They’re missing the global picture. Advocates of hosting US forces and joining them in sea patrols to challenge China should open their eyes to the increasingly heated geopolitical tinderbox. It’s really scary, and one has to wonder why the Philippines would want to be on the firing line of what may happen next. Just consider these recent news.
Russia has moved nuclear-capable M-Iskandar missiles near its border with Poland and Lithuania, two members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance led by the United States. Russia has also simulated pre-emptive nuclear attacks on hostile assets, and recently conducted a nationwide wartime evacuation drill with 40 million government people.
In Syria, Moscow backs embattled President Bashir Assad against rebels supported by the West. There, Russia has deployed its advanced S330 anti-aircraft rockets to protect Assad’s forces and Russian warplanes backing them. If US and allied jets again attack the Syrian military, as it did a few weeks ago, Russia would shoot them down.
Seasoned superpower watchers are agreed that relations between America and Russia are at their lowest since the Cold War ended after Moscow’s communist empire broke up a quarter-century ago. The leader whose glasnost reforms triggered the Soviet meltdown, former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, just on Monday said that the world has reached a “dangerous point” amid US-Russia tensions.
Asia’s military drills heat up
What about Asia? Military exercises with the US have been around for years, even decades for some allies. But things are heating up. Soon after President Rodrigo Duterte said he would stop joint patrols with the US, Japan said it wanted to join the Americans, provoking a strong response from China.
The biannual US-hosted Rim of the Pacific maneuvers is the largest in the world. In July and August, RIMPAC involved 26 nations, the most ever, with more than 40 ships and submarines, 200 aircraft, and 25,000 naval personnel. There are also the yearly CARAT drills with Southeast Asian allies, and the Cobra Gold in Thailand in February, another of the world’s biggest exercises, with seven nations as main participants, and 21 others in limited roles.
Just weeks before the latest US-Philippines Balikatan exercise, Russia and China had their biggest naval workout, following the April agreement by their defense ministers to hold more joint drills. And the People’s Liberation Army Navy mounted a 300-vessel exercise in August, in preparation for a “cruel and short war” in the East China Sea, where Beijing claims the Senkaku/Daioyutai islands under Tokyo’s control.
And things could very well go beyond mere drills, depending on who wins the US presidential elections in November. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who leads many polls, is seen as likely to play tough with Russia and China.
The Washington Times, a conservative paper, headlined recently: “A vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for war with Russia, China, others.” As Secretary of State, Clinton implemented the Obama administration’s Pivot To Asia policy to enhance alliances and build up military capabilities in the region. In that campaign, she pushed the South China Sea tensions to the front burner in regional conferences, to Beijing’s displeasure.
As for her Republican rival Donald Trump, his volatility and unconventional manner would also provoke international tensions if he should become President. He has said that he would take strong measures against imports from China, almost surely provoking a trade war, plus financial reprisals — Beijing is the largest holder of US Treasury bills outside America.
Trump has also said that he would ask US allies to pay for the protection of American forces, or he would pull them back. Whether he actually means that, the upshot is more uncertainty ahead if Trump waltzes into the White House.
Whoever becomes US Commander-in-Chief in January, the American military is about as hawkish as those of its top global rivals. Said US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley recently: “I want to be clear to those who wish to do us harm… the United States military – despite all of our challenges, despite our tempo, despite everything we have been doing – we will stop you and we will beat you harder than you have ever been beaten before. Make no mistake about that.”
Plainly, the guys with the guns in Washington, Moscow and Beijing aren’t in any mood for tea and cupcakes.
Get the nation off the gunsights
With big-power tensions and forces surging all around, President Rodrigo Duterte is right to look beyond the domestic preoccupation with Chinese actions in the Spratlys. Judging from his swing away from America and toward good relations with China and Russia, he may well be positioning the Philippines out of the firing line, should there be hostilities between these nuclear-girded giants.
And fighting could ignite and quickly escalate even before any declaration of war, as the US Army-sponsored RAND report, “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable,” argued recently. It said that military capabilities on both sides are so advanced, they are capable of inflicting great damage on opposing forces. Hence, “both have an incentive to strike enemy forces before being struck by them” < http://www.manilatimes.net/the-war-report-president-duterte-must-read/280564/ >.
So while President Duterte is constitutionally bound to undertake measures defending Philippine territory and exclusive maritime zones, as Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio rightly stressed, the Chief Executive must make sure he does not violate a far greater imperative, as clearly stated in Article II, Section 4: “The prime duty of the Government is to serve and protect the people.”
If holding joint maritime patrols with the US, escalating rotations of nuclear-capable American vessels and aircraft, and giving them access to Philippine military bases consequently make the country a legitimate target in any American conflict with China or any other power, President Duterte is duty-bound to review those inherited arrangements, and devise other ways to protect our patrimony without putting Filipinos at grave risk.
That is his paramount constitutional, presidential and moral duty.