THE GOOD news is that P-Noy is standing pat on Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. He has every right to. Both we and China are claiming possession of it and have the documents to prove it, but we have the better claim to it if only by right of proximity. The islands lie some 220 kilometers from Luzon and 1,200 km from China’s Hainan province.
Despite China’s warnings against any show of a Philippine presence in the area, driving out a Philippine ship there only a couple of weeks ago, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has sent a craft to join a Philippine Coast Guard search-and-rescue ship at Panatag Shoal. “It’s the showing of the flag,” P-Noy said. “We believe these are our waters. Therefore, our vessel has the right to be in our waters.”
It’s symbolic, but many good things have come out from symbols.
Of course, in the end, what happens to territorial claims depends on the countries’ ability to enforce it, which rarely rests on the force of reason. It can however rest to a significant extent on the opinion of the community and the diplomatic sanctions it can issue. Which brings me to the other good news, which is that P-Noy is appealing to our neighbors to take a united stand against China’s bullying ways. Specifically, he has asked the Asean countries to take notice and join him in condemning China’s actions in the South China Sea.
“They claim this entire body of water practically. Look at what is excluded and what they are claiming. So how can the others not be fearful of what is transpiring?” P-Noy in fact could have made the appeal to the entire Asian community, but the Asean is not a bad place to start.
The bad news is that the Philippines remains trapped in the framework of “special relations” with America and is demonstrating the fact before the world. Hell, the bad news is that the Philippines remains an American stooge and takes pride in parading it before its neighbors.
In response to the crisis, Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin are preparing to meet with their US counterparts Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta in Washington next week.
The Balikatan war exercises are also currently taking place here, and while that was planned long ago, Beijing is interpreting it to be a response to the crisis. “Anyone with clear eyes saw long ago that behind these drills is reflected a mentality that will lead the South China Sea issue down a fork in the road towards military confrontation,” said the People’s Liberation Army newspaper. US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr.’s comment that the Balikatan exercises are about “working together in the spirit of the Mutual Defense Treaty” could not have helped to dispel it. The Mutual Defense Treaty calls on the United States and the Philippines to go to war if one or the other is attacked.
But in fact, the Mutual Defense Treaty is an exercise in stupidity. At the very least it’s useless. It’s completely one-sided, the Philippines being perfectly willing to go to war for the United States but the latter being unwilling to do so for the Philippines. Or indeed back us up in our territorial disputes with other countries. We were willing enough to go to war for America in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, but it was never willing to go to war for us over Sabah, or support our claims to it. It won’t go to war over the Spratly island group for us, or back up our claims to it.
At the very most, it cannot endear us to our Asian neighbors. Certainly, it cannot raise us in their esteem that we can espy one bully but not another, that we can see that China is trying to steal from us a group of tiny islands up north but not that America almost stole from us an entire chunk of territory down south. And will continue to try. God helps only those who help themselves. So do the other Asian countries.
Quite apart from that, it cannot earn for us much goodwill from them that we mean to embroil America in a confrontation with China. America may be a comforting presence to us, military and otherwise, but it is not so to our neighbors. Certainly, it is not so to Vietnam, a good deal of its population it decimated in the name of giving them democracy. And which is now probably more democratic, in the sense of its people partaking of the bounties of its earth, than most other countries in Southeast Asia, including us. And certainly it cannot be so to Malaysia and Indonesia, two Muslim countries, given that America’s definition of terrorists, who are largely Islamist fanatics, often forget the part about fanatics.
The Chinese word for crisis is the same as opportunity, and we would do well to heed it. This crisis offers us an opportunity to prove ourselves. Two paths lie before us, one of them well-trodden and the other not taken. The well-trodden path has always led us to perdition, and will continue to bring us there. Isumbong mo kay Uncle Sam is a lose-lose prospect: It will bring us neither the help we want nor the respect we need.
The other path is to show a newfound independence and make our appeal to the other Asian countries in that light. I don’t know that it is a win-win prospect, but I do think it offers at least a win-lose one. It might not get China to accept our claim to the disputed territory, but it might just get the rest of Asia to accept our claim to be part of it. That is not so today, notwithstanding our participation in Asian affairs. We are as alien to it as Australia, and Australia is probably less alien to it than us. At least Australia’s foreign policy is an extension of Australia, but our foreign policy is an extension of America. Who knows? Maybe we take the path less traveled and might lose the dispute but earn the respect.
Maybe we might lose the battle but win the war.
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