This is an updated version of a column I wrote in Washington, D.C., the week before the APEC Summit in Manila, when both Malacañang and the White House seemed determined to confront China on the South China Sea issues at the distinctly economic forum. For some unexplained reason, the column never got to The Manila Times. Now, the summit is over, and the participants were able to focus on the latest upsurge of international terrorism in Paris without getting bogged down on the South China Sea question.
This is regretted by some, and President B. S. Aquino 3rd tried to make up for it by raising the issue at the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur. He was so determined to do so that — one final diplomatic gaffe or faux pas — he left Manila for KL even before the last of his honored APEC guests could leave the APEC-disabled capital. The possibility of war between China on the one hand and the United States and Japan on the other, with the Philippines getting sucked in, has yet to be written off; but it does not appear so imminent or inevitable now. Here, we examine one possible option for the Philippines.
An unthinkable proposition
This is neutrality, which until now many consider unthinkable. One analyst who asked that he not be named, and one former US senator from Alaska, who has filed a friendly intervention before the Philippine Supreme Court on the petition against the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between Manila and Washington, think this is the country’s best possible option.
The growing rivalry between the US and China, and the distinct possibility that we might get caught in the middle should it explode into a violent confrontation, endangers our very survival, say this analyst and this former senator. “I am not suggesting that the Philippines alienate itself from the United States,” former US Senator Michael Gravel said in his SC intervention, “but I think it wise to divorce itself from any military entanglements, whether with the United States, Japan, the European Union or China.”
Given the long-standing security alliance between the Philippines and the US, just to raise the idea, even for academic discussion, is bound to attract charges of anti-Americanism, if not “treason.” But patriotism and common sense demand it, the analyst said. It will be recalled that in the ‘60s, one brilliant Secretary of Foreign Affairs was given the boot even as he was accorded a long standing ovation for a speech entitled “Asia for the Asians.” He had the gumption to ask, “if Asia is not for the Asians, for whom is it?”
Sen. Gravel’s intervention
Thus, the analyst did not want to be openly identified with his advocacy. But Gravel is more forthright: he thinks EDCA places the Philippines at ‘the frictional edge’ of the world’s two conflicting superpowers. “You will be garrisoned to the hilt to back up American threats to anyone in Asia,” he said. ‘If there’s a war, the conventional phase of it would first be fought on Philippine soil housing the American military base, before moving to the nuclear phase of the war on the Chinese and American populations, in which case we are all doomed.”
The analyst fears that an air-sea battle between the US and China could erupt in the China Sea, using the maritime dispute between China and the Philippines as the excuse, but in reality being fought for regional dominance or geostrategic sphere of influence. As the oldest Asia Pacific power, and the world’s only superpower, the US with its 7th Fleet is not likely to give up its historic role in the region. And as a world economic power, and a rising regional military power, China will not want to be elbowed out of its own natural theatre.
What relationship should exist between China and the US
A more decorous relationship could be negotiated between China and the US, if they were collaborators. But they are competitors. Can a country like the Philippines offer a mutually acceptable solution? This is what the analyst would like us to explore.
The Philippines is one of China’s oldest trading partners, and at the same time a historic US military and political ally. It should be a friend and ally to both. The richest Filipinos on the Forbes magazine annual listing are nearly all of Chinese origin. The country’s major industries, and even agriculture, are in the hands of the same. Yet, if the cream of these Chinese Filipinos hold any foreign doctoral degrees at all, they are likely from the best US universities—Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, Columbia, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Caltech, Chicago, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Wharton, etc.
Until 1975, when Marcos established diplomatic relations with Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party was said to be funding, training and arming the New People’s Army and the Communist Party of the Philippines. The cessation of Chinese support to the CPP/NPA was one of the conditions for Marcos’ recognition of Beijing. On the other hand, military assistance and security support came solely from the US, with whom the Philippines had a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) signed in 1950 (and in force until now), and a military bases agreement, signed in 1947 and ended in 1991.
US-PH security ties
When the bases agreement expired in 1991, the US tried to negotiate a new treaty extending the bases by another 10 years. This was shot down by the Senate in 1992, despite President Corazon Aquino’s frenzied effort to win Senate approval. This chilled Philippine-US relations for a while until the two governments entered into a Visiting Forces Agreement in 1999. The VFA defined the terms under which US troops could visit under the MDT. As Senate Majority Leader at the time I co-sponsored the Senate resolution concurring in its ratification.
