PHL: A near-failed state used by the US


That’s just one of the depressing references to our country in the recently released book “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific” by Robert D. Kaplan, one of America’s top geopolitical analysts and foreign-affairs journalists.

Kaplan isn’t portraying the Philippines, as we would want to, as a David nobly and bravely fighting a Goliath, the good kid fighting the bully in the region—China.

Rather, our nation “is a semi-failed entity with weak institutions and an extremely weak military” the US is exploiting as a pawn to maintain its dominance in Asia and check the emergence of China as the superpower in the region.

Another of Kaplan’s references would throw cold water on Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario’s melodramatic appeal to international law to resolve our territorial dispute with China:

That’s “the ultimate demonstration of (the Philippines’) weakness, ” Kaplan writes.

The book should be a must-read for our intellectual elite and for our foreign affairs officials, and very especially for our foreign secretary who thinks, and even speaks, like a conservative American so much so that in the recesses of his mind, he probably thinks he works for the US State Department.
Kaplan’s book cannot be pooh-poohed, and an indication of its must-read status is that most US and British publications reviewed the book a week after its release. Having written more than a dozen books on geopolitics and global security, Kaplan is a respected and much-read neoconservative writer, one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. From 2009 to 2011, he was a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board advising the US Defense Secretary. He’s certainly not an isolationist nor a pinko, having been one of the leading pundits who supported the US invasion of Iraq.

If del Rosario reads the book, there would be a glimmer of hope that he would reconsider his catastrophic monochromatic “what-is-ours-is-ours”, “the-law-and-the-Americans-are-behind-us” foreign policy.

Kaplan explains why the US has become seemingly so concerned about our territorial dispute with China, and even egging us on to be tough:

Why US is involved

“The United States got involved ostensibly because it sought to protect a legal, rules-based order enshrining freedom of navigation, which the nine-dashed line appeared to threaten.

“In fact, the real problem that the Americans have had with China was its expanding submarine base at Hainan Island in the northwestern corner of the South China Sea, which is home to both the latest diesel-electric submarines as well as nuclear ballistic missile subs. Largely because of that base, and because China’s deployment of more and more submarines threatened American power projection in the region, the United States pushed back in the guise of strengthening ties to the smaller littoral countries, offering to mediate these nettlesome maritime disputes in 2010. In 2011, the United States announced a “pivot” to the Pacific from the Middle East.”

But the US lost its major foothold in Asia, which could have been the terra firma for its pivot. The Philippines threw out in 1992 America’s US naval facility in Subic Bay—the forward base of the Seventh Fleet that was its most powerful demonstration of its military projection in the region.

“That was before China’s naval power became truly demonstrable. Only two years later, China would move to occupy Philippine-controlled reefs in the Spratlys, and from the mid-1990s forward China would undergo a vast expansion of its air and sea forces, accompanied by a more aggressive posture in the South China Sea.”

The US in the past few years has scrambled to strengthen military ties with the Philippines, rushed to provide the Philippine navy with a refurbished 1960s Coast Guard cutter to patrol its claims in the South China Sea, declared support for our tough stance versus China, and has been putting US forces on Philippine soil on a “rotating” or temporary basis purportedly for joint exercises with Filipino forces.

For Kaplan, this meant that “the vulnerability of a near-failed state under China’s lowering gaze was being exploited by Washington in order to resurrect in different form the strategic platform the Americans had here on the eastern edge of the South China Sea for almost a century from 1899 through the end of the Cold War.”

But not only the US, but China is in effect exploiting us for its domestic politics, which makes our stance so dangerous, a reality which should sober up the simplistic accusations, now very popular in Manila, of China’s “bullying.”

Kaplan explains:
“The truth was, that pushing the Philippines around served a purpose in nationalistic circles in Beijing that pushing Vietnam around just didn’t. Hating Vietnam was a default emotion inside China and therefore did not advance any Chinese official’s or military officer’s nationalistic bona fides; whereas, because the Philippines was a formal treaty ally of the United States, bullying the Philippines telegraphed that China was pushing back at the United States. And this was easy to do because of the Philippine military’s own lack of capacity. By fortifying the bilateral military relationship with Manila, Washington was upping the ante—that is, intensifying the struggle with China.”

