President Aquino is to be complemented for his firm defense of Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. At the same time, the standoff between the Philippine ship Gregorio del Pilar and Chinese naval boats at Scarborough Shoal (Panatag) over the activities of Chinese poachers within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone underlines the urgency of arriving at a diplomatic settlement on the territorial disputes in the area.
It emphasizes the critical importance of not endangering the diplomatic window for conflict-resolution by engaging in activities designed to project military might, such as the US-Philippine Balikatan military exercises that will take place off Palawan from April 16 to 27.
Historic Visit to Pag-Asa
On Aug. 2, 2011, four members of the House of Representatives landed on Pag-Asa Island in the Kalayaan Islands in the West Philippine Sea. The mission was historic on two counts: 1) it was the first time sitting members of Congress had come to Kalayaan; and 2) it was the first time a commercial plane landed in Pag-Asa, the largest of the nine islands and reefs claimed by the Philippines.
Criticism of the visit came from various quarters. Most vociferous in denouncing it was the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, which filed a diplomatic protest with the Department of Foreign Affairs. The DFA and Malacanang, both of which had no hand in the visit, told the Chinese Ambassador that they could do nothing to stop it for two reasons: 1) the Executive could not tell members of Congress what to do since Congress was a co-equal branch of government; and 2) it could not prevent citizens of the Philippines from traveling from one part of the country to another, in this case to the municipality of Kalayaan, which had been incorporated as a political into the national territory in the late seventies.
Reps. Kaka Bag-Ao, Ben Evardone, Teddy Baguilat, and I undertook the mission to support our government’s just claim to part of the Spratlys. It took place a few weeks after Rep. Bag-Ao and I co-sponsored a resolution renaming the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea–a recommendation that was immediately implemented by the DFA, the Department of National Defense, and eventually Malacanang. But equally important as an objective was our promoting a peaceful solution to the Spratlys dispute via multilateral negotiations among the six countries making claims to the area. This was our response to disturbing reports of harassment of Filipino fishermen and an oil exploration vessel by Chinese patrols.
As the head of the mission, I welcomed the DFA and Malacanang’s support of our right to travel to Pag-Asa. As the proponent of a peaceful solution to the territorial dispute, however, I was disturbed by succeeding developments.
Running to Uncle Sam: A Bad Idea
While urging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China to forge an updated “Code of Conduct” governing the behavior of the interested parties as they awaited a diplomatic settlement of the dispute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of National Defense were simultaneously pursuing what turned out to be their principal approach to the territorial conflict: to bring in the United States as a military protector.
The United States, in fact, did not need much convincing. Declaring that it had a strong interest in keeping the West Philippine Sea open to commerce, Washington eagerly snatched the Philippine invitation to legitimize its move to assert a stronger military presence in the area. High profile assertions of mutual support by Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto del Rosario and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were followed by a low-profile “bilateral strategic dialogue” between Pentagon officials and their Filipino counterparts aimed at “an expansion of the US military presence the country,” according to the New York Times.
Running to Uncle Sam, we had warned, was precisely the wrong response to the Chinese. For by promoting a military solution, we were, in fact, defeating our main purpose with respect to the Spratlys, which was to settle a territorial dispute.
By bringing in the United States, not as a mediator, but as an armed protector, we converted what was a territorial disagreement into a superpower confrontation, one driven by its own dynamics, leading to a marginalization of the territorial issue.
The “Obama Pivot”
See how fast matters have moved beyond our control: Beginning in late 2011, starting at the APEC in Honolulu in early November, the Obama administration unfolded its new strategic posture. After over two decades of trying with little success to control events in the Middle East, Washington now moved to make East Asia and the Western Pacific the “pivot” of the US’s global military presence.
The primary strategic objective of the “Obama Pivot” is to contain China, which is now firmly defined as a strategic rival. Under the new strategy, the central frontline for the US will shift from Iraq and Afghanistan to the South China Sea and the adjoining area stretching up to Korea and Japan.
