Is neutrality an option for the Philippines?

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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.

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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.

US neutrality  

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.

fstatad@gmail.com

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15 Comments

  1. The road to neutrality of Switzerland was not an easy experiment. It took almost 400 years and 5 foreign invasions after the country declared its neutrality status before it succeeded to its present form. Switzerland is a unique case that is not easy to duplicate and neutrality in itself is not a guarantee from any foreign invasion.

    Can neutrality work in a country of 100 million people where 40% are starving poor population? Can neutrality work for a country that owes billions to international bankers? Can neutrality work for a country when hit by a storm, would run to its closest neighbor for help? These are just a few questions “neutrality proponents” need to think about because being out of the community of nations is a whole lot different ballgame.

    The Philippines is not in any shape or form a country whose constitution needs to be changed or modified every 20 years. It has a constitution deeply rooted towards a strong and stable democracy that was borrowed from the US. But what needs to be changed is peoples attitudes. The basic foundation of honesty is lacking in the Filipino mindset. This is an ogre that Filipinos need to tame otherwise the country is doomed.

  2. Neutrality could be a great idea, a way of rational thinking the main purpose is to save your skin, but on the second thought neutrality is an act of cowardice, weakness and fear. A small guys like we Filipinos have no choice but to pray for peace, the power of prayer is the best of the best. That’s the only way.

  3. Pres. Aquino knows what is best for our country. He has the balls to confront China.
    We can’t be neutral to a country who has taken some of islands within 200 miles of economic zone. This is not only done to our country but to other countries as well.
    If push come to shove I would like to see people who are clandestinely supporting China to be flushed out or exposed.

  4. Mariano Patalinjug on

    Yonkers, New York
    23 November 2015

    Neutrality?

    How can the Philippines remain neutral in a possible military confrontation between China and the United States over what China is doing arrogantly and illegally in the South China Sea–the West Philippine Sea in particular–when it is the Spratlys archipelago which the Philippines claims is part of its territory under International Law [UNCLOS] which China is grabbing?

    If the Philippines were not that naked or defenseless militarily, its immediate response to China’s invasion and occupation of parts of its territory should have been to declare war against China.

    The problem there is that the Philippines is “naked” or “defenseless” in the military sense because it is one of the poorest countries in the world and is in no position to defend itself from a wealthy and powerful aggressor like China.

    And so, acutely aware of its situation, the Philippines has entered into a military alliance with the United States under a Mutual Defense Treaty. A wise move, indeed. And recently in Manila where attended APEC, President Barack Obama publicly declared that the United States is committed to defend the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries. Just as in the World War II, the US and the Philippines will be close allies in the event of a US-China military confrontation.

    At the same time, however, being a member in good standing of the United Nations, the Philippines has wisely opted to bring its territorial-dispute case against China to the UN Permanent Arbitral Tribunal [ITLOS] for a peaceable, lawful, amicable and civilized resolution of the dispute.

    China has denounced this move on the part of the Philippines–and it has arrogantly refused to participate in the proceedings of the Tribunal. But just recently, the Tribunal has ruled that it has “jurisdiction” over the case.

    Thus, NEUTRALITY is no longer a credible or practical or judicious option for the Philippines. For the Philippines, the “die is already cast.” Put another way, the Philippines has already “crossed the Rubicon.” It will be on the side of the United States as a reliable and true ally.

    MARIANO PATALINJUG
    patalinjugmar@gmail.com

  5. China and US will not go into war. Both knows the capability of each other, beside there is already a realignment of superpower forces. A war with China with US can immediately escalate into a world war involving US and its allies and likewise, Russia and its allies. With the amount of Nuclear weapons available in the arsenals of these superpowers, a war could only mean the end of mankind where there is no winner as what Einstein predicted, he said that ” I don’t know the outcome of WW3 but i know that next war after WW3 will be fought by sticks and stones”.

  6. Now our foreign policy is a mess up.. Mahirap talaga ang Presidenteng walang alam sa mga ganyan problema.. Now again , grace poe wants to be president. Only Merriam defensor and Bong Bong Marcos were most qualified candidate to serve our country.
    Feed your mind people. Kung sino talaga ang karapat daapat na mamuno na may kakayahan at hindi porke popular or sikat, pero wala nmn kakayahan na mamuno sa bansa, pwede ba alisin na natin ang gnitong mentality. Be smart and wise for voting candidates..Ang ating bansa is in deep mess.. ayaw sabihin talaga ng mga dilawan ang katotohanan..pinagloloko pa rin nila ang mga tao para sa kanilang interest at hindi sa bayan…at mamayan..

