The Philippines has hit the crossroads. As the 12th biggest country in the world population-wise, the 3rd biggest Christian nation, and the 39th biggest economy, it is now slowly making its way to the world stage.
Strategic location of a frontline state
Strategically located geophysically, it lies in the center of the East and West China Seas and has been dubbed the Pearl of the Orient. For this very reason the United States once made this country a garrison or frontline state which in the recent past provided berthing facilities for the mightiest armada the world – the 7th fleet and the largest airbase outside the continental USA. These facilities made this country the most forward position of the US defense system vis-à-vis the Chinese mainland.
Today our former colonizer hopes to pre-position its war materiel through a new defense agreement with this nation in order to contain the emerging dragon in North Asia which has extended her defense perimeter to cover West Philippine Sea islets claimed by this nation.
Promoting a balanced foreign policy
Against the unfolding scenario above how should this country position itself? Should it promote a diplomatic equilibrium or balanced international relations? Looking exclusively to the East means perpetuating our military alliance with the US under a mutual defense agreement, which is sui generis [in a class by itself, unique], and joining the band wagon of the US inspired Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP. Looking to the West on the other hand means our delinking from historic military alliances and sailing with the rest of the Asean countries on the Chinese reconstructed silk route with its sweetener – the Chinese equitized Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank or AIIB plus the Chinese proposal for a multilaterally managed development of resources in the China Seas.
Today policy makers seem to be wrestling with the horns of a dilemma. Should this country take on a hard stand vis-a-vis China using a unilateral track through legal arbitration or the multilateral track using creative diplomacy which necessarily requires negotiation? The fear among old allies is that these initiatives that begins with the adoption by this country of a zone of peace, progress and neutrality of the ZOPFAN model, is a slippery slope that can easily draw this nation into the vortex of a Chinese-led Southeast Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, a dream that the Japanese in World War Two could not accomplish by force of arms. They fear that this would knock the wind from the sails of the Obama pivot to Asia and the dilution of the US – led APEC initiatives in the region.
A false dilemma?
Some observers believe that by riding to horses this country will be split in the middle. This is a false dilemma. Promoting trade with both the east and the west is a win-win situation rather than a zero-sum game whereby one player will gain all at the expense of the other as in a beggar-my-neighbor policy regime. The case of the Galleon Trade of the past showed that the Chinese and the Mexicans mutually gained from the trilateral trade regime with this country benefiting substantially from its entrepot trade activity.
Indeed participating in regional arrangements like AEC, the US -inspired APEC and the Chinese promoted New Silk Route can only increase levels of productivity incomes and employment in the Asia-Pacific which is the best antidote to conflict and confrontation.
Vis pacis para bellum [If you want peace, prepare for war]
As this nation takes its seat in the community of nations, we will have to strengthen security arrangements in order to preserve the integrity of the archipelago and be ready to challenge all comers as we have done repeatedly in the history of this nation which has never been conquered. The victory of the Americans in Tirad Pass and the Japanese in Bataan and Corregidor were Pyrrhic victories that never resulted in the subjugation of our 7,000 islands.
The Spaniards never conquered with the sword but succeeded with the cross. The Americans failing to occupy all the islands co-opted the politically-entrenched economic elite which rule the country by proxy to this day. Will the Chinese without the use of force, conquer the nation? The answer is a categorical no, but our suspicion is that they will try to control the economy through their Binondo-based proxies and the Taipan community which has considerable investments in the Chinese mainland. This is not necessarily bad for a country which is trying very hard to attract foreign direct investment, to the extent that it is even contemplating revising the constitution to accommodate foreign direct investments.
To seek peace as the saying goes one must prepare for war. If the ragtag force of Aguinaldo slowed down the advance of the Americans all over the archipelago during the Fil-American war and the small USAFFE and ROTC pinned down the Japanese in Bataan and Corregidor for months, a citizen army of some three million trained ROTCs, properly equipped, will surely make it very costly for any invader. This will however require a realistic budget and the establishment of a military industrial complex which can embark on a progressive armaments manufacturing industry in the country. More importantly, this can finally end a culture of mendicancy which has encouraged the myth that our external defense will be taken care of by longtime allies.
A new National Security Act
National security is the task of the citizenry and cannot be left entirely to any administration. Security today encompasses military, economic, social and even political. A national security council must therefore include representation from the above sector and must meet regularly to assess security issues. A new National Security Act will be required to institutionalize participation of sectoral representatives and to craft a long term security strategy for the nation.
Jose V. Romero, PhD., is a professor at then University of Asia and the Pacific. He is the chairman of the Philippine Council on Foreign Relations. He has served as Philippine ambassador to Italy.