It is an established norm that a good father must preserve the sanctity of his house and protect his family from harm. By the same token, the leader of a nation must protect the country’s territorial integrity and its inhabitants from harm. Any person with such a mandate who abdicates the same is irresponsible.
The recent event in the South China Sea (SCS) whereby China used water cannons against our nationals, and our response was limited to oral protests, is irresponsible diplomacy.
The UN Charter prohibits “threats or use of force“ in the relations between nations. Traditionally, “use of force” means action by the armed forces of one nation against another, using deadly force. But this traditional interpretation has become obsolete and needs clarification. The use by a nation of terrorist organizations as proxy to attack another country is an example of the limitation of the traditional meaning of the term. Iran at present, and Libya under the late Muammar Gaddafi, had been labeled as “sponsors of state terrorism” for engaging in such practices. On April 15, 1986, US President Ronald Reagan ordered an air attack on Gaddafi’s palace which killed his adopted daughter. Reagan thus unilaterally reinterpreted “use of force” to include instances when a proxy is used by a country to attack another. The basis for Reagan’s action was the terrorist attack instigated by Libya on a nightclub in Germany which killed American servicemen.
The use by China of water cannons against a supply boat for our outpost in Ayungin Shoal needs reinterpretation of the term “use of force.” The same device has been harmlessly used on land against demonstrators. However, when used at sea, it could become a lethal weapon. A water cannon can stun a person and cause him to drown. Thus, the reaction of the Philippines limiting its response to a mere protest is a dereliction of duty by President Duterte. He did not take adequate steps to protect our nationals from harm.
Another development that requires reinterpretation of the UN Charter is the use of cyber warfare. A cyber attack disabling a country’s computer systems, including its health care facilities, could cause more deaths than a conventional attack using firearms. This takes on more urgency when there is a disparity in cyber capability between a giant like China and our country. We thus missed the boat in elevating to the UN the Chinese attack on our nationals.
In this regard, we recall the repeated reminders to us by Gen. Carlos P. Romulo (CPR) that diplomacy is a level playing field. While nations have varying size and power, a small nation can still play a major role in diplomacy as long as it engages in innovative diplomacy. Otherwise, its diplomacy becomes irrelevant and merely drifts with the events as dictated by the big powers. The incident at hand illustrates CPR’s advice; we remained passive when we could have been innovative.
The outcome of our action in the incident at hand is predictable, to wit:
China will continue its aggressive initiatives in the SCS given Beijing’s prior knowledge that our reaction would be limited to diplomatic protests.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin will continue with his protests against each Chinese aggression, and with some curse words as embellishment; no further action taken.
The Chinese Embassy will buy a bigger wastebasket for Locsin’s anticipated protests.
When our voters cast their ballots in the 2022 elections, it will be the first time in our history as a sovereign nation that foreign policy will be a major issue. Hopefully, our countrymen will not vote into office candidates that will continue the passive diplomacy of the Duterte administration. CPR’s advice to us remains valid to this day.
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Hermenegildo C. Cruz is a retired career diplomat with 32 years of service in the Department of Foreign Affairs. He served as Philippine ambassador to the Soviet Union, Bolivia, Chile, and the United Nations.
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