The latest incursion into Philippine territory by Chinese warships and fishing vessels has been at Ayungin Shoal in the Spratlys, one of hundreds of islands, reefs and atolls in the archipelago. The Philippines occupies nine of these islets with a dozen Navy personnel stationed on each of them. Recently Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin was quoted as saying “that we will fight for our territory, up to the last soldier.” Somehow his remarks remind me of a scene from the Academy Award-winning movie
“Patton” on the life of the swashbuckling American World War II general who led the Third Army in its drive into Germany. One of the lines in the movie has Patton telling one of his young soldiers, on the eve of the Normandy invasion, “Son, I don’t want you to die for your country. I want you to make sure that the other fellow dies for his country.”
The reality of the current situation is that China does not have to fire a single shot to attain its objectives. All it has to do to show displeasure over our actions is to close its markets to Philippine exports with all kinds of nontariff barriers or prohibit Chinese tourists from visiting the Philippines. This would send our diplomats scampering to placate Beijing.
In a recent publication “Lee Kuan Yew, the Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World”—a compilation of interviews and selections by Graham Addison and Robert Blackwill with Ali Wynn, published by the Belfour Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government—the former prime minister of Singapore had this to say: “China’s emphasis is on expanding their influence through the economy. In the geopolitical sense they are more concerned now with using diplomacy in their foreign policy, not force.”
China is patient and wise. It knows what the whole world knows—the Armed Forces of the Philippines is in no shape to confront any of its neighbors. That knowledge is the reason why the Philippines is bullied by every Tom, Dick and Harry in the neighborhood. China also knows that Filipinos have very short memories and attention spans.
Let me take you back in recent history.
In 1995, we discovered that China had built a number of octagonal huts on what was dubbed “Mischief Reef” in the Spratlys. (By the way, Ayungin Shoal is closer to Palawan than Mischief Reef.) China claimed that the octagonal huts were shelters for their fishermen in the area.
After a lot of huffing and puffing, and exchanges of diplomatic notes between the Philippines and China, a Code of Conduct was agreed upon in August 1995, calling for the settlement of disputes in a “peaceful and friendly manner, through consultations on the basis of equality and mutual respect.” Both sides also agreed to promote cooperation in various fields such as protection of marine environment, safety of navigation, prevention of piracy, search and rescue operations, prevention of maritime pollution and other areas of mutual concern.
In November 1996, after the conclusion of the Apec summit in Subic, Chinese President Jiang Zemin made a state visit to the Philippines, the first ever by a Chinese head of state. During the visit, President Fidel V. Ramos reiterated the country’s claim to Mischief Reef.
One of the highlights of the state visit was a musical program wherein both presidents joined voices in crooning popular melodies like “Love Me Tender” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” President Jiang also belted out solo versions of “Only When We Were Young,” “Suwanee River” and “Aloha, Oe.”
From what we now know, it is very likely that while the two presidents were having a wonderful time singing their hearts out with love songs and old time favorites, the Chinese continued to build up and improve “the fishermen’s huts” which they started a number of years earlier.
In November 1998, aerial photographs taken by Air Force surveillance aircraft showed that since the Ramos-Jiang songfest aboard the “Ang Pangulo,” the Chinese had constructed a 300-meter pier, new barracks, and what appeared to be some kind of command center for communications and control. The new incursions were described as a creeping invasion by Chinese forces in violation of the agreed Code of Conduct. A senior official of the Department of Foreign
Affairs made an interesting observation on the matter. He expressed the view that the moment China occupied Mischief Reef and put up structures, it meant we had lost Mischief Reef. In international politics, occupation is identical to sovereignty.
Since then, have our defense forces checked on Mischief Reef? Have there been any new construction in the supposed “Fisherman’s Village”? Or have we decided to close our eyes completely to what has happened on Mischief Reef? Today the creeping invasion by China continues. There are so many similar islets and shoals in the Spratlys that we cannot possibly keep an eye on all of them, all the time.
This means that we must redouble our efforts on the AFP Modernization Program. The pace of procurement of new equipment is too slow and should be accelerated.
A case in point. One year ago, Secretary Gazmin was guest of honor during Air Force Day. This was celebrated at Fernando Air Base, Lipa City, featuring a flyby of trainer planes, transport aircraft and helicopters. This was an improvement over previous celebrations when there were no flybys. I recall the secretary saying that within the year, we hope to get a squadron of fighter jets.
We are now about to mark another Air Force Day, this time at Clark Air Base with President Aquino as guest of honor. The latest word from Defense Undersecretary Fernando Manalo is that we are still in the negotiating stage for those jets. At the rate we are moving, President Aquino might not get to see them by the time he leaves office.
Some people may ask why we need jets in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. One answer is the need to upgrade our defense capabilities as new technology is incorporated into our weapon systems.
In 1965, when Singapore became independent it had to build an army from scratch. There was the danger of Malaysia taking over by staging a coup since Malaysian forces were still stationed in Singapore.
Defense Minister Go Keng Swee was tasked to carry out the program as quickly as possible. He reported to the Defense Council: “It is foolish to allow ourselves to be hypnotized by the disparity in the population ratios between Singapore and her neighbors. What counts is the fighting strength of the armed forces, not the size of populations.”
Today the Singapore Armed Forces is the most technologically advanced military force in Southeast Asia. No one threatens sanctions, no one bullies this island state of 5.2 million people.