First of three parts
Today’s visit of US President Barack Obama cements a new security relationship with the Philippines, enhancing the country’s defenses against China’s maritime incursions, while balancing the growing power of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with the increased deployment of US naval and air forces in the archipelago under Obama’s Pivot To Asia initiative.
What’s wrong with that picture? Well, for starters and in contrast to the instant challenge by American B-52 bombers against Beijing’s air defense identification zone over Japanese-held islands last November, US forces have never rattled even a jacknife during China’s takeover of Reed Bank in the 1990s and Panatag Shoal in 2012, or its attempted mini-blockade of Ayungin Shoal this year.
And we’d be dumb to think US policy will suddenly change. After all, our defense pact only covers “… an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” Nothing there about the South China Sea (see March 21 column, “Big Holes in the Mutual Defense Treaty”).
Aquino puts the nation at risk
No wonder Washington has just talked tough during Sino-Philippine tussles. It deplored Beijing’s bullying and projected itself as Asia’s guardian, but never sent even one patrol boat or trainer plane to show it meant business. And while Washington has repeatedly told Tokyo and Beijing, as Obama did last week, that it would defend Japanese-administered islands, there is no such iron-clad assurance for Manila.
America’s strategy in the Philippines is clear: Expand US forces in the archipelago to enhance their clout and range for conflicts over Japan, Korea and Taiwan. But not to defend Philippine maritime interests, which Washington doesn’t even respect (see March 31 column on deliberate US incursions in Philippine inland waters).
In the meantime, by boosting rotations of nuclear-armed American ships, submarines and aircraft with access to military bases, the Aquino administration has put our country, especially communities living near bases and major waterways, at risk of Chinese attack. He has also given the PLA the biggest reason to build up military facilities and forces in islands and waters near the Philippines: to defend vital shipping lanes from the Seventh Fleet deployed in the archipelago.
Plainly, if America and China clash over Taiwan, the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, or some other flashpoint of little concern for the Philippines, we would still be dragged into the conflict as host of US vessels and aircraft able to nuke China from our territory—a far bigger risk than confrontations in distant islets and shoals.
The President’s daunting legacy
That security nightmare—the nation caught up in big-power troubles or even a shooting war—is just one of the daunting long-term problems which President Benigno Aquino 3rd looks set to leave behind for his successor to grapple with.
Five to ten years hence, a much more powerful China could face off against America and a rearming Japan. Then it clearly would be unwise, if not suicidal, for the Philippines to host the forces of one side and invite threats and attack from the other.
Not to mention economic sanctions from China, the world’s leading growth engine today, in the same way that the previous global economic leader America embargoed Cuba for siding with Russia and nearly hosting Soviet nukes.
Other major challenges await the next Malacañang occupant. They include mounting poverty, hunger and unemployment despite high growth; neglected disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation programs; and massive corruption and smuggling at the ports, undermining border controls vital for national security, crime prevention, and economic development.
There’s more. The Bangsamoro Agreement, if implemented in full, could emasculate military units in the envisioned autonomous region. That could set the stage for secession backed by Bangsamoro security forces and foreign states recognizing the breakaway entity (April 4, 7, 9 and 11 columns).
On the other hand, if unconstitutional provisions in the deal are struck down, it could precipitate renewed hostilities, as happened in 2008. Either way, the pact could bring an even bigger conflict than the one it sought to end.
The next leader’s trust handicap
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the next administration, public trust in government has plummeted with the wanton abuse of budgetary powers and outlays by both Palace and Congress. Pork barrel funds tripled under Aquino to P24 billion a year, and were used as inducements to get pet bills passed and independent officials impeached.
The pork swelled further with Malacañang’s illegal Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), under which legislated outlays were scuttled and the hijacked funds funneled into programs and projects never budgeted by law, including pork barrel-style spending.
In addition, Aquino’s targeting of opposition leaders in his purported anti-graft effort, and his unyielding defense of allies and associates tarred in scams, have sent the unmistakable message that sleaze pays if you’re in the ruling camp.
In this partisan campaign, the people’s trust is further eroded in supposedly impartial bodies like the Ombudsman, the Commission on Audit, and the Sandiganbayan court. They have moved against Aquino’s perceived foes while sparing his friends, even as the Department of Justice and its sub-agencies have become tools of partisan politics.
In sum, institutions of democratic budgeting, official accountability, and impartial justice have been immensely, perhaps irreparably degraded in the public eye.
Say Congress, and people think of pork barrel. Say Ombudsman and Sandiganbayan, and their partiality in crushing adversaries and coddling allies comes to mind. Say Malacañang, and the online image of Budget Secretary Florencio Abad with the caption HOL-DAP ITO! (This is a hold-up!) emerges, now augmented by his reported role as scamming tutor of alleged pork barrel operator Janet Lim Napoles.
What handicaps for the next leader to start with! A security pact that invites attack and sanctions. Undiminished poverty in an expanding economy. Neglected disaster and climate change imperatives. Ports porous to contraband goods, guns and drugs. A legally dubious peace pact that could trigger separatist war. And public trust shot down by a Congress pork-barreled by the President, politicized constitutional bodies, plus tainted elections, biased mainstream media, and suspect opinion polls.
In this three-part article, we recount and analyze how this legacy of ills arose and what they portend for the nation and the next administration. Those vying for the thankless presidency would do well to read up on the headaches awaiting the one who wins it.
(The next two parts will be published on Wednesday and Friday.)