The most ingenious statement I heard at the breakfast forum sponsored by the Philippine-BRICS Strategic Studies last Thursday at the Kamuning Bakery was that of George Siy, chairman emeritus of the Integrated Development Studies Institute (IDSI) and of Anvil Business Club, Director of Trade and Industry of the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FFCCI). The renowned industrialist and leading entrepreneur with interests in housing, technology, and service businesses in garments, food, and beauty, declared in response to a question: “Peace is nothing but development.”
To put the statement otherwise would be to say where there is no development, there is war.
The recent outbreak of hostilities between government forces and Islamist militants in Marawi City drives home this point. Marawi City is a part of Mindanao that until now is reputed to be the most neglected region of the country. Combined elements of the Abu Sayaff and the Maute Group took over the city to prevent soldiers from arresting Islamist militant leader Isnilon Hapilon, allegedly one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. The hostilities have already exacted death and injuries on both sides, damage to property and chaos and confusion among the population.
To top all this, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law over the whole of Mindanao – spawning waves of protests by students and militant activists in Metro Manila and elsewhere in the Philippines.
It is in these circumstances that the One Belt, One Road initiative of China comes into play in the Philippines. Probably even without meaning it, China takes on the difficult task of peacemaking in the country in a situation of highly heightened world tension.
In early April, United States President Donald Trump ordered Tomahawk cruise missiles target strikes against a Syrian airfield that had been traced as the source of chemical weapons attack at an ISIS rebel camp, injuring scores of civilians. US military authorities hailed the strikes as 100% successful, with the 59 Tomahawk missiles hitting their 59 “intended targets.”
As far as I could recall, that was the first military strike overtly committed by the US against the Assad regime and, therefore, an admission at long last that the Syrian civil war has actually been a proxy war between it and the Soviet Union, which is resolute in keeping Assad in power against all machinations by the US to unseat him.
Right after the missiles attack, a giant US aircraft carrier was deployed to the waters of the North Korean peninsula apparently in anticipation of a possible belligerent response from Kim Jung-Un. The Abu Sayyaf terror group indicated a heightening of its own belligerence in the Philippines against the Duterte government. By that time, the Abu Sayyaf had made no bones about its link with the ISIS, which had been exposed as secretly trained, armed and funded by the US for the purpose of ousting Assad. If the ISIS serves to advance the US strategy against the Soviet Union in the proxy war that is the Syrian civil strife, can the Abu Sayyaf be in turn advancing, too, that same US position, this time in what can be a US-schemed extension in the Philippines of the US-Soviet proxy war in Syria which had been raging since 2012?
I nursed a growing perception of this concern as soon as President Trump ordered the Tomahawk target strikes and the Abu Sayyaf made its presence in Mindanao more strongly felt. There just was this confluence between the two phenomena that went beyond mere coincidence. What Trump did had a bearing on what the Abu Sayyaf threw itself into. What was it?
I hit a blank wall. This was to be expected. Investigative journalism is fine, but intelligence is something else, a lot more difficult undertaking. Most especially if what you are casing is the topnotch intelligence organization CIA. If the KGB gets a really hard time detecting Russia’s penetration by CIA operatives, who is one columnist to pretend to be able to do better? For this reason, I had devised a method of analysis whereby without delving into the nitty-gritty of facts, I am able to discern with a great degree of certainty what’s to come as an offshoot of a perceivable social development.
For instance, when President Duterte reports to the nation that Chinese President Xi Jinping threatened to go to war if the Philippines starts digging oil in the South China Sea, I see this as uncharacteristic of the conduct of diplomatic affairs. War threats carried out between two heads of state are so delicate they had to be treated with meticulous care. These threats are settled on a high-level of diplomacy, kept out of reach of the public. For this reason, the danger of the United States war with Japan in World War II was confined to discussions between top diplomats of the two countries and did not get the attention of the American public until after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. In practice, nations don’t threaten; they just make wars. So the phenomenon that President Duterte has an easy time disclosing to the Filipino nation the supposed war threat from China shows the disclosure is being made without any anticipation of the issue breaking out into something really serious. For the Filipino people, that’s assurance enough that China cannot be seriously contemplating war against the Philippines. China is the country of Sun Tzu whose Art of War bears heavily upon Chinese military strategists. And among Sun Tzu’s mandates is to attack when the enemy least expects it. President Xi Jinping cannot be seriously intending to launch war against the Philippines and at the same time making this intention known early on.
China must realize that the Philippines is in no position to fight. And China has had no history of warring against a nation that does not first declare war against it. Since the Philippines won’t declare war against China first, China definitely won’t declare war against the Philippines.
If at all, China’s threat cannot but be directed at the nation that is the party-in-interest in the South China Sea conflict, and that party-in-interest is the United States of America. It was the United States that had prompted the previous administration of President Benigno Aquino 3rd to bring the South China Sea case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, already anticipating legal victory and thus, eventual United Nations clout for implementation of the PCA ruling favorable to the Philippines. Alas, but President Rodrigo Duterte appeared insubordinate to the US unlike his immediate predecessor. He courageously proclaimed to the world his separation from the United States and his shift to China and Russia in striking up geopolitical alliances. Needless to say, this has brought him, or so it seems, in deep animosities with the US and its western allies.
That was the situation President Duterte was in when he visited Russia last week: a former US ally striking up camaraderie with the US enemy it was actually hitting with Trump’s order of Tomahawk target strikes in Syria early April. For the United States which had been regarding the Filipino nation as its vassal state, Duterte’s Russian visit sent a belligerent signal that should merit corresponding animosity. Hence, on the very day that Russia acquiesced to the Philippine President’s plea for arms support, the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group launched their occupation of Marawi City, an action that they sustain up to the time of this writing.
I have always maintained that history does not happen; it is made. The occupation of Marawi City by Islamist militants did not just happen; it was made. It was made to deliver the one single message to President Duterte: just you try it.
President Duterte however proved equal to the situation. He faced up to the masters commanding the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group, swiftly declaring martial law all over Mindanao.
In one respect, President Duterte is justified in this action. Doing a reprise of President Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1972, his declaration to protect the people in doing so is credible, understandable, tolerable; after all, he’s got only sixty days to see it through, after which Congress takes over. But in another respect, can’t he actually be playing into a US scheme to create chaos in the Philippines just the way the Syrian civil war erupted in 2012, leading to sorry state it is today?
In any case, the process has only just begun and where the Marawi crisis will lead to is contingent upon factors that are inevitably coming into play.
A burgeoning Duterte authoritarianism is one factor. As George Siy puts it: “The form of government. Democratic or authoritarian, it doesn’t matter. Singapore, Vietnam, China have high investments even though they are authoritarian.”
Siy believes that as a rule, when uncertainties arise, businessmen withhold investments, but only for a moment. “They do not wait for a totally riskless situation, but rather aim to manage risk.
They will invest if they see an opportunity in a profitable market, productivity of an overall ecosystem, stability of policy, continuity,” Siy states.
In this sense, therefore, the truly overbearing factor in what development the Philippines will take under the Duterte presidency is the persistence China manifests in seeing its One Belt, One Road initiative through in the country. Though not as massive as the financial and developmental undertakings China has done in Pakistan, for instance, its investments in the Philippine certainly no longer amount to token ones and have already been programmed. As President Duterte is not about to let go of any opportunities he has painstakingly earned from his dealings with China, so is China not about ready to abandon significant ground already firmed up with the Philippines in matters of the country’s economic developments. These developments have been touched upon in earlier columns and no longer need elaboration in this instance. Suffice it to say that with China’s resolve to push its One Belt, One Road initiative the world over, harbingers of war are doomed to fail.