Fourth in a series covering national concerns: Last part of article on territorial frictions
Part 1 of this article presented two strategies in dealing with China: cooperation and cordiality during the Arroyo administration, and confrontation in the current Aquino government. Which is more likely to deliver the nation’s paramount security imperatives: avoiding war, maintaining access to essential goods and services, especially trade and travel; safeguarding territorial and economic rights, and enhancing foreign relations for security, investment, development, and the rights and welfare of Filipinos abroad.
Cooperation may seem to avoid conflict and preserve foreign relations. But can it prevent encroachment on Philippine territory in the Spratlys, as well as our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and extended continental shelf (ECS) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)?
Confrontation has raised Philippine claims and UNCLOS issues to world attention. It has mobilized military support from the United States and Japan, plus tens of billions of pesos in defense purchases and upgrading.
Despite all that, China has taken over our Panatag Shoal, and expanded facilities and land in occupied areas. Chinese-held Fiery Cross Reef, once a mostly submerged outcrop, now dwarfs all Spratly islands, including Taiwan-held Itu Aba, once the biggest (see graphic from “Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy,” by the US Defense Department, showing islands or reefs held by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and China).
In evaluating these two strategies, three crucial risk factors may be good to focus on: war, violations of territorial and economic rights, and adverse actions on Philippine interests abroad, including overseas Filipino workers.
‘Do bases endanger Filipinos?’
Cooperation obviously avoids war, but confrontation has also skirted hostilities, since President Benigno Aquino 3rd, while talking tough on Chinese encroachments, aims to pursue Philippine claims and interests only by peaceful means like its suit at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) questioning Beijing’s Nine-Dash Line claiming most of the South China Sea.
But while peaceful confrontation may avoid hostilities in the Spratlys, Aquino’s policy of beefing up defense with greater US military deployment and access to bases could lead to conflict in the main archipelago itself. Plainly, American forces and facilities in the country could be attacked by adversaries, even if the Philippines is not in conflict with those enemies.
In 1975, then President Ferdinand Marcos said of US military bases in the country (quoted by fellow columnist Ambassador Jose Romero on Tuesday): “… does this not expose the Philippines to the animosities, suspicious and the conflicts arising out of the American military build-up — animosities and conflicts that we have no participation in making — and do not these bases endanger the safety of the Filipinos and the Philippines, not only from conventional armed attack, but from possible nuclear attack?”
Fast-forward four decades later. Under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed during President Barack Obama’s visit in April last year, the US is allowed to increase rotations of its forces in the country, and to use Philippine bases. Armed Forces Chief General Gregorio Catapang listed eight facilities picked by the Americans, including three in Central Luzon, one in Zambales, and two each in Palawan and Cebu.
In hostilities with, say, China or North Korea, US naval and air force assets in the country and the bases they use would be legitimate targets, even if the conflicts do not involve the Philippines.
Even without a shooting war, nuclear-capable American ships, submarines and aircraft in the country would be in China’s missile sights. Reason: From Philippine territory, US projectiles can threaten Chinese shipping in the South China Sea, including four-fifths of the country’s oil imports, plus most of China itself.
Thus, the next President must assess if it is wise to risk attack on the entire archipelago, just to have more US forces around. Especially since the Americans have never ever backed the Philippines against China. Washington has long avoided taking sides in our territorial frictions, not just in the Spratlys, but also in Sabah. And that may well have encouraged Chinese moves on the high seas, including the unprecedented reclamation.
Is the Philippines China’s Cuba?
In assessing the confrontation policy and the EDCA, future leaders may wish to study how the US treated Cuba for nearly hosting Soviet atomic weapons in 1962, and for fomenting anti-American Marxist revolution in Latin America.
The United States shut Cuba out of its economy, the world’s main engine of growth in the last half of the 20th Century. Washington also used its preeminent geopolitical and diplomatic clout to isolate Havana, curtailing international aid and blocking Cuban participation in international bodies and events.
By hosting nuclear-capable American forces and campaigning against China on the global stage, is the Philippines becoming China’s Cuba? Do we risk being shut out of the leading global growth engine for the next half-century?
Beijing isn’t going that route yet, probably waiting to see how the next Philippine government would act. Meanwhile, Washington and Tokyo are revving up military and economic assistance and cooperation, perhaps hoping to persuade Filipino leaders to implement the EDCA and even allow rotating Japanese forces.
One final consideration in dealing with global powers like China: Does international pressure work on them? Russia is resisting Western sanctions over its aggression in Ukraine. And even in international agreements, superpowers can simply go against the global grain.
Take the US. It signed but has not ratified the UNCLOS. It opposes certain provisions, including one that confers territorial rights on the waters within the baselines of archipelagic states like the Philippines and Indonesia. And every year, the US Navy sails into those waters in violation of UNCLOS, with the Philippines being intruded into more than any other Asian nation, as the Pentagon has reported to Congress.
If America does that to an ally, can military pressure and world disapproval make China behave any better?