of the fundamental law in the new pact. But without clear and unequivocal affirmation of the Constitution, national sovereignty and territorial integrity, separatists could claim that the accord is a prelude to independence, with nothing in writing to contradict them.
Second, the FAB stipulates that the Armed Forces of the Philippines would relinquish all law enforcement functions in the Bangsamoro. This may contravene constitutional provisions declaring the AFP “protector of the people” and empowering the President to “call out such armed forces to suppress lawless violence” (see Bangsamoro Report available at email@example.com).
The pact also proposes to reduce AFP deployment in Bangsamoro, possibly making the region’s own security units its largest armed force. That police, which is not explicitly put under presidential control in the peace pact, could defend a breakaway Bangsamoro—buttressing belligerency under international law.
Third and most strategically crucial, the accord installs the separatist MILF at the helm of its implementation, sidelining the moderate MNLF. And the envisioned Bangsamoro would replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, established with clear subservience to the Republic.
No matter that the MILF demanded a sub-state and other mechanisms said to herald independence. It leads and dominates the seven-member Bangsamoro Transition Commission. And with its armed might still formidable, the MILF would wield immense clout in elections for the future regional government.
In sum, Aquino has marginalized the MNLF, which agreed to respect the Constitution, and put the separatist MILF in charge of establishing and perhaps leading the Bangsamoro. It should be no surprise if the new region might just try to break away, and the next leader might have to choose between civil war and national dismemberment.
(The last part comes out on May 2. Former Cabinet Secretary Ric Saludo has an M.S. in Public Policy & Management, University of London, and a Diploma in Strategy and Innovation, Oxford. He covered Asia as Asiaweek editor and CNN/CNBC resource person.)