Plan in Ayungin

The book was obviously written many months before our small Navy vessel disguised as a civilian boat played cat and mouse with much bigger Chinese Coast Guard cutters in order to resupply our contingent in rust-filled ship grounded on Ayungin Shoal. That incident though would seem to confirm a point raised by Kaplan in his book:

“There was a school of thought among local officials here (Manila)—both civilian and military—that believed naval brinkmanship on the Philippines’ part would force Washington into a more confrontational stance toward Beijing to the strategic benefit of Manila.”

Kaplan however claims the US has frowned on this: “The Obama administration in 2012 warned Manila specifically against that approach. Certainly, it was not in the American interest for China to dominate the South China Sea. But neither was it in the American interest, given its many financial and other equities with Beijing, to be dragged into a conflict with China because of the hot-blooded, combustible nationalisms of countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.”

Kaplan isn’t too sympathetic to the Philippines’ claim, which should alert us that given the author’s influence in US policy circles and media, American policy makers and public opinion wouldn’t be enthusiastic about US forces battling Chinese ships to defend our claims in some “Kalayaan” or Nansha islands they can’t even pronounce right nor know where on the globe these are.

While he devotes several pages expounding China and Vietnams’ claims in the Spratlys, he explains ours as basically made “only in the 1950s”, “after the Philippine adventurer and fishing magnate Tomás Cloma and several dozen of his men took possession in 1956 of “the Spratly islands he called Freedomland, or ‘Kapuluan ng Kalayaan.’”

China’s views of the Philippines, as Kaplan writes, should worry us:

“Unlike the Vietnamese claims to the Paracels, which the Chinese privately respect and worry about, the Chinese don’t respect Philippine designs on the Spratlys. Whereas Vietnam is a tough and battle-hardened warrior state, the Philippines, to repeat, constitutes a semi-failed entity with weak institutions and an extremely weak military—and the Chinese know all this. Even so, China has to keep its aggression against the Philippines in check because the Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States.”

China’s Caribbean Sea

A worrying analogy Kaplan makes several times is that the Caribbean Sea was to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as what the South China Sea is to China in the 21st century. Just as the Caribbean was vital to US trade and defense, and its control by US marked that empire’s dominance in the Western hemisphere, the control of South China Sea will signal China’s hegemony in the region.

With such view, Kaplan forecasts:
“It is a world where sea denial is cheaper and easier to accomplish than sea control, so that lesser sea powers like China and India may be able to check the ambitions of a greater power like the United States, and submarines and mines and land-based missiles may combine to inhibit the use of aircraft carriers and other large surface warships.

“It is a world in which it is just not good enough for American officials to plan for continued dominance in these waters. For they must be prepared to allow, in some measure, for a rising Chinese navy to assume its rightful position, as the representative of the region’s largest indigenous power. True, America must safeguard a maritime system of international legal norms, buttressed by a favorable balance of power regimen. But the age of simple American dominance, as it existed through all of the Cold War decades and immediately beyond, will likely have to pass.”

Shouldn’t our weak state plan for that eventuality?

* * *

What struck me more though reading Kaplan’s book is its scathing criticism of the Philippines, for which he devotes an entire chapter he cruelly titled “America’s Colonial Burden.” It is as damaging to our country’s image—even more, probably—as the 1987 “Damaged Culture” written by another Atlantic Monthly writer, James Fallows was. While my tribal emotions cry “foul”, my reason, unfortunately, agrees with many of his insights. That for Monday.

Kaplan, Robert D.,  Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, 2014. Random House Publishing Group. and

[Publisher-Editor’s note: Robert D. Kaplan is well-known to Times readers. We have been publishing for the past four years his regular STRATFOR Global Affairs articles.]


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  1. Gerald Abueva on

    For a preview of Robert Kaplan’s book, you may also refer to youtube.

