IF there is war in Korea, will the Philippines take America’s side?
Asked exactly that last week, Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said: “As of now, we’re not prepared to say which side we will be on, other than … we want the UN charter followed, we want all parties to refrain from the use of force, we want all parties to utilize peaceful means in resolving this dispute.”
Let’s hope Secretary Roque’s remark got to Pyongyang’s rocket man. Then maybe we won’t be on the priority target list of Kim Jong-un’s projectiles, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s tough talk against North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development.
The heat over Kim’s rocketing ambitions flared up again after he launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, which climbed over 4,000 km before dropping into the Sea of Japan—theoretically able to reach the continental United States.
Minutes after the ICBM launch, South Korean warplanes promptly conducted practice air strikes in waters east of Korea, flying as far as the launch site was from their air base. Also keeping the pressure on Pyongyang, this week US and South Korean air forces will hold military exercises.
In times like this, one can appreciate President Duterte’s independent foreign policy of taking no sides in big power rivalry, and thus moving the Philippines off the firing line in Asia’s potential hotspots.
First of all, reduce threats
That’s one of six crucial thrusts of the Duterte administration which are moving to enhance and strengthen the security of the Philippines now and in the future. These fundamental policy directions may not seem to matter much to national defense, and are even attacked by those claiming to be patriots. But think them through, and one can see why and how they will make us safer and stronger.
First of these policy thrusts is President Duterte’s controversial independent foreign policy. It reversed the past administration’s headlong rush to become America’s military platform in Asia, mended fences with China, and cultivated warm relations and even military cooperation with all big powers.
That accomplished the first aim of any security policy: reduce threats. By keeping nuclear-capable American naval and air forces out of the country, and making friends with China and Russia, President Duterte lessened potential hostilities with two major powers.
And by openly affirming his trust that Beijing would desist from further island-building and militarization in the South China Sea, Duterte has put the onus on the Chinese to behave, and they largely have done so.
Strategy No. 2: Engage China through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Not by stirring up anti-China agitation, as then-President Benigno Aquino 3rd did, but by pressing for a Code of Conduct to reduce tensions, avoid conflict, and boost confidence and cooperation in the South China Sea.
Skeptics argue that China would never agree to a binding Code constricting its military power on the high seas. But just as Duterte’s declaration of trust in Beijing prods it to show good faith, it also has to seriously work with Asean in crafting a credible and effective Code, or else dialogue loses, and the region turns to armaments and powerful allies to counter China.
Third on Duterte’s defense-enhancing thrusts is regional security cooperation. Instead of depending on a superpower ally that is in rivalry with China, thus making the latter an adversary, the Philippines is engaging a wide range of nations, China included, in military exchanges.
Japan is rapidly becoming the leading source of major external security hardware, with its donation or loan of some two dozen aircraft and patrol vessels to the country. Beijing has not objected, since Japan is not a strategic threat to China and will not put forces in the Philippines.
China and Russia are also providing weapons and equipment, possibly including the country’s first submarine from Moscow. Also of great importance are the joint air and sea patrols with Indonesia and Malaysia, now targeting terrorists and pirates, but can also help secure maritime economic zones in future.
Richer and stronger
Asia-pacing economic growth is also a Duterte thrust, but how is that supposed to help defend the archipelago. No prizes of answering that a wealthy nation can buy or build better armaments without starving its people.
Thanks to the Arroyo-era fiscal reforms in 2006, the Philippines was able to buy more attack planes and choppers, patrol boats, and tanks in succeeding years. And with even more resources under Duterte’s tax reforms and growth push, the country may finally be able to acquire the maritime surveillance aircraft, anti-ship missiles, and air defense systems long urged by Washington defense experts.
Former National Security Adviser and Parañaque congressman Roilo Golez, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, has advocated buying about 200 supersonic anti-ship missiles from India. Mounted three on a truck, the BrahMos projectile can hit targets more than 300 km away — enough to guard the country’s exclusive economic zone.
The last two Duterte initiatives seem focused on domestic peace and order, but they too greatly enhance external defense. The current war on extremist terrorism and communist insurgency, if they finally put these decades-old violent movements to pasture, would finally enable the Armed Forces to channel AFP resources to defending our territory and sovereign rights.
So, instead of expending tens of billions of pesos yearly on small arms and foot soldiers, once peace is concluded with Muslim rebels, and war is won against Islamic State cohorts and the New People’s Army, the military can then build up air and naval forces needed to assert and defend our maritime interests.
What about the anti-drug war? How will dismantling the narcotics networks, including their protectors in government, supposed to fight off foreign invaders?
Two ways. First, by tightening border controls to stop contraband, we keep out not just drugs and drug-making materials and equipment, but also guns, explosives, and other war-making gear.
But more important, in taking down narco-politicians, President Duterte is stopping the takeover of our democracy by shabu-funded officials under the thumb of overseas drug cartels, which could very well be used by big powers to influence and control our government.
Plainly, the war on drugs is also a battle against foreign control.
One can now see why our soldiers and police support President Rodrigo Duterte.