The good news is that we have a president who won’t be cowed by bullies. President Benigno Aquino III made it abundantly clear in his Independence Day speech last Wednesday.
“We have always stood up for our rights. Aggression does not course through our veins…. We have never trampled upon the rights of others. We have not claimed or demanded territory that clearly belongs to another…. The only thing we have asked is that our territory, rights and dignity be respected.”
He recalled this country’s struggle for freedom, which led to independence, and called for the same heroic resoluteness to meet the threats today: “It is clear what (Andres Bonifacio’s) statue represents: It is an honor to risk one’s life for one’s country; those who have contributed to our freedom can hold their heads high. At the same time, Bonifacio’s stern gaze seems to pose a challenge to all of us: Filipino, what have you done for your flag and for your fellowmen?”
These are martial words, these are marching words. You can almost hear the strains of “ang mamatay nang dahil sa iyo” while caught in the quiet roar of it.
Is the saber-unsheathing justified?
Yes, it is. China’s territorial aggressiveness, which has manifested itself in a mind-bogglingly brazen attempt to claim the South China Sea for its own, is patent. It’s there for all to see, as Japan, Vietnam and other Asian countries, and specifically Southeast Asian countries, except its stooges like Cambodia, have seen, and decried. China is growing and growing fast, and it is starting to show the aggressive, invasive, imperialistic reflexes of countries that do so.
It reminds you of the Monroe Doctrine, the law the United States passed in 1823 warning the European powers it would treat any of their attempts to intervene in North and South America as an act of war. A stance seemingly emanating from self-defense but which was in fact a declaration that the United States saw the whole of Latin America as its personal backyard. The United States was growing, and growing fast, and was beginning to recognize its imperialistic potential, which would become full-blown by the end of that century.
China is a threat. But how to meet it?
That’s the bad news. The President’s call to arms isn’t an unmixed blessing, it raises all sorts of concerns too.
Chief of them is that China could very well be the modern version of our “budget Huks” or “budget NPAs.” That was the practice of the military to jack up the threat of the Huks (in the 1950s) and the NPAs (from the 1960s onward) whenever the generals needed new additions to their pabaon. Bigger threat equals bigger military budget.
That is more than possible, that is likely. Last month, the President announced a mind-boggling P75-billion military upgrade to meet China’s threat. He said we’ve already spent P28 billion over the last three years modernizing the navy, including buying two refurbished Hamilton-class cutters acquired from the US Coast Guard. By 2017, he said, we will be acquiring two new frigates, two helicopters capable of antisubmarine warfare, three fast vessels for coastal patrols and eight amphibious assault vehicles.
Meant to show resolve, or give fair warning that nobody messes with us, this modernizing may well move the world and not just China more to laughter than to fear. The addition of a few boats, however it costs us the world, will not keep out a hostile world, or sway a determined aggressor from its intent. The only way we can really deter China, or any other potential aggressor other than Bangladesh, is not by military confrontation but by diplomatic ingenuity. Not by bringing the fury of our arms to halt the invader in its tracks but by bringing the weight of global condemnation to bear on it to make it rethink the costs of occupation.
But what complicates things is our feeling “sandal sa pader,” or covered by the protective mantle, of America. Which is a pity because we have the potential to rally the other Asian nations into a common condemnation of China’s expansionism, being the principal victim of its aggression. But while the other countries can be appreciative of America’s help, they can’t be appreciative about having an American “Trojan horse,” which is how we’ve always been seen in the region, at the helm. Of course, even an Asia-wide or global condemnation of China might not deter it. But it has a far better chance of doing it than a military confrontation. Pouring all our money into arms won’t do it.
Which raises an even bigger concern.
Despite the remarkable growth rates of the last few years, we are not out of the woods. Poverty is rife, inequality is rife, ignorance is rife. Unemployment riots, and those who have jobs mostly do manual labor. And as the recent sudden plunge of stocks shows, we remain deeply vulnerable to external circumstances beyond our control. (It also shows not quite incidentally how relying on the United States to bail us out of dire straits is reckless, something to consider if we are prepared to wage an economic war with China, alongside a physical one.)
One would imagine the bigger, more obdurate, life-and-death priority would be education. It’s so not just because that meets even bigger threat, which is ignorance. It’s so because it meets both patent external aggression and subtler forms of subverting sovereignty. An enlightened citizenry is fully armed, in more ways than one. Not least, literally: People who have something to lose are more likely to fight than people who do not. People who have a stake in their country are more likely to defend every inch of its ground than people who haven’t. No one has more to lose than the educated, no one has more at stake than those who love the country.
They’re the only ones that can really say, “Ang mamatay nang dahil sa iyo.”