    Another poster mentioned a book by Joe Studwell — How Asia Works. A preview of the book is available in youtube.

  2. You’re probably right that Mr. Kaplan’s book is a good read. But, come on?!?! As much as many of you seem to hate the United States and the influence they may have in Pilipino culture, the Philippines would not have a backbone to engage China without US support or rhetoric (as some of you say).

    Mr. Tiglao assumes too much of Mr. Kaplan. Though he maybe well educated and understands global politics, his view of the political environment of Asia, especially, China and the Philippines is only his view and very CONSERVATIVE view it is!

    Politics in the Philippines has no real boundary lines because ideology and strict adherence to social issues are usually discarded for (sad to say) money, popularity and/or a pretty face. In the US, politics are easily divided between conservatives and liberals. And Mr. Kaplan has a very CONSERVATIVE view.

    If Mr. Kaplan had his way, the US would discard the Philippines and let it go alone against China…is that what the Philippines want? Mr. Tiglao even reminds the readers of Mr. Kaplan’s extensive knowledge of military engagement, especially, the war in Iraq. In fact, the American writer had a big hand in drawing the plans of the invasion and the draw up for the US spies information to push for war. As for the conclusion of the post Iraq War invasion, most of the western world knows the Iraq War was completely wrong! Especially, the pre-war intelligence that Mr. Kaplan misread or chose to ignore that WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION WERE NEVER FOUND and as history knows thousands of military lives were lost and many thousands more forever injured and maimed for life because if this big mistake!

    Also, Mr. Kaplan was a special adviser to former US President Bush (son of the former elder Bush) which to this day most common Americans believe is probably one of the worst US Presidents in the last 20-30 years! Mr. Kaplan and other Conservative Hawks in the President’s administration, ardent belief led the US to invade Iraq with faulty information that costs the US economy billions of billions of dollars that the US is still paying off this day! That’s what happens when you follow and heed extreme Conservatism. Just because he’s a well known author does not give him credence that he knows everything, especially, the Philippines.

    I was born in the Philippines but have lived the majority of my life in the US. The Philippines has had a strong and healthy relationship with the US because of many fellow countrymen that have sacrificed and worked hard to make life better for their families but have also contributed to educate non Pinoys about our tasty foods and, of course, our wonderful culture.

  3. Thank you for your critical and profound review of our present stance in this matter.

    I would also recommend, as a must-read, Joe Studwell’s latest book “How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region”. Reading first the Introduction and the Epilogue points to the reader the reason why we have not progressed as a nation. And I believe we might be repeating history in our present stance toward China – to our peril.

  4. I can understand the derision felt by Kaplan. Most ultra-conservatives have these notion that we should not depend on them but their unabashed non-acknowledgement of American intervention in all aspects of Philippine life is a fact which they deny for some strange reason. From the CIA sponsored bombings/assasinations to State Departments promotion of every Philippine President since Aguinaldo is a fact most people do not know or would understand or even believe. If, where it not for his influence among policy-makers in the U.S. government we shouldn’t even bother. However, our planners both in the military and government I hope should see the world for what it is and not through rose-tinted glasses. We should also remind the US and at same time garner more support among their influential elite for our cause. The Chinese should be stopped at our shores – otherwise the US will find it harder to control them once they have access to the Pacific Ocean. Regarding the “Failed State” status -thats another story….

  5. All true, our afp modernization budget is $1.9 B, our procurement process is Byzantine and our people are ruled by the Chinese. We already are de facto ruled by them.

  6. Bert O. Romero on

    Foreign Policy magazine has included the Philippines among the fifty failed states for the last consecutive five years, and not simply a semi-failed state.

  7. Kaplan is a neo-con in the same mould as Paul Wolfowitz the architect of the Iraq
    war. Wolfowitz as Deputy Defence Sec had said the US would not accept any
    challenge from any country to it’s pre-eminence in the world . But if he now proposes that China should be recognised as the dominant power in our area with all it’s consequences then obviously he is withdrawing from his old position of a
    hawk. But is he not subtly pushing for a more robust response from the US?
    it seems to me your other readers are recommending a ‘pre-emptive capitulation’
    policy towards China.