The “Obama Pivot” to Asia is hardly new. It is the revival of the post-World War II strategy, first articulated by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, of using what he termed America’s “Western Pacific Island Chain” stretching from the Philippines to Japan to project power onto the Asian landmass, from which threats to US security were perceived to emanate. Frustrated in the Middle East, the US has regressed to the Cold War era of “Containment,” a strategic posture that was directed at “Red China,” as well as the old Soviet Union. And it is dragging us along with it.
Provocative War Games
From April 16 to 27, the two governments will stage the annual Balikatan (“shoulder-to-shoulder”) drill, with military units from Australia, South Korea, and Japan joining in either as participants or observers. Reportedly, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore will also join in, making the military exercise one of the biggest in recent years. “Intriguingly,” notes one military analyst, “the geographical focus of this year’s combat drills has been shifted from the northern island of Luzon…to Palawan in the South China Sea, nearer the disputed Spratly Islands.” While the drill is being publicly announced as a disaster response rehearsal, the focus of the exercise will be on combined planning, readiness, and “interoperability” between US and AFP forces. As some observers have pointed out, this year’s Balikatan is unusual since it involves more trainors than trainees, with 2300 AFP personnel receiving instructions from some 4500 US troops.
Taken in the context of Obama’s pivot to Asia strategy, which everyone knows is aimed at China, the Balikatan war games are downright provocative.
Is China a Threat?
Is there really a Chinese threat?
There is no doubt that the Chinese are tough when it comes to rhetoric, but as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asserted, “[W]hile China has always been vigilant about its borders and has occupied Tibet, it has not historically been an expansionist power with territorial designs on its neighbors.”
The Spratlys dispute is a territorial dispute among adjoining countries, not evidence of “Chinese expansionism.”
China’s military spending is a quarter of the size of the Pentagon’s budget. And even if it is building up its forces, there is currently little cause for alarm. As the most recent issue of the Economist notes, “For the moment at least, China is far less formidable than hawks on both sides claim. Its armed forces have had no real combat experience for more than 30 years, whereas America’s have been fighting, and learning, constantly. The capacity of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for complex joint operations in a hostile environment is untested. China’s formidable missile and submarine forces would pose a threat to American carrier groups near its coast, but not farther out to sea for some time at least. Blue-water operations for China’s navy are limited to anti-piracy patrolling in the Indian Ocean and the rescue of Chinese workers from war-torn Libya. Two or three small aircraft-carriers may soon be deployed, but learning to use them will take many years. Nobody knows if the “carrier-killer” missile can be made to work.”
The appropriate response to China’s rhetoric is a firm, straightforward assertion of our rights, like the trip members of Congress made to Pag-Asa last August, coupled with an Asean-backed offer of a multilateral diplomatic solution.
Both Asean and China, it must be remembered, are committed to a diplomatic solution to the West Philippine Sea crisis, though the two parties continue to disagree whether a settlement should be pursued through bilateral talks (the Chinese position) or multilateral negotiations (the ASEAN stand). At a time that the Chinese are trying to project themselves as a responsible global power, they simply cannot afford an adventuristic course in the West Philippine Sea that would severely compromise this image.
The diplomatic window remains open. Instead of widening that window, the Balikatan war games will narrow it.
Rather than promoting regional security, Balikatan will raise the level of regional insecurity. My advice to President Aquino: It is probably too late at this point to withdraw from this year’s Balikatan without projecting inconsistency and confusion. But let this be the last time, Mr. President, that you allow your advisers and subordinates to draw our country into Washington’s confrontation with China.
To borrow a famous line from former US Secretary of State James Baker, “We don’t have a dog in this fight.”
*Inq.net columnist Walden Bello represents Akbayan in the House of Representatives. His resolution calling for transparency in Philippine foreign policy led to hearings in the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Relations during the third week of February.