With the departure yesterday of the Asia-Pacific heads of state, our lives can return to normal, and we can now proceed to reclaim our national capital from the hydra-headed APEC extravaganza.
In some ways, our situation is analogous to what Paris and the French people are now experiencing after the horrific terrorist attacks last Friday, November 13, which took 129 lives and enveloped the famous City of Lights in darkness and uncertainty.
From Paris, there is great news that the French are reclaiming their capital from the grip of terror. It was stirring to watch the French light candles everywhere in the city to show their firm defiance of terrorism, and to signify their determination to reclaim their city.
Without indulging in the same melodrama of lighting candles, we Filipinos, particularly the 10 million or so who live and work in the metropolis, should make manifest our reclamation of our city and lives from the extreme disruption and extravagance that we have been subjected to.
Reclaiming Manila is not just a matter of lifting the no-fly and no-sail zones in the metropolis, or commanding the thousands of police and military troops to stand down. It is the return of all workers and employees in both the public and private sector, to their jobs and their work places. It is restoring order and flow in business and the economy, which were hit hard by enforced losses and missed opportunities that cost conservatively several billions. It is providing anew vital public services, and resuming the entire business and cares of government, including politics.
There is nothing triumphant in the reclamation of our capital, because it is not as if we have been at war or been visited by a natural catastrophe. What we have lived through is the equivalent of a fever.
Obama raises the temperature
It is now publicly known that for the APEC meetings to proceed as planned, our government had to make a difficult promise to China.
With Chinese President Xi Jin Ping threatening to boycott the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting, President Aquino dispatched diplomatic emissaries to give assurance to Beijing officials that the SCS territorial issue would not be raised in the leaders’ discussions.
Whatever hope there was that this agreement would hold came crashing down as soon as the leaders gathered for their meetings and discussions.
The genie could not be kept in the bottle. The day before the leaders’ meeting and almost upon arrival in Manila, Obama called on China to halt its reclaimations and militarization of islands in the South China Sea, raising the temperature before the two-day economic summit (November 18-19) could even start.
As reported by the New York Times, Obama, after a meeting with President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd, “directly addressed the disputed Chinese claims, to islands in the critical waterway. He urged the Chinese to stop military activities there and endorsed a process of arbitration to settle differences between Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
“We agree on the need for bold steps to lower tensions, including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea,” Obama said.
He went further. On Wednesday, he announced $250 million in military contributions to several Asian nations to support their efforts to stand up to China. He also promised to give the Philippines two ships to help our Navy police and monitor its side of the disputed sea.
Words sealed in history?
Astute and veteran observers of international affairs and US diplomacy have quickly drawn a parallel between Obama’s “Stop the reclamation and militarization” call to Ronald Reagan’s historic “Tear down this wall” demand of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.
Standing at the Brandenburg gate in Berlin on June 12, 1987, Reagan said: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
No words could be more dramatic. Within months, the Berlin Wall was taken down; the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe came crashing down in an outburst of freedom and opportunity; and the Cold War officially ended.
“Stop the reclamation and militarization” sounds more pedestrian. It could also set off a dramatic change in the South China Sea dispute.
By raising the issue in Manila, Obama made China’s halting of its reclamation and military activities a matter for the entire Asia-Pacific to address.
Will China listen? Will President XI take Obama’s message to heart in the same spirit that Gorbachev took the demand to tear down the Berlin Wall?
There is little chance of an immediate sea-change in the dispute and the tension.
But slowly and surely, the situation will change.
A test of statesmanship
The situation requires high statesmanship from all sides before the needle will move.
President Xi will not easily back down from his show of strength for China. The Chinese are very nationalistic these days, and they support ardently China’s claim to sovereignty over the SCS. This is also a time when Xi has come under increasing pressure and criticism from rivals at home.
President Obama, for his part, has a record of weakness in foreign and defense policy. He is under fire from Republican and Conservative critics, who believe the US has declined in power and prestige under Obama’s watch.
Obama’s call for a halt to the reclamations and militarization in the SCS should be seen for what it is. It is a cautious attempt at firmness. It is not designed to cow China into retreat. It means mainly to bring about a quick end to the disputes and tensions that have festered for so long.
There is a growing swell of world opinion that looks askance at China’s moves in the SCS. China needs to reflect carefully on its extravagant claim of sovereignty over the entire SCS, based on a 9-dash-line map prepared by the Chiang Kai-shek’s forces.
The map becomes more ludicrous under examination.
Was APEC worth it?
Years from now, when the sea dispute is amicably resolved and has passed, the world may remember that APEC 2015 in Manila was the trigger for understanding and cooperation on the issue.
Maybe then the bill of P10 billion and one week of disruption, deprivation and inconvenience will not seem too much for us to pay.