  8. I agree that Kaplan’s book is a must read for the likes of del Rosario, the secretary of defense and Pinoy himself whose stance of “what is ours is ours” and “we will defend our territory to the last man” will somehow be modified by the glaring realities that our military is so weak both in leadership and hardware that such words are just empty rhetorics and nothing else. Perhaps it is time, as pointed out in this article, that we accept that in this part of the world China will eventually be the dominant power and adjust our national policies accordingly.

  9. Siony Camacho Bana on

    If Kaplan thinks Philippine who has been a US ally is a colonial burden to America, that only suits his personal opinion without considering who Filipinos truly are, a country like ours survived many tribulations from different colonies of occupiers ,yet Philippines fighting spirit remained steadfast ultimately defending it’s freedom from falling into ideals of communist(China) whose ambitious might, will only end to failure .The only creator of the world and its living creatures, our dear Almighty GOD who never sleeps 24/7 will reign to save our dear country and others to stay free from any kind of . oppression.

  10. Jerry ocampo on

    “[Albert del Rosario] probably thinks he works for the US State Department.” –

    Most probably he does work for the State Department.

    • I share this comment. The problem with many Filipinos is that they identify too much with everything American, forgetting that they once had their own culture, which now is awashed with everything American. It gets to a point where some traditions and practices get lost or lose their meaning and get bastardised with an American version. Take a good example. While at the moment we are still doing the normal tradition of visiting our departed loved ones and lingering in cemeteries to have a day with the family, to say prayers, light candles etc., the young generation have adapted Halloween and have influenced their parents to participate. Halloween has no place nor meaning in our traditions.
      The article will definitely help DFA in formulating their priorities, without looking as if they are in fact Americans instead of Filipinos.

  11. very accurate assesment of the philippines, however, as long as the ruling oligarchs and their children, and their children’s children personally benefit from the current situation, nothing will change.

  12. efren najito on

    hinhd ako kumbinsido na mas warrior ang vietnamese kaya hindi binubully ng China, palabas lang ng China na sasakupin ang lahat ng nasasakupan na karagatan sa paligid ng region nila upang hindi sila mahalata na ang pinagtutuunan nila ng pansin upang sakupin ay ang nasasakupan ng Pilipinas na mayaman sa natural resouces, at yon ang dahilan kapag ang nasa kapaligiran ng China na region ay pumalag eh wala lang, samantalang ang sa atin ay maliwanag na maliwanag na may pinagbabatayang batas upang ipaglaban ang ating karapatan, ay binabali wala nila sapagkat andyan ang yaman na pinag-iintisan nila.

  13. Yup, the Phl is just a pawn in the geoplotical game of chess and Abnoy a willing tool (extreme derogatory type).

    • If I got Mr. Kaplan right, as presented by Mr. Tiglao, China is in effect saying: Let’s pick a fight with the US by bullying the Philippines. Since the US has a treaty with the Philippines, it will surely come to the latter’s aid and we can then show who is who. Let us not bully Vietnam because no superpower will come to its aid. There is no honor in bullying someone who has no big brother.

      With Mr. Kaplan’s line of thinking two things come to mind. First, this line of reasoning seems to be the favorite tag line of the red-flag-wavers – our being allied with the US makes us a favorite target of its enemies. Second, that China bullies the Philippines to show the US her might or to challenge the US is a logic that escapes common sense. There are a thousand areas/reasons China can use to justify a fight with the US. Why still bully the Philippines? It’s like saying: to annoy Juan I will make a lot of noise in Pedro’s house. Why not make the noise by Juan’s house instead of still bothering Pedro. Somehow, it just does not add up! The real reason for China’s bullying is as plain as day: that the Philippines is militarily weak and that the US, despite its announced commitment to stand by the Philippines, has really no stomach for another armed conflict (or at least for a protracted armed conflict).