    • Your wrong here. H has the best military intelligence that our country can offer plus the support of our natural ally US. It’s time to step up the plate and identify yourself whether you can go to war and protect our country or not.

  7. Kung ang Japan hindi kayang maging neutral, tayo pa kaya, lalo na kung palagi nalang mga dilaw na puro mga tuta ng Kano ang may hawak ng kapangyarihan. The president who traverses the road to neutrality will most likely be ousted, meet an accident, die of an illness or just get the old fashioned bullet in the head like JFK. Kung minamalas pa tayo we might get invaded by the US army like Iraq, or by a mercenary army clothed as terrorists like Libya and Syria. Geopolitics is like chess, it takes not only guts but brains to be neutral without appearing to be, precisely because hindi papayag ang Kano. The first step is to put Miriam or Duterte and Bongbong in power.

    • Also South Korea,Singapore, Uk,Australia, Taiwan, However I disagree from your view regarding US invading the Philippines that is not the kind of mind set the people of America. They are blessed Nation due to their God fearing instituted constitution and God fearing leaders and people.Supporting the God instituted laws to govern the conduct of nations. Only a nation who is godless will do the invasion of our Nation or other Nations. They disregard and don’t honer international law even they are one of the signatory just to dominate the for their own survival without regards to other Nations survival. That is the kind of mind set our enemy have. We must ignite our patriotism by invoking that all those who reside and enrich themselves in the Philippines must support our national interest and security.Not any other Nation otherwise they will be charge of committing treason! But I agree with your view that we need the constitutional expertise of Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago and the leadership navigation of Sen. Bongbong Marcos! God Bless our nation and protect us from Evil intents of Godless Nations! Mabuhay ang ating Bansang Pilipinas!!!

  8. hindi papayag ang KANO na magiging neutral tayo. remember: philippines was the only of USA and it is still interfering with our affairs. our country is still under the control of uncle sam whether we like it or not. until and unless that we have a government that can shed off the american mantle then we are really a hopeless nation. look how pnoy kowtowed to obama during the recent apec. look how many of our presidents were chosen by USA. minalas lang tayo na ang america ang nakarating sa atin.

    REPLY
    Pero kailangang gawin natin, Mr. or Ms. kokis

    • i agree we have to do it. but there has to be a transformation and it will require a revolution: change the constitution to basically attend to the needs of the filipino people only, by having: 1.a total ban on political dynasty(only one member in the family must be allowed to run. relatives shall not be allowed to run either simultaneously or subsequenty. and a 5 year term with no reelection for any position; 2. a total revamp of our electoral process (manual voting and electronic transmission of results; 3. strict qualifications for those running for public office (college graduates with civil service eligibility; 4. a unicameral legislative body; 5. a two party system; 6. a rejection of any vfa or edca or any defense treaty with any country; 7. dismantling the oligarchy in business and commerce. then maybe we can start thinking of being a neutral country. truly yours and thanks. mr. kokis

    • Agree. PH is still a protectorate of the US. It’s their first line of defense. Whether we like it or not. Personally I can’t be neutral now that Chinese leaders (mainland) are screwing us up.
      There are already Chinese spies in our country who are preparing for any eventuality. Some of them will probably run away with their billions to China or elsewhere like what Dewey Dee did back in early 80’s. Dewey Dee is the textile magnate who sneaked out of the country after swindling several government and private institutions..

  9. Clearly the Philippines can accept Chinese ownership of its fishing areas. The Philippines can give China all the real and man made islands. The Philippines can even ask to join China under the one country two systems idea that is so popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

    AMERICA has no interest in saving the Philippines if it chooses to become the Chinapines instead of the Philippines.

    REPLY
    YOU ARE RIGHT. Anyway, the whole Philippines is already owned by Chinese–the Sys, the Indonesian Chinese bosses of MV Pangilinan, The Lucio Tan Group of companies, the Lucio Co chain of Pure Gold stores and SR Price and Costco, the Metro Bank Group of the Tys, the Gatchalians, the Gotianuns, the Sycips like good old Washington who is proAmerican but can olso swing to proChina, like the whole Makati MBC group, etcetera etcetera.
    But the best policy is to be NEUTRAL as proposaded by former senator Tatad.