A Sardine and Two SharksBy Jose Ma. Montelibano
Two weeks ago, I asked through my article if we can rise to be heroes in reference to the Scarborough Shoal issue. With the kind of heated rhetoric that had penetrated the papers, airwaves and cyberspace, it would seem that many Filipinos are willing to risk death for sovereignty. But I did not get the kind of response that was reassuring. In fact, many avoided the question if we can be heroic in our defense of our sense of proprietorship over a shoal. Screaming is cheap if it cannot be backed up by appropriate action. After all, opinion-makers in tri-media are dime a dozen, and the number of commentators in the Internet is countless and largely devoid of influence unless it has solidarity over any issue.
Since then, many incursions by Chinese vessels and counter presence of Philippine vessels have heightened the tension between two neighbors, one the size of a sardine and the other a shark. I am upset by the action of the Chinese government, especially with its quiet approval of Chinese vessels looting the Scarborough Shoal of various marine life. No less upsetting is the claim by China that the shoal belongs to them, or within their property line. Wow, a look from the sky would show how far the shoal is from China and how near it is to the Philippines. A picture of this is moving in the Internet with a caption “Common Sense.” I could not help but respond that, “The more powerful makes the rule, not common sense.”
A Fil-Am suggested that we ask the United States to move their planned bases from Mindanao to Scarborough. That way, they get out of Mindanao and face off with the Chinese in Scarborough instead. Ha! Why would the Americans do that? For what? Love of the Filipino is not a driving force in the Filipino-American relationship (but arguably, love of America or American dollars may be for many Filipinos). I recall how Filipino veterans who fought as part of the US forces in the Philippines during World War II waged a long, lonely and bitter battle for just compensation or benefits. It is too sad to tell the entire story here. That is not my main concern, but the context of that issue tells us Filipinos just how much we count in the eyes of America.
For several years, I have shared an outlook of mine that China owns the Philippines economically but America controls us militarily and politically. The taipans literally control much of the economy and business in the Philippines, just as Chinese goods dominate our stores. But our politicians and our military follows the American line. China and the United States have more say than Filipinos in the Philippines. Painful but true.
My being upset at things, however, do not cloud my understanding enough to blind me. I have taken on serious causes where I put even life at risk. I saw victories and I saw defeats. Life goes on, though, whatever the result of each cause. One just learns to adjust to the challenges of the day and, hopefully, does not lose sight of the bigger and more long-term vision. Which now brings me to where we are today in our relationship with China, the United States, and a looming crisis which could blow up in our faces. My objectivity tells me I can do little to influence three protagonists to sit down, share a good meal together, and resolve the issue like mature adults. The mature way means that superpowers will have to show respect for a little guy called the Filipino. It means that both should just leave us alone until we approach any of them for some mutual arrangement with mutual benefits.
The reality is that the United States and China will set the tone and pace of negotiations even if the Philippines will be also be doing some talking. The Scarborough Shoal is not just a tiny island; it is today a representation of conflicting interests of three nations, two sharks and one sardine. While the interests are conflicting, they do only in the control department. All three are interested in the same things to varying degrees. All three believe that there are huge deposits of oil and gas in the Scarborough Shoal and elsewhere – all the way to Palawan and Mindanao. Of course, all three want the control, the income and the security of access to such resources. All three appreciate the importance of the sea lanes for trade and security although I must assume that the United States and China are more concerned than us. The Philippines is not in a race for superpower status and global control, the US and China are.
The US wants a permanent presence and dominant influence in a region of Chinese and Muslims. At the moment, it can do so only from the Philippines. And from the Philippines, Palawan and Western Mindanao to Sulu are more important than the Visayas and Luzon. A military presence or influence in their preferred areas also include the benefit of their operations, peaceful or not, adequately supplied with fuel and energy that is homegrown.
China is the superpower of the region. It had lost dominance for a long time when even foreign powers divided China like war booty. But Mao Tse Tung and company reversed all that, and those who followed him at the helm of the giant country propelled their nation to being an economic and military power. The military might of China has a subdued face because it has not really been used openly, but the United States should know better why China may be at par with them in the arms department. With its new status of being a superpower, China can now act where they could only quietly accept things before. China can be more insistent about having more control of sea lanes. China, at the very least, cannot allow the United States the kind of dominance it has had for a century in Asia.
China may also be worried about its capacity to sustain its economic pace – primarily because it may not have the raw materials and the energy to feed it. The huge deposits of oil and gas in Western Philippines are too attractive and necessary for China not to do something about it. Scarborough is a first jab. There should be more to come, and our heroism may be put to the test.
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