In 2014, the Aquino government signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US without the participation of the Senate. The Constitution provides that after 1991, “foreign military bases, troops or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting state.”
The agreement does not create any new bases, but allows the US to deploy its troops and facilities inside any Philippine military establishment. It also allows nuclear vessels to come and go as they please, despite the constitutional ban on nuclear weapons within the national territory. All this, to support President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”
Undoing what Aquino has done
Aquino’s mishandling of the nation’s foreign and national security policies needs to be undone. It will have to be undone by the next administration. The Philippines has just won the first round in its effort to get the UN tribunal to arbitrate its maritime conflict with China. But China has rejected the tribunal’s jurisdiction and whatever results may proceed from that. This presents a serious challenge to the next administration.
The Philippines needs to compose its own differences with China, instead of getting involved in any quarrel that is not its own. It should try to promote friendship and cooperation between China and the US, instead of getting caught in the middle of any possible confrontation. How can this be done? A non-aggression pact with Beijing or a state of neutrality would be fully in accord with the Philippine Constitution, which renounces war as an instrument of national policy.
Here, we could learn from the early American experience.
In 1793, President George Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality, which enabled his young nation to avoid the war raging between France and England. The US was militarily weak at the time, and fighting a war would have endangered its very existence.
This enabled the US to “grow from inside,” so that by 1823, it was strong enough to proclaim the Monroe Doctrine, which warned the European powers that further efforts to colonize land or interfere with states in North or South America would be regarded as acts of aggression, requiring US intervention.
From 1935 to 1939, President Roosevelt invoked the Neutrality Act again and again to avoid getting embroiled in the European wars. It was only on Sept. 11, 1941, in response to attacks by German submarines on US vessels, that Roosevelt ordered the US Navy to attack German and Italian warships “in waters which we deem necessary for our defense.”
On Oct. 31, 1941, after the Germans sank the US destroyer USS Reuben James, many provisions of the Neutrality Act were repealed, and US merchant ships were allowed to be armed to carry cargoes to belligerent nations.
On Dec. 8, 1941, the US declared war on Japan, a day after it attacked Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the US, and on the same day the US responded with similar declarations. By now the US had become a great war power, but for as long as it lasted, its neutrality had a glorious run.
Some rights and duties of neutrals
Under the Hague Convention of 1907, the territory of neutral Powers is inviolable.
Belligerents are forbidden to move troops or convoys of either munitions of war or supplies across the territory of a neutral Power.
They are, likewise, forbidden to: a) erect on said territory a wireless telegraphy station or other apparatus for the purpose of communicating with belligerents on land or sea; and b) use any installation of this kind established by them before the war on the territory of a neutral Power for purely military purposes and which has not been opened for the service of public messages.
Corps of combatants cannot be formed nor recruiting agencies opened on the territory of a neutral Power to assist the belligerents.
A neutral Power has the right and the duty to resist any attempt to violate its neutrality, even by force, without committing a hostile act.
Who are today’s neutrals?
Switzerland, which adopted its permanent armed neutrality under the 1815 Treaty of Paris, is the oldest neutral state in the world. Others include San Marino (since 1862), Leichtenstein (1868), Sweden (1918), Austria (1920), Vatican (1929), Finland (1935), Costa Rica (1949), Malta (1980), Panama (1989), Turkmenistan (1995).
Formerly neutral states include the United States, Belgium, Cambodia, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Ireland, Laos, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, and Ukraine. Unlike Switzerland, which has adopted armed neutrality permanently, these countries had chosen to be neutral in response to certain situations for certain periods only.
Effects of neutrality
Were the Philippines to become neutral, it would remove itself from the evolving conflict between China on the hand and the US and Japan on the other. It would allow a policy of equidistance from the competing Asia Pacific powers. This would enable it to develop an independent worldview and a foreign policy that looks primarily to its own interests, rather than to those of its external patrons. For the first time in its history, it would be compelled to stand on its own. This would be not without pain, but if Switzerland provides any inspiration, the end could be rewarding. It would allow the country to nourish and fulfil its own ambitions.
But it would mean dismantling the historic US-Philippine alliance, which has helped undergird the US security system in the Asia Pacific until now. This may not be bad for the Philippines at all, but this will need a government that has the courage, the resolve and the skills to convince the US that this is one great idea whose time has come.